The Evolving Nutritional Needs of Women

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By Cheryl Fagras

Eating a balanced diet of nutritionally dense food is one of the cornerstones of good health. Women have special nutritional needs and during each stage of a woman’s life these needs change.  Beginning with puberty and throughout menstruation, pregnancy, postpartum, breastfeeding and menopause, women’s nutritional needs evolve.

These life stages correlate to women having higher risk of anemia, osteoporosis and other changes to overall health. This creates a need for higher intake of nutrients such as iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, and folate (B9).

Iron is important to good health, but the amount needed is different depending on a woman’s stage of life. For example, iron needs are higher during pregnancy and lower after reaching menopause. Iron helps to create the hemoglobin that carries oxygen to the blood. Due to the amount of blood lost during menstruation, women of childbearing age need more than twice the amount of iron that men do, especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Most women are not getting nearly enough iron in their diets, making iron deficiency anemia the most common deficiency in women.

Iron deficiency can cause weakness, fatigue, mood disorders, depression-like symptoms, difficulty in concentrating and irritability. Foods that provide iron include red meat (heme iron, one of the best sources) chicken, turkey, pork, fish, kale, spinach, beans, lentils, dried apricots and raisins. 

Calcium is essential for building healthy bones, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, regulating the heart’s rhythm and ensuring your nervous system functions properly. Calcium deficiency can lead to, or exacerbate, mood problems such as irritability, anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties. Women need to eat a variety of calcium-rich foods every day. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body will take calcium from your bones to ensure normal cell function, which can lead to weakened bones or osteoporosis. It is important to get plenty of calcium, in combination with magnesium and vitamin D, to support your bone health. Some calcium-rich foods include whole milk, yogurt, cheese, sardines, tempeh, bok choy, almonds, sesame seeds,  green leafy and cruciferous vegetables.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D is also crucial to the proper metabolism of calcium. Vitamin D is actually a hormone created by sunlight interacting with bare skin. Boost the vitamin D hormone by getting out into the sun for a period of 20 minutes a day, whenever possible. You can also get some benefit from foods such as salmon, cod, and eggs.

Folate (not folic acid), is the naturally occurring and metabolically active form of vitamin B9. It is another nutrient that many women don’t get enough of in their diets. Folate is crucial for women’s health as it helps breakdown hormones, aides detoxification, affects mood, promotes a healthy pregnancy, and more. Eating foods high in folate can greatly reduce the chance of neurological birth defects before conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Among other things, folate is also essential for red and white blood cell production as well as heme production, the iron-rich molecule attached to red blood cells. This is why a folate deficiency can lead to megaloblastic anemia.

In later life, folate can help your body manufacture estrogen during menopause.

Folate helps convert a compound called homocysteine to an essential amino acid called methionine. Without enough folate, homocysteine will become elevated. High homocysteine levels have been linked to infertility and recurrent miscarriages in some studies. Women with PCOS are also more likely to have elevated homocysteine levels. 

MTHFR is a common gene mutation and around 60 percent of people may have at least one genetic mutation in their MTHFR gene. Women with MTHFR mutations have a greater risk of recurrent miscarriages, an increased risk of migraines, infertility, and neural tube defects during pregnancy.  Eating folate rich foods or taking methylated folate may result in better pregnancy outcomes. Eating foods fortified with folic acid or taking supplements with folic acid can be problematic for women with MTHFR mutations. Seek guidance from a medical professional to see if this could be an issue. 

Be advised that folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B9 found in many multivitamins, fortified foods, and certain pharmaceuticals. Folic acid is much cheaper to put into a vitamin than the active form, thus you will often see folic acid in most conventional prenatal and multivitamins. Taking too much folic acid may mask a vitamin B12 deficiency by preventing megaloblastic anemia (often the first sign of deficiency). However, the detrimental effects of vitamin B12 deficiency span beyond anemia and can cause other symptoms like numbness, tingling, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, and more.

Folate is naturally present in a wide variety of foods such as liver, dark leafy green vegetables, avocados, legumes, and asparagus.

Be advised there are many things that can block the absorption and bioavailability of these nutrients. Be cautious with consumption of caffeine, alcohol, beverages containing phosphoric acid, highly processed oils and heavily processed foods. Also maintain good sleep and manage stress.