Eating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet is essential for women at any age. However, it is important to know that your age and stage of life do affect your nutrient needs. Each stage of a woman’s life brings with it some unique nutrient requirements. In part one of this two blog series, we focus on key nutrients and supplements to help young or premenopausal women live their best life. In the following blog, part two, we will cover nutrients and supplements for peri- and postmenopausal women.
Reproductive Years (Premenopause)
Premenopause is the period when women have their menstrual cycles (whether they are regular or irregular) and are, considered to be in their reproductive years. During this time, it is important for premenopausal women to eat a healthy diet and be physically active. Some specific nutrients to be sure to include in your diet are:
Folate is a B vitamin found naturally in green vegetables, beans, peas, oranges, and bananas. It is also added to cereals, bread, and other grains as folic acid, and can be found in nutritional supplements in the form of folic acid or methylated folate.
Folate is crucial for any woman who could become pregnant due to its well-known effects on fetal brain and spinal column development. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Public Health Service recommend that all women between the ages of 15 and 49 take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid a day.
Some women associate folate with pregnancy, but it is important to start taking it before you are pregnant. This is because within four weeks of conception, before many women know they are pregnant, the baby’s ‘neural tube,’ which later becomes the brain and spinal cord, begins to form.
Getting enough folate before you conceive and during the early weeks of pregnancy is critical for neural tube development.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Adults reach peak bone mass around the age of 30. Not getting enough calcium and vitamin D when you are a younger woman can lead to weak bones later in life. It is never too early to ensure your diet includes these important nutrients to keep bones healthy and strong.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, most of which is found in bone. Calcium-rich foods include milk and dairy products (yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese), vegetables (such as Chinese cabbage, kale, and broccoli), and fortified foods (such as some orange juice, tofu, and cereals). It is best to get calcium from food, but if you do not get always get enough, a calcium supplement is an excellent way to fill in the gap.
Don’t forget about vitamin D. Vitamin D is required for optimal calcium absorption. Without adequate vitamin D, bones can become thin, brittle, or soft. Vitamin D is often referred to as the “sunshine vitamin” because we make vitamin D when exposed to UV light from the sun. With enough sun exposure, we can make all the vitamin D we need. However, most people do not get enough vitamin D from the sun, or from food, as not many foods are rich in vitamin D. As a result, low vitamin D levels are common. A vitamin D supplement is often needed to reach an optimal vitamin D blood level.
Inositols are B-vitamin-like nutrients that occur naturally in whole grains, beans, nuts, and fruits, and are also made in the body. Studies have shown that inositols support healthy hormone levels and ovarian health, which may be beneficial in promoting a healthy menstrual cycle. Inositol also promotes egg quality in women trying to conceive. While inositols are found in small amounts in food, some women may choose to take inositol as a supplement. Supplements can be a convenient way to ensure you are getting the dose of inositol that is right for you.
Iron is a mineral that helps make healthy red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. Iron is also essential for immune health. If your iron stores are low, you can feel weak, tired, or dizzy, and your immunity may be impaired.
During this time of your life, you generally have higher iron needs because of the blood loss that occurs during your monthly menstrual cycle. For women having a regular menstrual cycle, iron requirements are about 18 mg a day. Good sources of iron include beef, turkey, chicken, fish, beans, legumes, spinach, tofu, and iron-fortified cereals. Women’s multivitamins and prenatal vitamins are also good sources of iron.
One final note is that during pregnancy, iron needs increase during the second and third trimesters. This is due to an increase in blood volume to supply oxygen to the growing baby. Pregnant women should aim to get at least 27 mg of iron from their diet and a prenatal vitamin.
If you are getting most of your iron from vegetarian sources, be sure to include a good source of vitamin C at the same time. Vitamin C increases the absorption of vegetarian sources of iron. For example, top your spinach salad with red peppers, tomatoes and broccoli, or strawberries and feta. Add balsamic or citrus vinaigrette, and you’ve got an iron-rich vegetarian dish.
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