Women’s nutrition needs
March 16, 2021 - Defence Stories
Author: Pamela Hatton, RD, MSc, Strengthening the Forces
A woman’s overall healthy eating pattern also needs foods rich in key nutrients throughout her life, such as folic acid, iron, calcium and vitamin D.
What makes women’s nutrition different? A woman’s nutrient needs change during each stage of her life. As part of a woman’s healthy diet, understanding age-related nutrient needs is important in improving health, and preventing chronic disease.
You already know that healthy eating means choosing plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, protein foods and healthy fats. Developing an overall healthy eating pattern is important, rather than focusing on one special ingredient, “super food”, vitamin or supplement. It means getting nutrients from food rather than from vitamins pills or other supplements.
A woman’s overall healthy eating pattern also needs foods rich in key nutrients throughout her life, such as folic acid, iron, calcium and vitamin D. Being mindful of added sugar, salt and saturated fat and balancing energy intake (calories) with physical activity is also important. There are times during a woman’s lifecycle, such as during pregnancy, breastfeeding and after menopause, when extra food servings alone may not meet needs. In some cases, this may require adding specific supplements to get the extra vitamins and minerals.
Folic acid during the reproductive years
Folic acid helps a woman’s body make blood cells and DNA for new cells. Folic acid also helps prevent certain rare birth defects called neural tube defects (NTD), which can happen in the first three months of pregnancy.
Consuming folic acid before becoming pregnant and in the early weeks of pregnancy is important. Women who are pregnant, or could become pregnant, should take 0.4 mg of folic acid every day in addition to eating foods high in folate.
Foods rich in folate are: spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables, oranges, nuts, beans, chicken, lean beef, whole grains, and cereals with added folic acid.
Iron is a mineral that helps build healthy blood cells that carry oxygen throughout a woman’s body. It also helps make certain hormones and connective tissue.
Until menopause, women lose iron every month through menstruation. During pregnancy, women need more iron to supply enough blood for their growing fetus. In these cases, women may not get enough iron from food alone. This can put them at risk for iron deficiency anemia that commonly makes them feel extremely tired. Before taking any iron supplements, they should consult with their primary care physician.
Iron rich foods include lean red meats and chicken, seafood, iron fortified cereals/breads, oysters, beans – especially lentils, dark chocolate (the higher the cocoa content the better!), spinach and tofu. Eating a source of vitamin C (most fruits and vegetables) with these iron rich foods increases the body’s ability to absorb the iron.
Calcium is a mineral that helps muscles work, builds and protects strong bones and reduces the risk of osteoporosis. The body stores calcium in its bones, so if you don’t get enough calcium from food, your body will take it from your bones.
Girls and young women 9-18 years old need 1300 mg/day of calcium to build strong bones for adulthood. Adult women need 1000 mg/day and post-menopausal women need 1200 mg/day to slow the bone loss that comes with the loss of estrogen production.
Lower fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, calcium fortified soy beverages, tofu (set with calcium sulphate), canned salmon and sardines; and dark green leafy vegetables like kale, broccoli and bok choy are good food sources.
Called the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D helps the body use calcium and phosphorous to build and maintain strong bones and teeth. It is unique in that the body can make it after exposing skin to sunlight. The season, time of day, cloud cover, smog, skin pigmentation, and sunscreen use can all affect the production of vitamin D.
Children and adults alike need 600 International Units (IU) per day. Health Canada recommends a vitamin D supplement of 400 IU for people over the age of 50.
In Canada, major sources of vitamin D are fortified foods. By law, fluid cow's milk and margarine must be fortified with vitamin D. Goat's milk and fortified plant based beverages (like soy beverages) may or may not be fortified. Other dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt are often made with unfortified milk. Check the nutrition fact labels to see if vitamin D has been added. Natural sources of vitamin D can also be found in fatty fish and egg yolks.
Highly processed foods and physical activity
Most foods are processed in some way – milk is pasteurized and fermented, tomatoes and fish are canned, herbs are dried, vegetables are cut and frozen, etc. Yet, highly processed food usually has lots of added sugar, salt (sodium) and saturated fat, all adding up to extra empty calories without being filling. Check the nutrition facts labels for added ingredients. Making homemade food and meals allows you to choose ingredients with lower sodium, sugars and saturated fat.
Physical activity is an important part of a woman's health. Regular physical activity helps with weight management, muscle strength, balance, flexibility and stress management. When women are active, they are more likely to make better food choices and feel better too.
Being aware of age-related nutritional needs throughout a woman’s life will help build a healthy eating pattern. Choosing healthy, whole foods, rich in sources of key nutrients, while reducing highly processed food and adding daily physical activity can help a woman maintain a healthy body and mind.
For more information on eating healthy, check out Canada’s food guide.
Pamela Hatton, RD, MSc
Pam Hatton is the nutritional wellness specialist at the Directorate Forces Health Protection and she works with scientific evidence to provide advice. As part of the Strengthening the Forces team she works on promoting healthy eating and nutritional wellness.
Strengthening the Forces is CAF/DND’s healthy lifestyles promotion program providing expert information, skills and tools for promoting and improving CAF members’ health and well-being.
- Nutrition Month 2021 (Dietitians of Canada) (You are now leaving the Government of Canada website).
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