A woman’s nutritional needs are as unique as her smile, the color of her eyes, or her sense of humor. Those needs change as she ventures through life, navigating her childbearing years and approaching menopause. Luckily, most of the 40+ nutrients and almost 1 million phytonutrients a woman’s body needs throughout life are met by simply eating lots of wholesome food. But we need to tailor these basic good-eating habits to meet the specific nutritional needs of each stage in life.
The 20s: Birthing babies and fatigue: Folic Acid, Breakfast, Iron
No matter what your age, all women need to eat diets based on authentic foods, that is colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and legumes. That said, some foods and nutrients are of particular concern depending on your age and young woman must be on nutritional high-alert. Three nutrition issues are of particular concern:
1) Folic Acid: Folic acid-rich foods, especially dark greens such a spinach, kale, and chard, are especially important. Folic acid is most effective for preventing birth defects if taken at the time of conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy.
What to do: Make sure you get enough of this key vitamin by including at least 2 servings of dark green leafy vegetables in your daily diet or take a supplement that contains at least 400mcg of folic acid.
2) Breakfast: Tired? Can’t think straight? Rather than grab a cup of coffee, you are better off eating the 1,2,3 breakfast: (1. Whole grain, 2. Protein, 3. Colorful fruit or veggie). And, drink water – first symptom of dehydration is fatigue and if you are thirsty, you already are dehydrated!
What to do: Eat breakfast every day. It takes no more than 5 minutes to prepare breakfast, so no excuses!
3) Iron: While only 8% of women are iron deficient, up to 80% (studies range from 20% to 80%) of women during early years are iron deficient, especially if they menstruate heavily or exercise vigorously. A woman can be iron deficient for years without knowing, yet the symptoms are the same – you’re tired, sleep poorly, and you catch every cold that comes around. Also, beware: Drinking tea or coffee with your meals means you won’t absorb the iron you’re eating.
What to do: Include several servings daily of iron-rich foods, get tested for serum ferritin, and if you are low, take a supplement.
The 30s: Stress/Convenience Foods, Nutrients for Skin, Calcium
Women in their 30s, whether they are working, mothering, or both, are living on the brink of chaos. Their nutritional needs are high during times of stress, but they don’t believe they have the time to eat well. The nutrition issues here are:
1) Stress/Convenience Foods: For lack of time, women grab quick-fix foods that typically are high in fat, sugar, and/or calories. Women today average up to 40 teaspoons of refined sugar daily, while fat intake is on the rise. It’s a myth that eating well must take more time. If you have time to order Take Out, you have time to eat well.
What to do: Grab quick-fix healthy foods, eat the 1,2,3 breakfast, and bring healthy snacks with you. Prepare nutritious, quick-fix dinners by keeping your kitchen stocked with on-the-go, good-for-you foods. Finally, make sure to take a well-balanced multi vitamin and mineral.
2) Skin Essentials: Food is loaded with skin-essential nutrients. Most important to prevent premature aging, wrinkling, and even skin cancer are the antioxidants. For example, vitamin E blocks an enzyme, collagenase, that otherwise promotes wrinkling. Lycopene, beta carotene, and vitamin C also have been found to protect skin from aging (along with a big floppy hat and sunscreen, of course!) Nourish your skin from within and rub a 10% or higher serum of vitamin C on the outside, too!
What to do: While following the basic rule of 75% authentic foods, also focus on antioxidant-rich colorful fruits/vegetables every day: citrus for vitamin C, carrots and sweet potatoes for beta carotene, and watermelon and tomatoes for lycopene. Aim for eight or more servings.
2) Calcium: A woman builds bone tissue until her mid-30s. After that, she gradually begins to lose bone. The more bone density she builds now, the greater her calcium bank account and the less likely she is to develop osteoporosis later in life. This is her last chance to put calcium into that bank account with calcium-rich yogurt or calcium-fortified products.
What to do: Three servings a day, girls! If you can’t drink that much milk, then take a supplement. You need no less than 1,000mg/day. Also, make sure your multi contains vitamin D and K, which the body needs to absorb calcium and direct it into bone tissue.
The 40s: Middle-Aged Spread, Mood Boosters, Mind Enhancers
Women in their 40s are headed toward menopause. You may notice your waistline is thickening, your mood is a bit touchy, and you may be forgetting why you even walked into a room. Up to 85% of aging is within your control, if you take care of yourself now!
1) Middle Age Spread: After 40, women start losing approximately 1% to 2% of muscle mass every year, which equates to a 5 to 10 pound loss of muscle every decade. The loss of muscle slows metabolism, so you’re likely to notice excess weight. This is the time to start a muscle-building program, if you haven’t already.
What to do: Spread your food intake out so you have the whole grain toast, peanut butter and juice for breakfast and save the yogurt and strawberries for a mid-morning snack. Or, you have the turkey sandwich and milk for lunch and save the apple and nuts for a mid-afternoon snack.
2) Depression: Women in their 40s are at high risk for depression. Medications can be useful, but they always come with side effects and often don’t do the job. Make sure you include lots of omega-3-rich foods in the daily and weekly diet. In even the toughest to treat people, there is a 50% reduction in depression just by adding omega-3s to the diet. Even one serving a week of salmon supplied enough of the omega-3 DHA to reduce depression rates by 42%.
What to do: Aim for no less than 220 milligrams of DHA a day. To do this, have 2 servings weekly of fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, or sardines and include lots of DHA-fortified foods in the daily diet. Or, take a supplement that supplies this omega-3.
3) Your Memory: Everything you know about brain aging is probably wrong. For example, 66% of brain aging is within your control if you eat right, exercise daily, and stay mentally and socially active! When it comes to eating right, make sure to get those omega-3s, since they can lower risk for Alzheimer’s by up to 70%. Also, focus on richly colored produce, such as blueberries, which numerous studies have found protect delicate brain tissue from damage.
What to do: Include berries at least 3 times a week in the diet, keep saturated fatty foods at a minimum, focus more on the omega-3s in fatty fish, and keep your brain challenged with puzzles, learning a language, and other skills.
The 50s and Beyond: Vitamin B12, Antioxidants, and Anti-Aging
The sooner you start to prevent aging, the better. But it’s never too late. Older women are less efficient at absorbing certain nutrients, yet have all the same requirements, if not more, of their younger years.
1) Vitamin B12: This B vitamin is very important in protecting your memory and nervous system function, yet people are less efficient at absorbing vitamin B12 as they age. Several studies report memory loss and even a few cases of dementia that were reversed or improved when people increased their vitamin B12 status. B12 also helps cut heart disease risk, since it lowers a compound in the blood, called homocysteine.
What to do: Boost intake of B12-rich foods, such as chicken breast, black beans, and bananas.
Then, make sure your daily supplement contains ample amounts of this important B vitamin.
2) Antioxidants: Most of the age-related diseases (from heart disease and cancer to cataracts and memory loss) are a result of exposure to highly reactive oxygen fragments called free radicals. Luckily, our bodies have an anti-free radical system called antioxidants. Eating these foods is critical throughout life, but especially by your 60s. Antioxidant-rich foods are the most colorful fruits and vegetables, from mangos, blueberries, and papaya to spinach, sweet potatoes, and broccoli.
What to do: Eight to ten servings a day! That means two at every meal and at least one at every snack. Also, consider taking a supplement that contains at least 10 milligrams of lutein and 2 milligrams of zeaxanthin.
3) Osteoporosis: Most people know that calcium is important for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis, but many don’t realize that if they don’t get enough vitamin D, they won’t absorb that calcium, so they’ll remain at high risk for osteoporosis. Women manufacture less vitamin D as they age, so dietary sources are increasingly more important.
What to do: Include lots of calcium-rich foods in your diet. Calcium-rich foods include seeds, cheese, yogurt, beans, lentils, and leafy greens.
These tips, along with a personalized vitamin regimen, could help as you move through each stage of life. You can take our free 3 to 5-minute assessment to get personalized vitamin recommendations based on your unique needs. If you already know what you need or would like to see popular options, try our convenient Essential pre-packs, such as Women’s Essentials or Women’s Essentials + Menopause Support. Ready to find high-quality vitamins that are right for you? Get Recommendations or See Essential Packs.