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At every stage of women's lives, nutrition and regular exercise are the cornerstones of good health and optimal energy. But certain vitamins and minerals become especially important at particular times of life. Knowing which matter most can help you choose the best foods and supplements.

This article covers key nutrients women need during their teens, childbearing years, and senior years.

Nutrition for Girls in Childhood and Early Teens

The best guarantee that growing girls get the nutrition they need is a diet abundant in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean sources of protein. Two nutrients are particularly important:

  • Calcium: “Getting enough calcium is important for all ages, but it's particularly important during adolescence and early adulthood, when bones are absorbing calcium,” says Heather Schwartz, MS, RD, a medical nutrition therapist at Stanford University Hospital and Clinics. Calcium and vitamin D are often paired in fortified foods such as milk. The reason: The body needs D in order to absorb calcium.

Most experts recommend 1,300 mg of calcium a day for girls aged 9 through 19. Natural sources of calcium, such as low-fat dairy products, are the smartest choice, because they also contain vitamin D and protein, both required for calcium absorption. Milk, yogurt, and cheese contribute most of the calcium in our diets. Some vegetables are also good sources, including broccoli, kale, and Chinese cabbage. Many foods are supplemented with calcium, including some brands of orange juice and tofu. The daily intake for Vitamin D is 600 IU per day for most children and healthy adults.

  • Iron: Essential for healthy blood cells, iron becomes especially important when girls begin to menstruate. With each period, a woman loses small amounts of iron. “About 10% of American women are iron deficient,” says Dorothy Klimis-Zacas, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Maine and co-editor of Nutritional Concerns of Women (CRC Press, 2003). “About 5% have iron deficiency anemia.”  Symptoms of low iron include fatigue, impaired immunity, and poor performance at school or work.

Until girls begin to menstruate, they need about 8 mg of iron a day. Between ages 14 and 18, the recommended intake climbs to 15 mg. Good sources of iron include beef, turkey, chicken, halibut, tuna, beans, lentils, and breakfast cereals supplemented with iron. Many multivitamins also contain the recommended daily allowance of iron.

Although growing bodies need plenty of energy in the form of calories, many children and teenagers consume way too many, says Ruth Frechman, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. The latest findings from federal surveys show that 18% of adolescents and teenagers are fatter than they should be. Kids who are obese are 16 times more likely than healthy weight children to become obese as adults, other findings show. 

Encouraging girls and young women to be more physically active while reducing high-calorie foods can help balance the energy equation. By starting early, they set a pattern of healthy eating that will carry them through life.

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