Today, we celebrate women all over the world. I dedicate this blog for women and women’s health because they are the epicenter of a healthy population. Women have unique nutritional needs requiring not only focus on an overall balanced diet but these key nutrients that tend to be suboptimal: iron, folate, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin B12. (1)
Iron has multiple functions. It is essential for synthesizing healthy red blood cells, hormones, tissues, and it is important for growth and development. (2) Women of childbearing age require increased iron needs as they lose iron via menstruation. During pregnancy, an increase is needed to supply iron-containing blood to develop the fetus into a healthy baby. (2) The best sources of iron are lean red meat, seafood, chicken, spinach, beans, tofu, and fortified grains. (2)
Folate/folic acid prevents neural tube defects, which occur during the first trimester of pregnancy. (1) It also helps prevent premature births and low birth weight infants, as well as making healthy red blood cells and DNA. (1) Folic acid can be found in dark leafy greens, oranges, nuts, beans, lean beef, chicken, whole grains, and fortified grains. (1)
Calcium works with vitamin D to help maintain strong bones and prevent osteoporosis. (3) Approximately 99% of the human body’s calcium is stored in bones and teeth to maintain the body’s structure and function. The other 1% of calcium functions as cellular communication and muscle function. (3) When calcium intake is inadequate, your body will extract calcium from the bone’s stores, causing them to become brittle, weak, and easily broken when not properly replenished. (3) Calcium is best found in dairy products, dark leafy greens, and fortified products such as cereals, orange juice, and soy products. (3)
Vitamin D increases the absorption of calcium from food. Besides teaming up with calcium to help prevent osteoporosis, vitamin D strengthens the immune system by reducing cellular inflammation. (4) Vitamin D is also known as the sun-vitamin because sun exposure helps your skin synthesize vitamin D.(4) Food sources of vitamin D include fish and fortified foods such as milk, orange juice, and cereals. (4)
Vitamin B12 is another nutrient important for synthesizing red blood cells and is also important for proper neuron function. (1) Vitamin B12 is also during pregnancy for the proper development of the baby. (1) Many times this essential vitamin is overlooked by folate, so be mindful of your intake, especially if you’re vegetarian or vegan. The best sources of vitamin B12 are milk, eggs, poultry, seafood, and fortified foods. (1)
Nutrition Through the Female Life Cycle
Nutrient needs for women change for each life stage:
Adolescents: During this life stage, women’s bodies are growing and developing, which means they need more energy and calories to support growth. (5) During ages, 14-18 adequate intake fo calcium, vitamin D, protein, and calories help build bone calcium stores to prevent osteoporosis later in life. Increased iron intake is essential to support a woman’s body once the menstrual cycle begins. (5)
Young Adulthood: After about age 25, female bodies are done growing. Since there is no further growth to be sustained, resting metabolism slows down, and the amount of energy needed to sustain the body’s usual functions at rest is lower. (5) This means that women at this life stage have lower caloric needs than women in their adolescent stage.
Pregnancy: During pregnancy, women need to consume nutrients not only for herself but to sustain normal growth and development of her baby. There is an increased requirement for folic acid, protein, calcium, and iron during this stage of life. (5)
Breastfeeding: It is important to continue healthy eating habits during breastfeeding. Women who are breastfeeding have increased fluid needs due to the transfer of fluid from mother to baby. (5) It is recommended to consume a cup of fluid with each feeding and an extra cup of fluid with meals to prevent dehydration. Women who are breastfeeding should avoid consuming sugary beverages and no more than one cup of coffee per day. (5)
Menopause: Women who are postmenopausal may need to consume more vitamin D and calcium to maintain bone health because, during this life stage, estrogen levels decrease, which raises women’s risk for a number of chronic diseases and conditions including osteoporosis, diabetes, and heart disease. (5) Women in this life stage tend to have lower caloric needs due to decreased muscle mass and physical activity as they age. (5)
For more information on nutrient needs unique to women, visit the Department of Health & Human Services website, as well as the World Health Organization website! Happy International Women’s Day!
Vitamins and Minerals for Women. US Department of Health and Human Services: Office in Women’s Health. October 18, 2018. https://www.womenshealth.gov/healthy-eating/how-eat-health/vitamins-and-minerals-women. Accessed on March 8, 2019.
Iron: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health. December 7, 2018. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/iron-healthprofessional/. Accessed on February 23, 2019.
Calcium: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health. September 28, 2018. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/. Accessed November 2018.
Vitamin D: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health. November 9, 2018. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/. Accessed November 2018.
Healthy Eating and Women. US Department of Health and Human Services: Office in Women’s Health. October 18, 2018. https://www.womenshealth.gov/healthy-eating/healthy-eating-and-women. Accessed March 8, 2019.