Written by Tai Ibitoye
Image by @eyeconicash
A healthy, balanced diet is super important for both men and women to ensure the right balance of different foods and nutrients for good health and wellbeing are achieved. However, women have different nutritional needs from men. Below are some key nutrients that all women should be mindful of:
Iron is important in making red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. Premenopausal women need 14.8mg of iron a day which is higher than the iron requirements for men over 18 (8.7mg). Women past the menopause need 8.7mg. Premenopausal women need more iron to make up for the amount of iron they lose in their menstrual period. Studies have shown that 10% of women lose more than 1.4 mg of iron per day through menstrual bleeding.
Good food sources of iron include:
- Liver (but avoid if pregnant)
- Lean red meat, chicken and fish
- Pulses & legumes (such as beans, peas + lentils)
- Iron-fortified breakfast cereals
- Nuts and seeds
- Dark green veggies (e.g. spinach, kale & broccoli)
You can increase the iron available to your body from plant-derived foods by eating plenty of fruits and veggies rich in vitamin C.
Calcium is important for healthy bones & teeth. Most adult women need 700mg a day, however calcium requirement increases for women who are breastfeeding (1250mg) and women who are past the menopause (1200mg). During late adulthood our bodies slowly begin to lose bone mass – this is especially the case for women during & after the menopause. Women who are breastfeeding need more calcium per day to protect themselves from bone loss during lactation.
Good food sources of calcium:
- Dairy milk or calcium-fortified plant based alternatives (e.g. soya, oat, nut, coconut, pea, rice drinks)
- Cheese & fromage frais
- Soya bean curd/tofu (set with calcium)
- Rice pudding, custard & yoghurt
- Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals & bread
- Okra, kale, broccoli & spring greens
3) Vitamin D
Vitamin D increases calcium absorption and is required for normal bone development. Adults need 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day. This includes pregnant & breastfeeding women, and people at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Women who have very low levels of sunlight exposure and/or have dark skin (e.g Black African, Caribbean & South Asian women) are at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Women at risk should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 μg (400IU) of vitamin D throughout the year.
Vitamin D is found in a small number of foods such as:
- Oily fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, sardines & herring)
- Lean red meat
- Egg yolks
- Fortified foods (e.g. some fat spreads & breakfast cereals)
- Mushrooms exposed to sunlight
4) Folate / folic acid
Folic acid is a B vitamin which is super important for the making of red blood cells and lowers the risk of neural tube defects (e.g. spina bifida in babies). The form of folic acid occurring naturally in food is called folate. Adults need 200 μg of folate a day. If you’re pregnant, trying for a baby, or could get pregnant, it’s recommended that you take a 400 μg folic acid supplement daily until you’re 12 weeks pregnant.
Good food sources of folate / folic acid:
- Okra, spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, cabbage & broccoli
- Beans & legumes (e.g. peas, red kidney beans and black eyed beans)
- Orange & orange juice
- Wheat bran & other wholegrain foods
- Fortified breakfast cereals – read the nutritional label to see if fortified with folic acid
- Poultry & shellfish
- Yeast extracts
5) Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 helps release energy from food and helps the body to use folate. Most women can get vitamin B12 from diet if it includes animal-based dietary sources like meat, fish & dairy. Women on a plant-based diet may need a vitamin B12 supplement of at least 10 micrograms (μg) daily or at least 2000μg weekly.
Plant-based sources of vitamin B12 include:
- Yeast extracts (e.g. marmite/vegemite)
- Nutritional yeast flakes
- Soya yoghurts
- Plant-based dairy drink alternatives
- Vitamin B12 fortified breakfast cereals
Iodine is a mineral that is an important part of the thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones are regulators of metabolic rate, physical & mental development. Iodine requirement is increased slightly during pregnancy & breastfeeding (from 150 to 200 μg) to create and transfer enough thyroid hormones to support the development of the baby’s brain.
Good food sources of iodine include:
- Milk and dairy products
- Iodine-fortified plant based drinks
- Fish & shellfish (eat no more than 2 portions of oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines a week if pregnant)
- Seaweed (e.g. nori, wakame & kelp) – BUT do not consume more than once a week as they are highly concentrated sources of iodine
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the nutrients you need, but you can get a start on looking after or maintaining your health by paying attention to these very important ones. All nutrients are superheroes so the key is to have a variety of foods like fruit & veggies, whole grains, good protein sources, dairy or alternatives and small amounts of unsaturated oils and spreads in your diet.