Diet and Nutrition

The Nutritional Needs For Women of All Ages

For women, the right nutrition and exercise is very important for a healthy life and great energy. The requirements for vitamins and minerals differ according to your age. Understanding the needs for a particular phase of life will help women to choose the appropriate supplements and foods.

Childhood and Early Teens

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grain, low-fat dairy products, and lean sources of protein will ensure that growing girls get all the nutrition required for that age. Two nutrients are particularly important during this period – calcium and iron.

Calcium – “Calcium is very important during adolescence and early adulthood during the development of bones," says Heather Schwartz, MS, RD, a medical nutrition therapist at Stanford University Hospital and Clinics. Absorption of calcium from food is aided by the presence of vitamin D; these two nutrients are paired in fortified milk and other food products.

Girls between the ages of 9-years-old and 19-years-old require about 1,300 mg of calcium a day. Low-fat dairy products are the best natural sources as they also contain proteins and vitamin D, both of which are required for the absorption of calcium. Milk, yogurt, and cheese are  good sources of this mineral. Broccoli, kale, and Chinese cabbage are the vegetable sources for calcium. Many food products like orange juice and tofu are often fortified with calcium.

Iron – This mineral is very important especially after the beginning of menstruation. Each woman will have a loss of small amount of iron with periods. Dorothy Klimis-Zacas, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Maine, says that about 10% of American women are deficient in iron out of which about 5% have iron deficiency anemia. This condition is characterized by fatigue, impaired immunity, and poor performance at work.

Until the beginning of menstruation, girls require about 8 mg of iron per day. This increases to about 15 mg by the age of 14-years-old. Beef, turkey, chicken, halibut, tuna, beans, lentils, and breakfast cereals are good sources of iron. Multivitamins also contain the recommended daily requirement of iron if one does not get enough from the diet.

In the growing age, the body needs more energy in the form of calories. “But many teenagers consume more than what is required for the development resulting in overweight and obesity," notes Ruth Frechman, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. According to a survey, 18% of adolescents are overweight and these children are more likely to be obese when they are adults, when compared to children who have a normal weight. Girls and young women should be advised to be more physically active and have a balanced diet. By starting early, they will be able to set a pattern of healthy eating, which will help them to have a healthy life.

Childbearing Years

Many nutrients are very important for women during this time in their lives.

Folic acid – This nutrient helps to prevent birth defects including spina bifida and anencephaly, which are often fatal. There are many food products that are fortified with folic acid. Leafy greens are rich in folic acid and women including this diet get the recommended amount of folic acid through food. At the time of pregnancy, some doctors may recommend a folic supplement to ensure that they get the recommended amount of 400 to 800 micrograms. 

Vitamin B12 – This nutrient is essential for the proper development and functioning of the nervous system. Since this nutrient is mostly present in animal protein, women who are vegetarians fall short of this in the diet. The recommended amount for a woman of child bearing age is 2.4 mcg, for pregnant women the value is 2.6 mcg and this increases to 2.8 mcg for lactating women.

Choline – Low levels of choline is linked to birth defects like neural tube problems. Recommended amount of this nutrient can be obtained from diet only. “The ideal source of this nutrient is egg and eating few eggs in a week would provide adequate amount of choline," says Frechman. Milk, liver and peanuts are also rich sources of this nutrient.

Omega-3 fatty acids – These fatty acids are essential for healthy brain and nerve cells. One of the studies reported that these fatty acids prevent preterm births. These fatty acids are also known to reduce the risk of heart diseases in women.

Vitamin D – The recommended levels of this vitamin is under review. Presently the accepted value is approximately 600 IU per day. Major portion of this requirement is met by exposure to sun when the skin cells produce this vitamin.

Calcium – Getting enough amount of calcium is very important at this age too. The daily requirement of this mineral for a woman of this age is 1,000 to 1,300 mg per day.

Iron – Iron is also a very essential element and the daily requirement for a woman of child bearing age is 18 mg per day. This value increases to 27 mg in pregnant women. “The demand for iron increases in a pregnant woman as the volume of blood almost doubles," says Schwartz. The requirement for iron reduces to 9 mg when the woman is lactating and this shoots up back to 18 mg when they stop breast feeding.

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Senior Years

The female body changes considerably after menopause. There is a drastic difference in the requirement for some of the major nutrients. For example, requirement for iron reduces as they stop menstruating. Some other nutrients are now required in larger amounts as the body loses the ability to metabolize or absorb them.

Calcium and vitamin D – Getting enough calcium through diet or supplements is very essential at this age to prevent bone loss. The requirement for calcium and vitamin D in women between the ages of 50 and 70 is 1200 mg and 600 IU, respectively. Women older than 70 require 1200 mg of calcium and 800 IU of Vitamin D a day. Vitamin D supplements may be needed at this age as the body has less efficiency in converting sunlight into vitamin D.

Vitamin B 12 – With age the body’s ability to absorb this vitamin decreases considerably. Fish, meats, and foods fortified with B12 can provide adequate amounts of this vitamin. It is better to discuss with the doctor as some people may still need supplementation to get the recommended amount – The need for fluid increases with age as the kidneys become less efficient in removing the toxins. Drinking more fluids help kidneys to function better. But unfortunately the signals of thirst are also impaired with age and women of this age are less likely to drink more fluids.

The calorie requirement of the body drops after menstruation. Furthermore, women tend to lose muscle mass as they age. Regular physical activity will help to maintain muscle mass.