For the first decade or so of a woman’s life, there isn’t much -- nutritionally speaking -- that separates her needs from those of the boy next door.
Once girls hit adolescence, however, the story begins to change. Not only do nutritional requirements change from what they were in childhood, but there are also differences between the needs of men and women of the same age. And some of those needs continue changing throughout your life.
Find out what nutrients you need to stay healthy and energized, and what foods provide the best sources.
Childbearing Years: Iron and Folic Acid
If you're feeling tired all the time, you may not be getting enough iron in your diet. You need more iron during your childbearing years because you lose blood each month when you have your periods. Iron needs also jump during pregnancy.
“Women who have regular periods and especially heavy periods are more at risk of having low iron stores. If you start off a pregnancy with low iron stores, you are more at risk of dipping down into actual anemia, and your baby may not receive all of the iron she needs for her own stores,” says Melinda Johnson, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Folic acid -- or the naturally occurring form of this B vitamin, called folate -- is another must-have nutrient during your childbearing years. Low levels of folic acid when you're pregnant women put your baby at risk for neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. And since half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, you should get the recommended amount even if you're not trying to get pregnant.
“I like to tell wannabe moms to eat and act as if they are already pregnant -- especially if they are actively trying to get pregnant,” Johnson says. “Wannabe moms need to make sure they are eating as healthy as possible to get their body ready to carry a baby.”
Even if you're taking birth control pills, it makes sense to add foods with folate to your diet. Some of the older oral contraceptives as well as other medications, such as large doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), can make it hard for your body to absorb folic acid. So you may need more.
Also be aware that medications such as antacids that decrease stomach acid can reduce the absorption of iron.
How much iron you need: 18 milligrams per day for women 19-50 years old. For pregnant women, it increases to 27 milligrams per day.
Foods high in iron: Meats, seafood, nuts, lima beans, spinach, broccoli, and iron-fortified cereals
How much folic acid you need: 400 micrograms per day for women 14 and older; for pregnant women, 600 micrograms per day; for breastfeeding women, 500 micrograms per day
Foods high in folate: Beans, lentils, peas, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and breads and cereals fortified with folic acid