A woman’s nutritional needs are as unique as her smile, the color of her eyes or her sense of humor. Those needs change as she ventures through life, navigating the childbearing years, approaching menopause and entering the golden years. Luckily, most of the 40-plus nutrients a woman’s body needs throughout life are met by simply eating lots of wholesome foods, such as whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, cooked dried beans and peas and nonfat milk products. But we need to tailor these basic good-eating habits to meet the specific nutritional needs of each stage in life. Here's a plan for tackling your needs over the decades:
The 20s: Folic acid, iron, dieting
No matter what your age, all women need at least eight colorful fruits and vegetables, three glasses of nonfat milk, two servings of iron-rich protein and five or more servings of whole grains. That said, some nutrients are of particular concern, depending on your age. For example, women in their 20s are on the tail end of growing. Their nutritional needs are high, they are still building tissue, and one in every two pregnancies during these years will be unplanned. That means a woman must be on nutritional high-alert. Three nutrition issues are of particular concern:
1. Folic acid: Folic acid-rich foods, such as greens, orange juice and beans, are especially important. Yet while seven out of 10 women know that folic acid helps prevent birth defects, only 25 percent of those women are actively trying to get enough folic acid during the periconception period. (Folic acid is most effective for preventing birth defects if taken at the time of conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Once the pregnancy test comes back positive and a woman starts taking a supplement, it could be too late.)
What to do: Make sure you get enough of this key vitamin by including at least two dark green leafies in your daily diet.
2. Iron: Tired? Can’t think straight? Rather than grab a cup of coffee, you are better off reaching for iron-rich foods. While only eight percent of women are iron deficient, up to 80 percent (studies range from 20 percent to 80 percent) of women during these early years are iron deficient. The deficiency goes unnoticed because most physicians test only for anemia, the final stage of iron deficiency. For months or even years, a woman can be iron deficient and have it go undetected, yet the symptoms are the same — you’re tired, sleep poorly, your work is compromised, you catch every cold that comes around. Women also have cut back on red meat, the best source of absorbable iron, yet up to 30 percent of the iron is absorbed from meat compared to only two to seven percent in beans (which means you need at least four servings of beans for every one serving of meat to get the same amount of iron!). If you drink tea or coffee with your meals, you won’t absorb the iron you are eating.
What to do: Include several servings daily of iron-rich foods, get tested for serum ferritin and, if you are low, take a supplement.
3. Dieting: It is impossible to meet all your vitamin and mineral needs when calorie intake falls below 1,800 calories/day, yet young women are dieting in record amounts, cutting daily calories to 1,000 or less. While restrictive dieting does more harm than good and never results in long-term weight loss, there are some superfoods that can help ensure optimal nutrition, even when calories are too low. So load up on low-cal superfoods that fill you up without filling you out, such as wheat germ (even two tablespoons pack a wallop of nutrients), oatmeal cooked in nonfat milk, salads and vegetable soups.
The 30s: Stress/convenience foods, the pill, calcium
Women in their 30s, whether they are working, mothering, or both, are living on the brink of chaos at all times. Their nutritional needs are high during times of stress, but they don’t believe they have the time to eat well. The nutrition issues here are:
1. Stress/convenience foods: For lack of time, women grab quick-fix foods that typically are high in fat, sugar or calories. According to the latest stats from USDA, women today are averaging 31 teaspoons of refined sugar daily, while fat intake is on the rise. Instead of grabbing the colas and the sweets, grab healthy snacks. And hey, it’s a myth that eating well must take more time. If you have time to pull up to a drive-through window or order takeout, you have time to eat well.
What to do: A breakfast of whole-grain cereal, nonfat milk and fruit takes less than five minutes to prepare. Dinner is as easy as broiled salmon or chicken, a sweet potato in the microwave and a bagged salad.
2. The pill: The birth control pill can affect the absorption and use of several nutrients, including vitamin B-6. This vitamin is important in the regulation of the nerve chemical serotonin, so a low level of B-6 might help explain some of the emotional ups and downs women experience on the pill.
What to do: You don’t need to take another pill, just add more vitamin B-6-rich foods to your diet, such as chicken breast, bananas and nuts.
3. Calcium: A woman builds bone tissue until her mid-30s. After that, she gradually begins to lose bone. The more bone density she builds now, the greater her bank account and the less likely she is to develop osteoporosis later in life. This is her last chance to put calcium into that bank account with calcium-rich yogurt or calcium-fortified orange juice, yet many women are still averaging one-half to two-thirds their calcium needs.
What to do: Three servings a day, girls! If you can’t drink that much orange juice, then consider supplements.
The 40s: Middle-age spread, the calorie drop, premenopause
1. Middle-age spread: After 40, women start losing approximately one to two percent of muscle mass every year, which equates to a five- to 10-pound loss of muscle every decade. The loss of muscle slows metabolism, so you’re likely to notice excess weight. If you don’t nip this trend in the bud, it will progress until you not only can’t lift the grocery bag, you can’t get out of the easy chair without help. This is the time to start a muscle-building program, if you haven’t already. In addition, studies show that people who divide their food intake into little meals and snacks have an easier time managing their weight.
What to do: That doesn’t mean adding more food to your daily intake, but rather spreading your food intake out so you have the toast, peanut butter and orange juice for breakfast and save the yogurt and blueberries for a mid-morning snack. Or you have the turkey sandwich and milk for lunch and save the apple and nuts for a mid-afternoon snack.
2. Heart disease: While most women list cancer at the top of their health concerns, a woman’s greatest health threat is actually heart disease, which escalates in the middle years. Low saturated-fat and cholesterol diets are more important than ever, as are high-fiber foods such as beans (they contain a host of heart-healthy compounds such as saponins, phytosterols and phytoestrogens), the omega-3 fats in fish and foods fortified with the omega-3 fat DHA, and the monounsaturated fats in olive oil.
3. Premenopause: Some women also may be experiencing premenopause.
What to do: To help curb hot flashes, you must exercise every day, watch out for foods that aggravate the flashes, and increase your intake of foods that might help curb symptoms. Avoid coffee and spicy foods, both of which alter blood flow and can increase the symptoms of hot flashes. Be careful of the herb teas you drink. Some herbs, such as black cohosh or dong quai, cause blood vessel dilation and could aggravate a hot flash. On the other hand, while the research is sketchy at best, some women swear that increasing their intake of soy has helped curb their hot flashes.
Elizabeth Somer is a registered dietitian, the author of “Age-Proof Your Diet,” and a regular contributor to TODAY.