Nutrition for Women’s lifecycle
How much iron should women aim for and do we need more than men?
Calicum and Vitamin D targets
Folate During the Reproductive Years
Prior to puberty, girls and boys generally require similar things from their diet. However, as changes in the growing body begin to take place in adolescence - bringing with it changes in hormones - women have different nutritional needs to men, and during each stage of a woman's life, these needs change.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency globally in women. Insufficient iron can lead to anaemia. Common symptoms of anaemia include tiredness and breathlessness. Women and men metabolise iron from food at roughly the same rate. However, while men need around 8 mg of iron in their daily diet, women aged 19-50 years need up to 18 mg. Women need to make up for the amount of iron they lose in their menstrual period.
The amount of iron needed is different depending on a woman’s stage of life. For example, iron needs are higher during pregnancy (27 mg) and lower after reaching menopause.
Foods that provide iron include red meat, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, kale, spinach and other leafy green vegetables, beans, lentils and some fortified cereals. Meat and other animal products provide iron in its heme form, which is easier for your body to absorb. Plant-based foods, such as legumes and vegetables, provide non-heme iron, which is more difficult for your body to absorb than heme iron. You can increase absorption of non-heme plant-based sources of iron when eaten with vitamin C-rich foods. Try consuming fortified cereal with strawberries on top, spinach salad with mandarin orange slices or add tomatoes to lentil soup. Snacks high in iron include, dried apricots, cashew nuts, raisins and >70% dark chocolate.
Daily Calcium and Vitamin D Requirements
Low intake of calcium is also common in women. Less than half of all Australian adults get their recommended daily intake of calcium. Calcium is essential for healthy bones and teeth; women need to eat a variety of calcium-rich foods every day. Calcium helps to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, a bone disease that weakens the bones, making them more fragile and easier to break. Some calcium-rich foods include milk, yogurt and cheese (the best sources of calcium absorbed by the body), sardines, tofu (when made with calcium sulphate) and calcium-fortified beverages, such as plant-based milk alternatives. Not all plant-based milk alternatives are fortified with calcium, however, so ensure to read the label. Having cheese and crackers as a snack or making yoghurt-based dips are some ways you can increase your calcium intake.
Adequate amounts of vitamin D also are important, and the need for both calcium and vitamin D increases as women get older. The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. Vitamin D can be obtained in three ways: the main source of vitamin D for Australians is exposure to sunlight, you can also get it from the diet, and from supplements. Experts recommend a daily intake of 600 IU (International Units)/15 mg/day of vitamin D for women aged 19-70 years, women over 70 years should increase their uptake to 800 IU daily/20 mg/day.
Good sources of vitamin D include oily fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines), red meat, liver, egg yolks and fortified foods and beverages, like milk, as well as some plant-based milk alternatives and yoghurt. Be mindful to check nutrition labels on milk in Australia, as fortification is voluntary and not mandatory.
Folate (vitamin B9) During the Reproductive Years
When women reach childbearing age, folate (or folic acid) is an essential B Vitamin which plays an important role in decreasing the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly in unborn babies. Include adequate amounts of foods that naturally contain folate, such as oranges, leafy green vegetables, beans and peas, asparagus, eggs, and Brussels sprouts. There are also many foods that are fortified with folic acid, such as breakfast cereals, some rice and breads. Eating a variety of foods is recommended to help meet nutrient needs, but a dietary supplement with folic acid also may be necessary. This is especially true for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, since their daily need for folate is higher, 600 mcg and 500 mcg per day, respectively. The requirement for women who are not pregnant is 400 mg per day.
Whilst breastfeeding, you do not need to eat a special diet, but small amounts of what you eat and drink can pass to your baby through your breast milk, thus it is important to consider limiting consumption of stimulants such as coffee which can reach your baby through your breast milk and may keep them awake. In addition, whilst eating fish is good for you and your baby's health, when you are breastfeeding, you should have no more than 2 portions of oily fish a week. One portion is around 140g. Oily fish includes fresh mackerel, sardines, trout and salmon. Iron is especially important during pregnancy as your body uses iron to make extra blood for you and your baby during pregnancy.
After childbearing years are over, women’s bodies change again. During menopause your body stops producing as much oestrogen, which in turn affects your bone density. After the menopause, the long-term effects of lower oestrogen levels increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (i.e. heart disease and strokes) and osteoporosis. Getting sufficient calcium and vitamin D can help to prevent osteoporosis., For this reason, the average post-menopausal woman requires more calcium than her male counterpart. Consider plant-based sources of calcium like beans, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, sesame seeds, almonds and fortified breakfast cereals. In Australia, from the age of 51, women are recommended to consume 1,300 mg of calcium/day.
There are certain aspects of women's health, including if you've been diagnosed with a medical condition such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), when you might benefit from further nutritional support. Also, certain life stages like pregnancy or menopause, bring with them their own challenges. Having the dedicated support of a qualified nutrition professional can help you cater your diet to suit your individual needs and be sure to check with your physician or a registered dietitian/nutritionist before starting any new supplements.
By Abigail Attenborough
Fayet-Moore, F.; Petocz, P.; Samman, S. Micronutrient Status in Female University Students: Iron, Zinc, Copper, Selenium, Vitamin B12 and Folate. Nutrients 2014, 6, 5103-5116.
Tankó, L.B., Christiansen, C., Cox, D.A., Geiger, M.J., McNabb, M.A. and Cummings, S.R., 2005. Relationship between osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 20(11), pp.1912-1920.
There are certain aspects of women's health, including if you've been diagnosed with a medical condition such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), when you might benefit from further nutritional support. Also, certain life stages like pregnancy or menopause, bring with them their own challenges. Having the dedicated support of a qualified nutrition professional can help you cater to your diet to suit your individual needs and