For the first decade or so of a woman’s life, there isn’t much – nutritionally speaking – that separates her needs from those of the boy next door.
Once girls hit adolescence, however, the story begins to change. Not only do nutritional requirements shift from childhood levels, some also begin to differ between men and women of the same age. Some of those requirements continue to change throughout your life.
Find out what nutrients you need to stay healthy and energized, and what foods provide the best sources.
Childbearing Years: Iron and Folic Acid
If you’re feeling tired all the time, you may not be getting enough iron in your diet. Women need more iron during their childbearing years because they lose blood each month when they have their period. Iron needs also jump during pregnancy. As women move from the onset of menstruation into their childbearing years, one thing remains common – a need for iron.
“Women who have regular periods, and especially heavy periods, are more at risk of having low iron stores. If you start off a pregnancy with low iron stores, you are more at risk of dipping down into actual anemia and your baby may not receive all of the iron she needs for her own stores,” says Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).
Folic acid – or the naturally occurring form of this B vitamin, called folate – is another must-have nutrient for women of childbearing years. Low levels of folic acid in pregnant women put their babies at risk for neural tube defects, like spina bifida. And since half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, women should get the recommended amount even if they’re not trying to get pregnant.
“I like to tell wannabe moms to eat and act as if they are already pregnant – especially if they are actively trying to get pregnant,” Johnson says. “Wannabe moms need to make sure they are eating as healthy as possible to get their body ready to carry a baby.”
Even if you’re taking birth control pills, it makes sense to add foods with folate to your diet. Some of the older oral contraceptives as well as other medications such as large doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), can make it hard for your body to absorb folic acid, so you may need more. Medications such as antacids that decrease stomach acid can reduce the absorption of iron.
How much iron you need: 18 milligrams per day for women 19-50 years old. For pregnant women, it increases to 27 milligrams per day.
Foods high in iron: Meats, seafood, nuts, lima beans, spinach, broccoli and iron-fortified cereals
How much folic acid you need: 400 micrograms per day for women 14 and older. For pregnant women, 600 micrograms per day. For breastfeeding women, 500 micrograms per day.
Foods high in folate: Beans, lentils, peas, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and breads and cereals fortified with folic acid
Eating For Two: Calorie Requirements
Although pregnant women do need more carbohydrates and calories, Johnson has one major myth to bust. “It is an important message for women to hear that they are not actually ‘eating for two’ – the extra calorie needs don’t even start until the second trimester, and even then they are quite modest,” she says. “I find that most women are able to meet their caloric needs by listening to their own hunger cues.” You’ll need about 350 extra calories in the second trimester, 400 more in the third, more if you are carrying multiples.
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Essential nutrients every woman needs