Nutrition for Women – should it be different?

When it comes to the basics of healthy eating, there’s no doubt that what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander.  No matter your gender, you can’t go wrong with eating a variety of healthy foods including lots of fresh vegetables and fruit; legumes and pulses, nuts and seeds; lean proteins and dairy; healthy fats and wholegrains.  Combine those healthy eating guidelines with regular physical activity plus the awareness that we require less calories than men, and women can do a lot to safeguard their health.  Inevitably though, finely etched into the fabric of women’s lives are the details of our difference, and we do have some unique needs when it comes to certain micronutrients, which shift in focus during our changing life stages.


Maryke Bronkhorst, a Registered Dietitian and spokesperson for ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa) points out that our reproductive years represent the major portion of our lives. “Women and girls of reproductive age, who are not pregnant or breastfeeding, should strive for optimal nutritional status for their own health and for the health of any future children,” Maryke says.  “Good nutrition during the reproductive years helps set the foundation for health in years to come. It helps ensure proper growth during adolescence, adequate nutrient stores for a healthy pregnancy, and a good nutritional status to help maintain bone health during the menopausal and postmenopausal time of life. Many women’s health issues are related to the hormonal shifts in oestrogen and progesterone associated with the menstrual cycle. These include higher risk of anaemia, weakened bones, and osteoporosis. Malnutrition, as either under- or over-nutrition, can also have adverse effects on women’s health and fertility.”


Top tips for your reproductive years are:

  • Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. Underweight is related to poor nutritional status; heart irregularities; osteoporosis; amenorrhea (absent menstruation); and infertility in women. Obesity is associated with increased risk of chronic disease and obesity-related anovulation (ovulation does not occur during the menstrual cycle) which affects fertility
  • Consume a healthy, balanced diet. Women should enjoy a variety of foods across all food groups. Include wholegrains, plenty of vegetables and fruit, healthy fats, dairy and lean protein sources. Limit processed foods, salt, saturated and trans-fats, refined carbohydrates and sugar. Remember that supplementation cannot compensate for an unhealthy or unbalanced diet
  • Exercise regularly. Research shows that women are less physically active than men.  Find sports and activities that get you moving that you enjoy and try to ensure a minimum of three hours of physical activity every week
  • Avoid harmful substances including tobacco and vaping products, alcohol, recreational drugs and environmental toxins
  • Include iron-rich protein food in your diet like lean meat, eggs and fish or plant sources such as spinach, beans and lentils, and eat these in combination with Vitamin C rich foods to help improve iron absorption. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies that results from losing more iron than one takes in. Menstruation depletes a woman’s iron stores. Iron deficiency reduces the ability to complete any work, lowering productivity and performance. We know that worldwide, women do more unpaid work in the household than men. If you are diagnosed with iron deficiency anaemia, make sure to take your iron supplement daily as prescribed.


Multiracial females with different size and ethnicity stand together and smile. 


What about pregnancy?

This incredibly special time in a women’s life can become a minefield when it comes to everyone’s opinions about pregnancy do’s and don’ts.  What is critical for pregnant women is to turn a blind eye to old wives’ tales and the latest fads and to rather follow professional, evidenced-based nutritional advice.

Pregnant women and breastfeeding moms do have important nutritional requirements that support both their health and the health of their precious baby.  Maryke highlights the importance of healthy weight gain: “Ideally, a healthy weight should be achieved prior to conception but, of course, this can only be worked on in the case of planned pregnancy. What mums-to-be need to understand is that obese pregnant women have increased rates of pregnancy related hypertension, gestational diabetes, large babies, C-section, perinatal morbidity and mortality. Conversely, underweight pregnant women have greater risks when it comes to preterm delivery, low birth weight, and foetal growth restrictions. Healthy weight gain during pregnancy is important for the health of both the mother and the foetus, and it has a positive impact both during and after pregnancy. However, weight loss during pregnancy should be avoided.”


Top tips for pregnancy and breastfeeding are:

  • Focus on the basics of a healthy, balanced diet every day
  • Avoid harmful substances including tobacco and vaping products, alcohol, recreational drugs and environmental toxins
  • Reduce your caffeine intake to no more than 200mg or two coffees daily and remember caffeine is also present in teas, hot chocolate and sodas
  • Exercise up to 30 minutes daily as approved by your health care professional
  • Take prenatal supplements as prescribed by your health care professional
  • Avoid certain foods to prevent the chance of foodborne illness such as soft cheeses, sushi and deli meats. Also, avoid fish that may contain high levels of mercury such as albacore tuna, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel. And limit excessive liver consumption.


During and after menopause

While the basics of a healthy, balanced diet stay the same, your post-reproductive years herald some slight changes in your healthy eating regime.  Maryke notes that a common concern for women during and post- menopause is ‘unexplained’ weight gain, especially around the abdomen. “This is attributed to many factors, “she says, “such as changes in hormones affecting metabolism; the loss of lean body mass which is part of the ageing process; reduced basal metabolic rate; lifestyle changes and changes in physical activity.”  It is important to note that your calorie requirements are reduced post-menopause due to a natural metabolic ‘slow down’. Focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods in smaller portions, cutting down on processed foods and foods that are high in fat and sugar, as well as maintaining (or increasing) regular physical activity.  Due to the cessation of menstruation, iron requirements are reduced.


Top Nutritional Tips:

  • Consume a healthy, balanced diet – Menopausal women should also consider including more plant-based foods in their diet
  • Be physically active – During and post-menopause, women should engage in regular physical activities that they enjoy – this should include aerobic, resistance, and weight bearing exercises that are protective of bone, heart and emotional health
  • Manage your weight – As we age, excessive weight gain is a risk factor for other health conditions. If you find yourself struggling to maintain a healthy weight, get the help of a registered dietitian, who will take all aspects of your lifestyle into account to assist you in reaching a healthy weight
  • Protect your heart health – Menopausal women often experience changes in blood lipid levels (for example raised cholesterol levels), therefore it is important to include healthy fats in your diet. The focus should be on plant-based sources of unsaturated fats, such as nuts and seeds and their oils, avocado, and especially sources of omega-3, such as sardines, pilchards or salmon. Limit saturated and trans-fats.
  • Include phytoestrogens in your diet – These plant-based oestrogens may mimic the oestrogen produced in the body. Some studies show that the intake of soy may help to manage menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. Sources include soy, soymilk, tofu, tempeh, and soybeans
  • Avoid fad diets- These are unsustainable in the long-term; they often don’t meet your nutrient requirements, and they can adversely affect metabolism


Maintaining a healthy weight for a lifetime

From girlhood through to old age, we benefit greatly from maintaining a healthy weight.  Another ADSA spokesperson and Registered Dietitian, Nathalie Mat makes the point that South African women tend to weigh more than our male counterparts, which puts us at greater risk of a number of health conditions including Type 2 diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure.  “One of the key identified reasons is physical inactivity, says Nathalie.  “South African women tend to exercise less than men do and this increases the likelihood that they will gain weight.”  Nathalie also warns against unregulated portion size, especially when eating out: “Chefs have no idea whether the food they are dishing up in the kitchen is going to a woman or a man.  As women, we need to be acutely aware that the portions we are eating when out are most probably more food than we need. This means we need to stop eating when we have had enough, instead of eating mindlessly until we finish the plate.”


With the arrival of COVID-19 in South Africa, our focus is on the health and safety of our members and the clients and communities you serve. We have put together a list of action points that can be implemented by our dietitians across various industries. Primary prevention measures include washing your hands frequently with soap and water or sanitizer, social distancing, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and avoiding touching your face.



Wherever possible move face-to-face consultations / meetings / interactions into the virtual space. We understand that this can be a challenge for both the dietitian and client, but there are various options available including Skype, Zoom and WhatsApp. Many of the online meeting options currently have special offers to try and support people to do their work online. Many private-practising dietitians already do virtual consulting with patients abroad and have had equally successful results with their patients using this format of nutrition intervention.


For any face-to-face interactions stick to the following guidelines for yourself and your clients:

  • If you have recently travelled to a country identified as a high risk or have been in contact with someone who has travelled to these countries, please change your consultation / meeting to a virtual one.
  • If you or your patients are immune compromised, rather book virtual consultations.
  • If your clients are coming into your office / work space, please put in place the following hygiene practises:


  1. Ask all clients to wash or sanitize their hands on arrival at your office.
  2. Frequently clean your reception and office counter surfaces, as well as door handles, flushing mechanisms and taps, because contamination on surfaces touched by employees and customers is one of the main ways that COVID-19 spreads.
  3. Don’t shake hands, maintain a reasonable distance between you and your client.
  4. Regularly (between each use) clean equipment such as credit card machines and all clinical equipment with alcohol swabs. Refrain from handling cash, rather opt for contactless transactions (EFT, Snapscan or Zapper)
  5. If you are feeling ill, do not implement a face-to-face consult.


Please at all times follow the advice and guidelines from WHO and the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD):

  1. If anyone of your clients or their immediate family, have been travelling overseas, please do not have face-to-face meetings for a period of 14 days.
  2. Ask your clients to inform you immediately if they are diagnosed with COVID-19 and inform your clients and close contacts immediately if you are diagnosed with COVID-19
  3. Do not meet with clients if you are experiencing symptoms such a fever, runny nose, cough, shortness of breath or a sore throat and vice versa.
  4. Ask clients to arrive on time for appointments and not early.
  5. Don’t allow any accompanying persons into the waiting area, rather ask them to wait in the car.
  6. Do not allow any eating or drinking in the waiting area.
  7. Do not allow the use of cellphones, laptops, tablets or any other electrical devices in the waiting area.



  • Please wash or sanitize your hands regularly and thoroughly, no matter where you work.
  • Display posters in your workplace promoting hand-washing
  • Make sure clients and staff have access to places where they can wash their hands with soap and water or sanitizer, because washing kills the virus on your hands and prevents the spread of COVID-19



  • Consider whether a face-to-face meeting or event is needed. Rather move all meetings online, using existing meeting platforms or WhatsApp.
  • If you have to meet ensure that as few people as possible are in the meeting and follow the hygiene guidelines above.


To learn more about COVID-19 and to access the latest information and advice, we further recommend that members refer to the following resources:


Meet the Dietitian: Wenda Nel

We spoke to Registered Dietitian and Olympic 400m hurdler Wenda Nel. We got to know her a bit better; from the deep things, to her secrets and even the silly things like her favourite foods.  She is truly an inspirational woman  and amazing RD flying our profession-flag high!

Read on and be inspired.


Tell us a bit more of yourself?


I grew up in Worcester in the Boland and matriculated there. I’ve moved to Pretoria thereafter and started my studies at Tuks. Throughout my life I’ve always had a big interest in sport, participated in athletics, netball, tennis and swimming. As the years passed, my passion for athletics grew bigger and I’ve pursued a career in track and field. 

Although athletics has always been a big part of my life, I’ve also made an effort to not let it define who I am and form my identity. I am a follower of Jesus Christ (Christian) and my faith is the thing that I base all the values of life and I seek my identity in Christ. It brings me a lot of joy if I can help anyone in need. I like celebrating life and believe no matter your circumstances, we all have a story to tell that will inspire people. 

I have a huge passion and love for this sport, but there are many other interests in my life I like spending time on to celebrate life. 

I am part of a big family and like spending time with them. A lovely weekend ‘braai’ might make the top of my list 😊. I treasure the small things in life. Having a nice cup of coffee with my husband is the best example of how I like to spend some quality time together. 

I like to read books, watch movies, bake and experimenting with new recipes. Even when I’m not on the track training, I like any other form of exercise and spending time in nature.


Why did you become a Registered Dietitian?


Sport has always been a big part of my life and what I enjoy spending my time on. I’ve also always had a big interest in food 😊. Being an athlete myself, the curiosity grew over the years of how different foods can play a role in sports performance. Becoming a dietitian gives me the opportunity to give guidance to fellow athletes to help them to look better after their nutrition to aid in better performance. I like to help people in one way or another, but believe I can somehow make a difference in the sports world being a dietitian. 


What would you have wanted to do if not Dietetics?


In high school I thought I would like to be a physiotherapist as it is also something I could have combined with my sport. Looking back, I am happy I’ve landed in the dietetics field.  


Where did you study (degree and/ or postgrad)


Univeristy of Pretoria (TUKS)


Where do you work and what does your job entail?


Currently I am not working as a full time dietitian. I am a professional track athlete, preparing for the Olympic Games in Japan, Tokyo. 


Walk us through a day in your life?


A typical day in my life will be planned around my training sessions. The main track session will mostly take place during the morning at Tuks with a gym/technique session in the afternoon. In between sessions I will usually schedule appointments such as physiotherapy, recovery massage, sport psychologist and the occasional catch up with friends😊.  There is also always general admin on a daily basis to give attention to.  



📷: Reg Caldecott



📷: Reg Caldecott


What do you enjoy most about the work you do? What are the most satisfying moments?


I am fortunate to use my sport as a platform where I can get in contact with young athletes to not only help them with advice directly sport specific, but also try and make a positive impact in their lives in how I live my life on and off the sports field. 

It brings me great joy to see how my life choices, how I react on setbacks as well as achieving my goals, can influence the people around me in a positive way. 


What has been your career highlight? 


I’ve had the opportunity to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, that was an amazing experience which many competitive sports people dream of and work towards in their sporting careers. Although becoming an Olympian will always be a special memory to treasure, my biggest career highlight will be achieving a bronze medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. The medal will not define me, but I treasure the journey I have taken to get to the Games. 




What are the most challenging aspects of your career?


Being a professional athlete requires a lot of patience on different levels and I had to learn to be adaptable as things can change on a daily basis. It can range from travel, accommodation, food and also competition challenges. 

It is also challenging to give up family time and being away from home for long periods of time during a year.


What is something that people don’t know about you?


If they don’t know it, I guess it is a secret😉…

Being a dietitian amongst professional athletes, many of the people assume that I am on a strict diet…so I guess what most people don’t know, I basically eat anything, and yes, that includes ice cream and chocolates…a lot of chocolates😊. I think I am fortunate to have a better idea of how to manage my nutrition with my sport in a way that works to my benefit. So I can say, being a dietitian helps me to understand the nutritional needs of my body better to assist me in better sports performance and to also know that a treat can occasionally fit into my diet.   


What are your favourite foods?


I am a huge foodie, just to gather with family and friends having a nice meal together is always a celebration. 

Some of my favourites will have to include most dishes with chicken, pasta dishes (my favourite being my mom’s lasagne😉.  Pizza, nacho’s and sushi are always a treat! 

I am a fan of having a variety and colour on my plate for example a fresh Mediterranean bowl with quinoa, falafel, peppers, olives, feta, cherry tomatoes, avo, cucumber is always a winner in my eyes😃. I also have a soft spot for eggs. 

I am also crazy about dairy products…milk (great recovery drink), yogurt and cheese!


I guess in summary, my favourite will have to be food😃.




  • What are the three things that you think people should stop saying when they meet a dietitian?
  1. What can I eat to lose fat? 
  2. You probably don’t eat any sweets
  3. Give me your diet