Essential Nutrients Every Woman Needs

Any woman who’s ever cared for a newborn can tell you -- it’s a lot of work. But after Amy Brennan had her second child, she says she was so tired she couldn’t function.

“I was dealing with crippling fatigue almost to the point of not being able to care for my kids,” she says. 

Even more troubling, she also began having heart palpitations and shortness of breath. “I started worrying about heart issues,” Brennan says. And with good reason. “My dad had his first two heart attacks at age 45, a triple bypass, and died at age 59.”

A blood test revealed that her symptoms weren’t signs of heart trouble. They were caused by a severe case of anemia, a blood disorder. Her body was low on iron, a common culprit behind the condition.

Now she takes two iron pills a day, plus vitamin C. "And I eat my leafy greens!” she says. “It took several months, but I finally returned to normal.”

Women aren’t the only ones who get anemia, but they’re at the highest risk. That’s because they lose iron during their periods. From puberty through menopause, they need more of this mineral in their diets than men do -- and as much as three times more during pregnancy.  

Iron is just one crucial nutrient you need to stay in tip-top shape, ladies. Here's how to get the right nutrition throughout life to help maximize your health.

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Puberty

During early childhood, the nutrition recommendations for boys and girls are similar, but then that begins to change.

“If you look at nutrient recommendation tables, they start to diverge at age 9 for girls and boys, with a clear separation at age 14,” says Jennifer Frediani, PhD, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Human Health at Emory.

Iron

With the tween years comes menstruation. “Iron requirements increase during puberty to make up for blood loss and increasing blood volume with normal growth,” Frediani says.

From ages 9 to 13 girls should shoot for 8 milligrams of iron a day, and 15 milligrams starting at age 14. The best foods to get it from are lean meats, seafood, nuts, leafy green vegetables, and beans, as well as iron-fortified cereals and breads.

Calcium

As women age, they’re prone to bone loss, so it’s important to build a strong skeleton early on. Adolescence is the prime time for girls to do that,  Frediani says.

Girls between the ages of 9 and 18 need 1,300 milligrams of calcium a day. So they should load up on dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese, plus calcium-rich greens like kale, cabbage, and broccoli.

Pregnancy and Motherhood

It’s important to look again at your eating habits around the time you conceive or are thinking about getting pregnant. Your nutrition during this time affects not only your own health, but your baby’s development as well.

Folate

During pregnancy this B vitamin is crucial for lowering the risk of certain birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. Women in their childbearing years should aim for 400 micrograms of folate a day, and 600 micrograms a day after conceiving.

Eat lots of whole grains, fortified cereal, and leafy greens -- and if you’re expecting, take a prenatal vitamin with folic acid. (Folic acid is a form of folate used in dietary supplements and fortified foods.)

Protein

It's crucial for your baby’s growth. Pregnant women need about 88 grams a day, while breastfeeding women should aim for 100 grams.

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Get your protein from lean meat, chicken, and fish. You can substitute beans and legumes if you’re a vegetarian.

Iron

This nutrient is important for you and for your baby’s blood cells. It can keep you from feeling fatigued, too. Still, it can be tough to get the recommended amount, 27 milligrams a day for pregnant women, from food only, so your doctor may recommend a daily iron supplement.

Calcium and Vitamin D

These help build strong bones and teeth. Calcium also keeps your circulatory system, muscles, and nerves working normally.

While you can get plenty of calcium from dairy, leafy greens, and other foods, most people don’t get enough vitamin D. There aren’t many good food sources, although you can get some from fatty fish like salmon, as well as fortified milk and orange juice.

The one good way to get D is by going outside, because your body makes the vitamin in response to the sun -- but you need to protect your skin from getting sunburned.

Taking a supplement may also be a good idea. “Look for one with around 1000 international units of D, plus added calcium,” Frediani says.

Menopause and Beyond

Your body goes through a shift as menopause sets in. “After the age of 50, you’re no longer growing, and your activity level typically slows as well,” Frediani says.

When that happens, and you no longer have menstrual periods, your body needs more of some nutrients and less of others, like iron.

Calcium and Vitamin D

Now’s the time when that strong skeleton you built earlier in life starts to pay off, as bone density begins to erode. 

“Getting enough calcium and engaging in weight-bearing exercise is critical for slowing bone loss,” Frediani says. 

Boost the amount of calcium you get to 1,200 milligrams a day, and get 800 international units vitamin D.

Fiber

It helps lower the risk of all sorts of health conditions, including high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. It also helps keep your colon working well.

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If you’re over 50, you need at least 20 grams a day. You can get fiber from unrefined cereals (like bran), fresh fruit, whole grains, vegetables, and legumes.

Vitamin B6

This vitamin helps you stay  sharp as the years roll on Try to get at least 1.5 milligram a day from brain foods like chickpeas, liver, fish, and chicken.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on June 26, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Amy Brennen, Tampa, Florida.

Office on Women’s Health: “Anemia Fact Sheet.”

National Institutes of Health: “Iron,” “Calcium,” “Folate,” “Vitamin D,” “Vitamin B6”

Jennifer Frediani, PhD, RD, Bionutrition Research Director, Atlanta Clinical and Translational Science Institute, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

National Osteoporosis Foundation: “What Women Need to Know.”

Dominguez-Salas, P. Nature Communications, 2014.

Institute of Medicine of The National Academies: “Dietary Reference Intakes.”

Wylie-Rossett, J. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2005.

American Academy of Family Physicians: “Good Health Habits at Age 60 and Beyond.”

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