While the principles of healthy eating remain constant over a woman’s lifespan, women’s bodies also go through changes in each decade of life that may require adjustments to the specific nutrients they need. For example, some vitamins and minerals are critical during a woman’s childbearing years, while others become especially important as aging begins to affect the female body’s nutrient absorption. Knowing which nutrients are key, and at what times, can help women feel their best throughout each decade of life.
The 20s and 30s: Folate, Iron, and Calcium
Folate and Folic Acid If a woman decides to have children, folate is crucial for a healthy pregnancy, as it helps protect against neural tube defects in a developing fetus. Folate also plays an important role in producing red blood cells in the bone marrow by working closely with vitamin B12. Food sources of folate include beef liver, lentils, asparagus, spinach, broccoli, avocados, and folate-enriched grain products such as bread, pasta, rice, and cereals.
Iron Iron is an essential component of red blood cells that transfers oxygen from the lungs to all the body’s tissues. Iron also is necessary for physical growth, neurological development, cellular functioning, and the synthesis of certain hormones. For women in their 20s and 30s, low iron intake is common, and often is compounded through monthly losses via a woman’s menstrual cycle. Iron is found in two main forms in foods: heme iron (found only in meat, seafood, and poultry) and non-heme iron (found in meat, seafood, poultry, some plants, and iron-fortified foods).
Calcium Calcium is necessary for bone health and proper functioning of the cardiovascular, muscular, and nervous systems, among many other significant roles. We don’t reach our peak bone mass until our late 20s, so it’s especially important to consume adequate amounts of calcium in the first few decades of life. (And it’s still vital to consume calcium throughout the rest of our lifespan, as well!). Calcium is found in milk, cheese, yogurt, dark leafy greens (except spinach and collard greens, as they contain phytic acid, which decreases calcium absorption), and soybeans.
Note: Pregnant women or those trying to become pregnant are recommended to take a prenatal vitamin; however, always speak with your healthcare provider about timing and your body’s specific needs.
The 40s and 50s: Vitamins C and D, Omega-3s, and Flavonoids
Vitamin D Vitamin D goes hand-in-hand with calcium; it plays a key role in building and maintaining our skeletal health, since it helps the body absorb calcium. Vitamin D also supports the body’s immune system. Long-term vitamin D deficiency can lead to bone softening, also known as rickets in children or osteomalacia in adults. Older women are at increased risk of developing vitamin D insufficiency, partly because the skin’s ability to synthesize vitamin D declines with age. Vitamin D is found in tuna, salmon, egg yolks, and fortified milk. Getting a little sunshine also helps the body better make and absorb vitamin D.
Omega-3 fatty acids Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to improve cognition and heart health. These beneficial fats also normalize and regulate the body’s cholesterol and triglyceride levels—an important function during this life stage, when a woman’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease starts to increase. Salmon, tuna, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are all sources of omega-3s.
Flavonoids Flavonoids are antioxidants, which keep the body’s immune system strong in order to fight off disease and keep the cardiovascular and nervous systems healthy. Foods with flavonoids include berries, chocolate (yes, really!), and red- and yellow-hued fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin C Vitamin C plays a critical role in immune health as well as the formation of hormones and chemical messengers in the body. It is a powerful antioxidant, and it also contributes to collagen synthesis, a process that is integral to maintaining our bones, skin elasticity, and muscle health but declines as we age. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, bell peppers, kale, broccoli, and strawberries.
The 60s and Beyond: Protein, Fiber, B12, Magnesium, and Water
Protein Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscles and helps keep the stomach feeling full throughout the day. A progressive decline of the body’s muscle mass occurs over time, so it’s important to consume adequate protein each day as we age. Look for protein from a variety of sources, including lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, dairy, and soy foods.
Fiber Adequate dietary fiber intake has been associated with several health benefits, including maintenance of a healthy gastrointestinal tract and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and some types of cancers. Additionally, intake of dietary fiber is associated with improved glycemic control, which is an important dietary approach to helping manage diabetes. Foods high in fiber include oatmeal, brown rice, fruits, vegetables, and popcorn.
B12 Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that helps keep the body’s blood and nerve cells healthy and also helps make DNA. Vitamin B12 also assists in preventing megaloblastic anemia, a blood condition that makes people feel lethargic and weak. Vitamin B12 absorption can decrease with age, and some medications can further reduce its absorption. Vitamin B12 is found in milk, lean red meat, eggs, fortified cereals, and nutritional yeast.
Magnesium Magnesium is important for many processes in the body, including regulating muscle and nerve function, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure; as well as making protein, bone, and DNA. Magnesium absorption decreases as we age, and older women are more likely to take medication that alters their magnesium status and puts them at risk for magnesium depletion. Food sources of magnesium include legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables (such as spinach), fortified breakfast cereals, milk, and yogurt.
Water Though not technically a nutrient, water is directly involved in every biochemical reaction in our body. Staying hydrated becomes more difficult as we age but is critically important, as water plays a role in so many bodily processes, from the saliva that helps us chew food to digestion to waste elimination. Drinking water also energizes muscles and hydrates the skin. Aim for about 9 cups of fluids per day, primarily in the form of water.
A final note
It’s most beneficial to receive the nutrients listed above from food rather than dietary supplementation. However, there are instances where dietary supplements are valuable—particularly if you are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, breastfeeding, or otherwise at risk for specific nutritional deficiencies. Always talk with your doctor to make sure you are making the right choices for your unique health needs.