Diet & Female Health Issues

British Nutrition Foundation

Nearly a third of women are overweight and an additional quarter of women are obese. Obesity can increase the risk of a number of serious health conditions, such as:

  • type 2 diabetes
  • heart disease and stroke
  • some types of cancer, such as breast cancer and bowel cancer

Obesity can also increase the risk of back and joint pain, and is linked with psychological problems, such as depression and low self-esteem.

Obese women are more likely to have problems conceiving and are at greater risk of having complications during pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes (pregnancy diabetes), pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure), miscarriage and the need for a caesarean delivery.

If you are overweight or obese, the best way to reduce your body weight is to eat a healthy diet, reducing the calories you eat and exercise regularly. You should not try to lose weight whilst you are pregnant, as this may not be safe. 

Emotional or ‘comfort’ eating

Emotional eating is described as eating in response to negative feelings such as anger, anxiety or depression. It is possible that emotions can make us less sensitive, or respond less well, to hunger and fullness signals that usually act to help us decide how much we eat. It has been noted that this type of eating is more common in women, and it is also more common in obese than healthy weight individuals.

Emotional eating often leads to people choosing sweet, and often fatty, energy dense foods. Although people eating such foods may be doing so to relieve negative emotions, the lifting of mood after eating such foods seems to be short-lived.

To try and prolong mood improvement, some individuals may start eating large quantities of these foods (binge eating). Consumption of energy dense foods over long periods of time (as may occur with comfort eating) is a risk factor for weight gain. Many studies associate comfort eating with greater risk of obesity.

Emotions, such as feeling angry, sad or stressed, can sometimes be hard to avoid but cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may be a way of helping you to manage your feelings by changing the way you think and behave.

If you’re experiencing difficult feelings most of the time which is impacting on your life, seek advice from a health professional.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK. Around 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 5 of those diagnosed will be below the age of 50 years.

How to help reduce your risk

Bodyweight

If you are post-menopausal and are overweight or obese, you may be at greater risk of developing breast cancer. You should try to maintain a healthy weight. To find out if you have a healthy bodyweight and for tips on how to lose weight read our page on healthy weight loss.

Alcohol

There is strong evidence that drinking alcohol can increase your risk of breast cancer. It’s estimated that 22% of breast cancer cases could be prevented by not drinking alcohol. If you do drink, limit your intake to no more than 14 units a week and it is best to spread this evenly over three days or more.

Physical activity

Being physically active can help to reduce your risk of breast cancer. Aim for at least 30 minutes each day. Many types of activity can count towards your daily target.

Breastfeeding

If you are a new mum, breastfeeding is not only good for your baby’s health; it can also help reduce your risk of breast cancer.

Diet and breast cancer

Although experts agree the food we eat can affect our risk of cancer, it is more difficult to show that single foods or nutrients increase the risk of cancer or help in prevention. This is because our diets include many different foods, and those foods consist of many different nutrients and chemicals that could affect the risk of cancer.

Fact or fiction?

Below we take a look at some of the myths around breast cancer and diet.

  • Dairy foods and breast cancerThere is a lower incidence of breast cancer in most Asian countries, compared to the UK and other Western countries. One factor which has received a lot of attention is the type and quantity of dairy foods consumed. Some people think the high level of milk and milk products consumed in Western countries is contributing to the higher incidence of breast cancer and that the hormones found in milk are to blame.However, there are many differences in the diets and lifestyles of women living in Asian compared to Western countries.

What does the science tell us?The World Cancer Research Fund, which looks at all the evidence between diet and cancer, have not listed dairy foods as a factor that may increase your risk of breast cancer. They list overweight and obesity (post-menopausal), lack of physical activity and alcohol consumption as the main dietary related factors that may increase your risk of breast cancer. Cancer Research UK states that current research does not support a strong link between breast cancer risk and intake of milk and dairy products.

Contrary to common belief, in the EU, cows are not injected with hormones to increase their milk production and the very low levels of hormones that milk naturally contains are unlikely to contribute to the development of breast cancer.

  • Soy and breast cancerThe messages around soy and breast cancer can be confusing with some claims of increased and other claims of decreased risk.

What does the science tell us?

Soy naturally contains plant-based compounds called phytoestrogens, which are similar in structure to the female hormone, oestrogen. Oestrogen can attach to the cells of some types of breast cancers (oestrogen-receptor positive or ER positive breast cancers), encouraging them to multiply. A high level of oestrogen has been linked to increased breast cancer risk. So it has been suggested that eating soy as part of our diet may increase oestrogen levels in humans, but this is not the case. What is interesting is that soy phytoestrogens may actually block oestrogen from attaching to some breast cancer cells helping to slow down their growth.

Although some research does suggest that soy intake is associated with a modest reduction in breast cancer risk, it’s too soon to suggest eating more will protect you from breast cancer.

  • Superfoods and breast cancerYou may have seen stories in the media about certain foods that are supposed to decrease the risk of cancer. These foods are often termed ‘superfoods’.

What does the science tell us?

There is no official definition of a ‘superfood’ and under current EU laws the term cannot be used in the marketing of foods and drinks. No single food contains all the components the body needs to be healthy and function efficiently. And while certain nutrients and components may have health benefits, much of the available evidence comes from experiments in animals or cells grown in a lab, making any findings not as relevant to the average person. Studying whether a chemical found in goji berries may kill cancer cells in a dish in the lab does not mean that eating lots of goji berries will prevent you from getting cancer.

Even when research is conducted in people, superfood research tends to be limited as it often tests chemicals and extracts in concentrations not found in nature and that are not reflective of intake in our diet.

Also, if we stick with only a narrow range of fruits and vegetables, or consume large quantities of one, we are likely to miss out on the potential benefits of a wide range of nutrients and plant-based compounds.

The idea of a superfood may also let people believe that they can somehow balance out other unhealthy habits. No single food in isolation can compensate for an unhealthy eating pattern. Including a superfood does not combat a diet high in calories, saturated fat, sugars, salt and alcohol, or being overweight and having low levels of activity.

Cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a general term for conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels (includes heart disease and stroke). CVD is one of the main causes of death and disability in the UK, but it can often largely be prevented with a healthy lifestyle.

Heart disease is not a condition only commonly found in men, in fact, CVD kills as many women as it does men. In older adults, it is more common in women than men.

However, there are a few things you can do to help reduce your risk:

  • Maintain a healthy bodyweight.
  • Get your blood cholesterol checked. In 2013 the British Heart Foundation reported that around 60% of women in the UK had high blood cholesterol, which increases the risk of CVD. High intakes of saturated fat can increase blood cholesterol.
  • Maintain a normal blood pressure. Over a quarter of women in England have a high blood pressure (hypertension). You can help to reduce your risk of hypertension by cutting down on salt and alcohol, eating lots of fruit and vegetables, maintaining a healthy bodyweight and increasing your physical activity levels.
  • If you drink alcohol, limit your intake to no more than 14 units per week.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Try to exercise regularly.
  • Enjoy a healthy, balanced diet, including high intakes of fruit and vegetables and dietary fibre, reducing saturated fat and replacing with small amounts of unsaturated fats (like olive or rapeseed oils), and eating at least two portions of fish per week (one of which is oily).

Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common, longstanding illness consisting of frequent discomfort in the stomach (abdomen) area and bowel symptoms that cannot be explained by any other disease.

Symptoms include:

  • abdominal cramps, often relieved by going to the toilet
  • bloating
  • diarrhoea
  • constipation
  • frustrated defaecation (needing to go to the toilet but not being able to)

Symptoms can vary from person to person and can sometimes be worse in periods of stress or after eating particular foods.

IBS is thought to affect up to 1 in 5 people at some point in their life, and it usually first develops when a person is between 20 and 30 years of age. Around twice as many women are affected as men. If you think you may have IBS, speak to your GP.

The exact cause of IBS is unknown. However, some people diagnosed with IBS may find that their symptoms improve by making some dietary changes.

The British Dietetic Association has recently reviewed the science and updated its guidelines. Whilst doing this, they looked at some of the common dietary questions about IBS and what the science was currently telling us.

What effect does spicy food have on IBS symptoms?

It is not known for sure, but spicy food may trigger IBS symptoms (diarrhoea) in some individuals. If you think your symptoms may be related to eating spicy foods, you could try eating non-spicy foods for a set period of time (such as a couple of weeks) and see if it helps. However, it is worth considering that it may be the common ingredients used in spicy foods (such as onion and garlic) which are having an effect on IBS symptoms rather than the amount of spice (see fermentable carbohydrates question).

What effect does dietary fat have on IBS symptoms?

It is not known for sure, but IBS symptoms may increase during or after eating high-fat foods in some individuals. Foods high in fat should be limited as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Women should limit their intake of fat to no more 78g per day.

What effect do eating habits have on IBS symptoms?

There is not enough evidence to answer this question. However, try to eat a healthy, balanced diet and have a regular eating pattern (three meals per day). Sit down to eat your meals and do not rush them.

Can restricting milk and milk products reduce IBS symptoms?

You may experience symptoms similar to IBS (such as diarrhoea and bloating) if you are lactose intolerant (lactose is the sugar found in milk). If you think you may be lactose intolerant, it is important to speak to a health professional (such as your GP or a dietitian) for a diagnosis before considering cutting milk and milk products out of your diet.

What effect does gluten have on IBS symptoms?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten has to be avoided in people diagnosed with coeliac disease; a life-long autoimmune disease whereby a person’s immune system mistakes substances found inside gluten as a threat to the body and attacks them, damaging the surface of the small bowel. If you think you may have coeliac disease, it is important to speak to your GP. Currently, there is not enough evidence to suggest that following a gluten-free diet will help to reduce IBS symptoms.

What effect do probiotic products have on IBS symptoms?

There has been quite a lot of research on probiotics and IBS, but the results are not conclusive. There are many different probiotic strains (varieties) and types of products (including live yogurts, fermented milks and capsules). Probiotics are unlikely to hugely improve IBS symptoms, but if you find a particular probiotic product which seems to work for you (try it for about a month) then you may wish to carry on using it.

Useful resources

Affected by breast cancer? Join this group to share experiences and ask questions to...
Cancer Focus NI can provide a wide range of presentations to meet the needs of your...
The Menopause Project is an education and research project between Informing Choices NI...
This programme is a six week training programme for groups of adults and focuses on...
We all have good and bad days but what and when we eat can influence our mood, energy,...
Sometimes when faced with an unplanned or crisis pregnancy it is difficult to discuss it...
There are a number of health campaigns throughout the year to raise awareness of...
Cancer Focus NI, Keeping Well vans are mobile drop-in units which bring health checks,...
We are delighted to provide this FREE digital toolkit. Designed in partnership with the...
This includes: Raising awareness of depression and Aware NI services at a wide range of...
Around one in five women will experience a mental health issue during pregnancy or within...

Articles & Videos

Helplines & Web Chats

Informing Choices NI - Helpline
Royal Osteoporosis Society - Helpline
Macmillan - Forum
Macmillan - Ask an expert
Women's Aid - Forum
Association for Post-Natal Illness Helpline
Women's Aid - Domestic abuse helpline