IWD 21: 4 Essential Nutrients Women Need To Know

Woman Eating Fresh Fitness Food

In the past, women have often been referred to as ‘smaller versions of men’, when it comes to nutrition. It’s pretty much understood now, that this is simply not the case. Women’s nutritional requirements are different to men’s, and different to each other (!), throughout different phases of their life, for example during menstruation, for fertility, throughout pregnancy, post-pregnancy, pre and post-menopause. Our bodies experience many changes over the course of the lifetime, so there’s a lot to manage!

Of course, nutrition is very personal, so for every woman, what works for some, might not work for others.

However, a healthy, balanced diet is still at the core, for maintaining optimal female health. Ensuring you consume a varied diet, consisting of high-quality protein sources, wholefood sources of carbohydrates, (quinoa, brown rice or whole-grain pasta), and healthy sources of dietary fat (olive oil, nuts, seeds, salmon and avocado), is key.

That being said, there are some essential nutrients that all women should be aware of, and try to regularly include in their diet.

1. Iron 

Why?

Our bodies need iron to produce haemoglobin and myoglobin. Haemoglobin is a protein required to transport oxygen from the lungs to our tissues and organs. Myoglobin is a protein found in the cells of muscles, and it is required to store and release oxygen. The stored oxygen is used whenever we want to move – run, walk, climb…or dance!

Women require more iron than men during their menstruating years, since a certain amount (approximately 1mg per day of bleeding), is lost during menstruation. 

How much do you need?

For women (aged 18 to 50) the recommended daily intake is 14.8 mg/day

For women (over 50 years) the recommended daily intake is 8.7 mg/day

Where to find it. 

There are two types of iron, haem iron and non-haem iron. Haem iron is found primarily in animal products (meat, fish, dairy), and is more easily absorbed than non-haem iron, found primarily in plant-based foods (leafy green vegetables, lentils, beans). Consuming a source of vitamin C will improve the absorption of non-haem iron, for example, try a dark leafy green salad with a lemon-based dressing.

It is important to note here, that some food components can inhibit iron absorption, including caffeine. So, if you’re taking an iron supplement, try to avoid swigging it down with your morning coffee!

2. Calcium

Why?

Calcium’s main function is to help us to build strong bones when we are young and to maintain strong bones as we age. As we age, our capacity to absorb calcium decreases, meaning we absorb more calcium from our bones. Women are more susceptible to reduced bone density, as they tend to experience a more rapid loss of bone density during the first few years following menopause. Reduced bone density can lead to fractures, breaks, or loss of mobility if severe. 

How much do you need? 

For adults, the recommended intake of calcium is 700mg per day

Where to find it

Calcium is much more readily available in our food, both animal and plant-based. Think dairy, leafy green vegetables, nuts such as almonds, sesame (or tahini), lentils, beans or fortified cereals and plant-based milk. Since plant-based forms of calcium are less easily absorbed, it may be helpful for those following a plant-based diet to supplement. 

3. Vitamin D 

Why?

When vitamin D is converted into its active form, calciferol, it facilitates the body’s absorption of calcium. So, to ensure we are getting enough calcium from our diets, we have to ensure we are getting the recommended intake of vitamin D. 

How much do you need? 

For adults, the recommended intake of vitamin D3 is a minimum of 10mcg per day (although anything up to 50mcg is deemed safe. 

Where to find it.

Our primary source of vitamin D is sunlight. Our bodies synthesise vitamin D, from the sunlight on our skin. However, it can also be found in a few food sources, namely, egg, salmon, some mushrooms and fortified foods. During the winter months, it is always recommended to supplement vitamin D3. 

4. Folate (vitamin B9)

Why

Folate is a B-vitamin found in commonly eaten foods, whilst folic acid is the manmade version of folate. Folate is essential for the body to build healthy red blood cells, as well as reducing the risk of babies being born with neural tube deficiencies.

How much do you need? 

The recommended daily intake of folate is 200mcg per day.

For pregnant women, or those looking to conceive, it is recommended to take a 400mcg folic acid supplement daily, until you reach the 12-week stage. 

Where to find it: 

Folate can be found in cruciferous vegetables (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli), kidney beans, chickpeas, and foods fortified with folic acid.

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As always, we need to try to manage other contributing factors to a healthy lifestyle, such as stress levels and sleep quality, which can have a huge impact on our overall health.

If you experience chronic health issues which may affect your individual requirements such as PCOS, thyroid complications, or endometriosis, it is recommended to visit your GP or a qualified dietician.

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