Carbs, protein, and fat. Vitamins and minerals. Fiber and omega-3s. You know you should be getting enough of all of these but in each decade of life there are specific nutrients of which you need to get more.
IN YOUR 20s and 30s
Several nutrients are particularly important for women during adulthood, especially if you are thinking of becoming pregnant.
- Folic acid: This form of B vitamin helps prevent neural tube defects, especially spina bifida and anencephaly. These defects can be devastating and fatal. Many foods are now fortified with folic acid, such as cereal and bread. Most women get enough as part of their diet through foods such as leafy greens, a rich source of folic acid. However, some doctors recommend that women take a pregnancy supplement that includes folic acid, just to make sure they are getting the recommended 400 to 800 micrograms.
- B12: Like folic acid, B12 is essential for healthy nervous system development and function. Pregnant women who are vegans or vegetarians may fall short on B12, since it is present in animal protein and to a lesser extent in dairy. Teenage and adult women need 2.4 mcg. Recommended levels rise to 2.6 mcg for pregnant women and 2.8 mcg for lactating women.
- Choline: Some studies link low choline levels to increased risk of neural tube defects. Recommended levels have been established for this nutrient, but it’s easy to get enough in your diet. Eggs are an excellent source of choline, as well as milk, liver, and peanuts.
- Omega-3s: These essential fatty acids, EPA and DHA, play many roles in the body, including building healthy brain and nerve cells. Some studies show that omega-3s, especially DHA, can help prevent preterm births. Even women who don’t plan to have children should be sure to get plenty of omega-3s. These healthy oils have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, the number one killer of women. Fatty fish (wild Alaskan salmon, wild Pacific halibut, black cod, farmed trout, tuna), walnuts, and groundflaxseed are excellent sources. Plant sources contain the omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which convert s to EPA and DHA, though poorly.
- Vitamin D: Over the past decade, dozens of studies have revealed many important roles for vitamin D, including heart health, cancer, diabetes, inflammation, and immunity. The best source of vitamin D is the sun, but covering up with sunscreen to prevent skin cancer also prevents the vitamin d to be absorbed. Get your vitamin D levels checked (25-OHD test). You want your level >50. Most people should supplement with at least 1,000 IUs of vitamin D3 (the more active form). If you’re vitamin D deficient, you will need more vitamin D to get your levels up faster.
- Calcium: Getting enough calcium continues to be important for women through their adult years. Adult women in their childbearing years should aim for between 1,000 mg and 1,300 mg of calcium a day, splitting up the dose. Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese) and calcium-fortified OJ are good sources of calcium. If you do not tolerate dairy, then you need to take a calcium supplement – 500 mg twice a day. Calcium is best absorbed while you sleep, so make sure you get some before bed.
- Iron: Iron, too, remains a critical nutrient. Adult women between the ages of 19 and 50 need 18 mg a day. Pregnant women should shoot for 27 mg a day. After delivery, lactating women need far less iron, only about 9 mg. But as soon as women stop breast-feeding, they should return to 18 mg a day. Don’t take iron or eat irom-rich foods at the same time as you consume calcium as they compete for receptor sites, so you get poor absorption of both nutrients.
IN YOUR 40s, 50s, and beyond (post-menopausal)
- Calcium & Vitamin D: Although some bone loss is inevitable with age, women can slow the process by getting enough calcium and vitamin D. Women between the ages of 50 and 70 need 1200 mg of calcium and 600 IU of Vitamin D a day. Women older than 70 require 1200 mg of calcium and 800 IU of Vitamin D a day. Because the skin becomes less efficient at converting sunlight to vitamin D as we age, older women may need more vitamin D in the form of supplements. Talk to a registered dietitian nutritionist who can give you guidance as to type and quantity to take.
- B12: The body’s ability to absorb this crucial vitamin also declines as women age. A diet abundant in fish, meats, and foods fortified with B12 can supply adequate amounts for most older women. But some people may need to take supplements. Get your B-12 level tested before supplementing. Injected B12 and the methylated form are better absorbed than most over-the-counter B12 supplements.
- Fluids: Fluid needs increase as women age. The reason: kidneys become less efficient at removing toxins. Drinking more fluids helps kidneys do their job. Unfortunately, thirst signals often become impaired with age, so people are less likely to drink enough water and other fluids. Rather than fret about how many glasses to drink, check the color of your urine. It should be clear or very pale-colored. If it becomes darker, more fluid is needed. Best fluid choices: water, green tea, herbal tea, small amounts of coffee. Limit or avoid: blended coffee drinks, soda, diet soda, artificial-sweetened drinks, and alcohol.
- Protein: With age, and especially after menopause, calorie requirements drop again. Weight gain, especially around the middle, is very normal. This has to do with the decline in estrogen production as well as the decline in metabolism. Increasing the protein in the diet will help with satiety as well as muscle loss. The most important thing you can do is to include weight-bearing exercise to build the muscle mass and increase metabolism. Best protein sources: fish, skinless poultry breast, beans, eggs, tofu; limit pork, beef, lamb, cheese due to high saturated fat content.
- Co Q 10 (ubiquniol) – Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is produced by the human body and is necessary for the basic functioning of cells. CoQ10 levels are reported to decrease with age and to be low in patients with some chronic diseases such as heart conditions, muscular dystrophies, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. Some prescription drugs may also lower CoQ10 levels.