Wellness: Nutrition

6 Vital Nutrients Women May Be Missing

Women's diets often fall short in vital minerals and vitamins.

A woman's physiology can make it harder to hang onto some nutrients, too. Women also are more likely than men to develop an eating disorder, which makes it difficult to maintain healthy nutrition.

Here are six nutrients that women are often deficient in, either because they lose too much of a nutrient, don't get enough of a nutrient, or both.

Calcium

Why you need it

Calcium builds teeth and bones, curbs premenstrual syndrome, helps maintain normal blood pressure, and may protect against colon cancer. It is also needed for muscle contraction, hormones and enzymes, and nervous system function, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Nearly all of the body's calcium is stored in the teeth and bones.

Women's risk for bone loss rises at menopause with waning levels of estrogen, a hormone that helps keep calcium in your bones. Getting adequate calcium, vitamin D, and exercise as a child and teen can lessen the impact of bone loss later in life, the National Osteoporosis Foundation says.

What you need

1,000 mg a day for women of childbearing age; 1,200 mg a day after menopause.

The problem

More than three out of four women don't get the recommended amount of calcium, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), part of the National Institutes of Health. Many weight-conscious women forgo dairy products, calcium's richest source. Even when women include dairy products in their diet, however, the amount of calcium they absorb can be affected by age, pregnancy, and the amount of vitamin D they consume, the ODS says. The amount of calcium you absorb declines with age. According to AND, by age 18, a woman's bones are completely done forming and if there is not enough calcium deposited in bones during childhood, they may become weak later in life. Although some plant-based foods, such as spinach and collard greens, contain significant amounts of calcium, this source of calcium may not be absorbed as well as the calcium found in dairy products.

The remedy

Choose more dairy foods. A cup of low-fat yogurt, milk, or cottage cheese provides about 300 mg of calcium. Good nondairy choices include kale, turnip greens, almonds, dried figs, and fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals and fruit juices. Weight-bearing exercise like brisk walking prevents calcium loss from bones. Research has shown that for women at risk for fractures, taking calcium and vitamin D supplements alone after menopause is not enough to protect against fractures. Additional medicines may be necessary. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables and regular weight-bearing exercise are essential to bone health for women of all ages.

Vitamin D

Why you need it

Vitamin D helps the body maintain normal levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood, and helps form and maintain strong bones, the ODS says. It also may help maintain a healthy immune system and help healthy cell growth and development. It helps prevent rickets, a condition in children that weakens the bones. There is also evidence that vitamin D may help prevent falls by improving muscle strength.

What you need

600 IU a day for women up to age 70, and 800 IU for those 71 and older. For pregnant and breastfeeding women, 600 IU daily is recommended.

The problem

The primary source of vitamin D is your body; your body makes vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun's ultraviolet rays. But getting vitamin D this way may be difficult for some women. People who are 50 and older don't make vitamin D as efficiently as younger people; people who live in northern climates may not get enough sun exposure, particularly during the winter months; people who don't spend time outdoors are unable to make vitamin D. Vitamin D levels also have declined because of widespread sunscreen use. Sunscreen blocks the ultraviolet rays that can damage the skin--but these same rays cause the body to produce vitamin D.

The remedy

According to the ODS, despite the importance of the sun for vitamin D synthesis, it is wise to limit exposure of skin to sunlight due to public health concerns about skin cancer. A cup of skim milk provides about 200 IU of vitamin D; vitamin D is also found in eggs, salmon, and organ meats. A supplement can supply vitamin D, too. Women should begin taking vitamin D supplements as teens and continue throughout life.

Iron

Why you need it

Iron is used to help the blood carry oxygen throughout the body. If you don't get enough iron in your diet, you may feel fatigued. Too much iron, however, can be fatal.

What you need

18 mg a day for menstruating women; 27 mg a day for pregnant women; 9 mg a day for women who are breast-feeding; and 8 mg day for women after menopause.

The problem

Women most at risk for developing iron deficiency anemia include women who have not gone through menopause; (women mainly lose iron from menstrual bleeding), pregnant women, and teenage girls. Iron levels may also fall if you:

  • Don't eat iron-fortified foods, plant foods that contain iron (such as lentils or beans), or red meat, fish, or poultry

  • Use aspirin, which causes microscopic bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract

  • Don't get enough vitamin A; this vitamin helps the body use stored iron

  • Have kidney failure; the kidneys produce a hormone, called erythropoietin, needed to make red blood cells 

Iron deficiency develops gradually. Anemia from iron deficiency may be caused by too little iron in the diet, inadequate absorption of iron, or excessive blood loss, the ODS says. The type of iron you eat influences how well you absorb iron. Heme iron, which comes from meat, is absorbed efficiently. Nonheme iron, which is found in rice, corn, black beans, soybeans, and wheat, is not absorbed as completely. Absorption of this type of iron also is affected by other foods in the diet.

The remedy

You absorb iron best from meat and fish, so adding grilled chicken to a salad is a plus. Nonmeat eaters can opt for iron-rich combos. Try kale or beet greens tossed with raisins, snack on dried apricots and nuts, and lace enriched cereals with blackstrap molasses. To boost absorption, combine iron-rich foods with orange juice and other foods that contain vitamin C. Don't take an iron supplement without a doctor's guidance, because excess iron can harm the heart, liver, and other organs.

Folate

Why you need it

Folate is a water-soluble B vitamin. It helps make red blood cells, prevent birth defects such as neural tube defects and spina bifida, and lower homocysteine levels.

What you need

400 micrograms a day; 500 micrograms a day for women who are pregnant; 600 micrograms a day for women who are breastfeeding.

The problem

Although many foods are now fortified with folate, certain medical conditions and medications may increase the need for this B vitamin, the ODS says. (Folate is the form of this vitamin found naturally in food; folic acid is the form found in dietary supplements and fortified foods.) Medical conditions that increase the need for folate include pregnancy and breastfeeding, alcohol abuse, kidney dialysis, liver disease, and anemia. Medications that interfere with folate include drugs to treat epilepsy, diabetes, colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Barbiturates also may interfere with folate.

The remedy

Dark greens provide the highest amounts of folate. A cup of cooked spinach provides around 200 micrograms. Other foods rich in this B vitamin include navy beans, oranges, and fortified grains. Ask your doctor about supplements.

Vitamin C

Why you need it

To help make connective tissues, strengthen blood vessels and gums, and boost infection-fighting cells.

What you need

75 mg per day; 85 mg a day for pregnant women; 120 mg per day for women who are breastfeeding; and an additional 35 mg a day for smokers.

The problem

Many busy women find it tough to eat enough fruits and vegetables, as recommended by USDA dietary guidelines.

The remedy

Think fresh and raw, then plan ahead to include citrus fruits and dark veggies for every meal and snack. On the run, grab salads and fruit bowls that feature cantaloupe, papaya, kiwi, green peppers, or broccoli.

Magnesium

Why you need it

Magnesium helps produce the energy in your cells, keep your muscles and nerves working, keep heart rhythm steady, keep your immune system healthy, and build bone, the ODS says. It regulates blood pressure and blood sugar.

What you need

Daily, women need 310 to 320 mg; 350 to 360 mg if pregnant.

The problem

Americans tend to fall 100 mg short. That may tip the scales against bone strength. Processed food junkies miss out on magnesium.

The remedy

Switch to whole, fresh, nutrient-dense foods. Trade iceberg lettuce for spinach (a half cup provides 65 mg); chips for nuts (an ounce of almonds provides about 80 mg); and white bread for whole wheat bread (23 mg per slice).

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