Women’s Health: Nutritional Needs Over the Lifespan

Women’s Health: Nutritional Needs Over the Lifespan

Registered dietitian Dr Sammie Gill shares the different nutritional needs through the stages of a women’s life, covering recommendations from adulthood, through to pregnancy and menopause.

Calcium and Vitamin D
Why do we need it? Calcium and vitamin D are both important for bone health. Calcium gives bones their strength and hardness, while vitamin D helps the body absorb it.

How do we include more?
Women (including in pregnancy) require 700mg calcium per day throughout the lifespan. This is the equivalent to a regular glass of milk, a standard yogurt and a matchbox size of cheese. If you prefer plant-based milk alternatives, opt for the fortified (non-organic) versions.

Vegetarian sources include soy-based foods (e.g. tofu, tempeh, natto), pulses (e.g. kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils), nuts (particularly almonds), seeds (e.g. chia, flax), and dark leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach, bok choy, kale, broccoli).

For calcium-rich foods, check out the BDA Food Fact Sheet on Calcium.

Although some foods naturally contain vitamin D (e.g. oily fish, eggs), the main source of vitamin D is sunlight. For this reason, it is recommended that women (and men) take a vitamin D supplement (10µg per day), particularly through the winter months (October-March).

Some foods are fortified with vitamin D, such as breakfast cereals, plant-based milk alternatives and fat spreads.

Folic Acid (Folate)
Why do we need it? Folate is important for basic cell growth and function, including red blood cells.

How do we include more?
Women require 200µg of folate per day. This can be achieved through eating foods such as green leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach, broccoli, asparagus), wholegrains, beans, nuts and seeds, and fortified breakfast cereals.

In addition, a 400µg folic acid supplement is recommended when trying to get pregnant and throughout the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Adequate folic acid is important in the prevention of birth defects.

Why do we need it? Iodine is an essential part of thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones control the body’s metabolism, regulating the speed at which all your cells work.

How much do we need?
140µg of iodine per day is recommended in women throughout the lifespan. Before getting pregnant, it is important for a woman to have sufficient iodine in her diet. During pregnancy and breastfeeding, the amount of iodine required increases slightly to 200µg per day.

How do we include more?
The richest sources of iodine are fish (e.g. haddock, cod, salmon) and dairy products (e.g. cow’s milk, yogurt, cheese).

Vegan sources tend to be low in iodine and depends on how much is in the soil when the plant grows. The iodine content in seaweed is variable and sometimes may contain excessive amounts. A non-seaweed supplement may be recommended instead.

Why do we need it? Iron is needed to create haemoglobin – the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body.

Iron deficiency is common. In the UK, around 14% of non-pregnant and 23% of pregnant women are affected by iron deficiency. Typical symptoms include extreme tiredness, headaches, pale skin, heart palpitations and shortness of breath.

How much do we need?
Iron requirements are higher in women due to menstruation every month. Women (including in pregnancy) should be aiming for 14.8mg per day. This reduces to 8.7mg per day from around 50 years old (menopause usually happens between the ages of 45-55).

How do we include more?
The highest sources of iron are animal-based (known as ‘haem iron’). These include red meats, such as beef, lamb and pork. Plant-based sources (known as ‘non-haem iron’) include beans and pulses, dark leafy vegetables, and nuts and seeds.

Some foods are fortified with iron, including breakfast cereals.

Vitamin C can increase the absorption of iron from plant sources. Drinking a glass of orange juice or having some citrus fruit with your plant-based meal may help promote absorption of non-haem iron.
For more information, please read the BDA Food Fact Sheet on Iron.

Omega 3’s
Why do we need it? Omega 3’s are poly-unsaturated fatty acids. The most important ones are EPA, DHA, and ALA.

How do we include more?
One of the richest sources of EPA and DHA is oily fish (e.g. sardines, mackerel, kippers, salmon) and algae. Other sources include meat and dairy from grass-fed animals and omega-3 enriched eggs.

There is no recommended amount for omega 3. UK guidelines advise two portions of oily fish per week, one of which should be oily.

ALA is found in plant-based foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds, and flaxseed and rapeseed oil. Your body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, though it’s an inefficient process.

For more information, please read the BDA Food Fact Sheet on Omega 3.

Fats, Salt, Sugar and Alcohol
Foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt should be eaten less frequently to promote health and reduce risk of chronic health conditions.

Menopause is linked with an increased the risk of chronic health conditions such as heart disease, stroke and osteoporosis, highlighting the importance of maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.

Women (and men) are advised not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week, spread over 3 or more days with several alcohol-free days in between.

A pint of beer (4%) or cider (4.5%) is around 4 units. A 175ml glass of wine (13%) is around 2.5 units, while a single 25ml spirit shot (40%) is 1 unit.

How much do we need? Protein recommendations (approx. 45g per day) for women are consistent across all ages from 19-75 years+. While there is emerging research suggesting older women may require higher amounts of protein, current recommendations appear to be sufficient.

How do we include more?
Animal-based sources include meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Plant-based sources in tofu, soya mince, nuts, seeds and pulses.

Plant-Based Diet Diversity
Why do we need it? Plant-based diet diversity is recommended to support gut microbiome diversity.

How do we include more?
For example, incorporating wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices into your daily diet.

The American Gut Project showed that those eating 30 or more different types of plants per week had higher diversity than those who ate 10 or less per week.

Plant oestrogens (also called phytoestrogens) can have oestrogen-like effects in the body. During menopause, eating phytoestrogens frequently and in sufficient amounts may help with urogenital symptoms, as well as mental health.

Dietary sources include soy-based products, sesame and flax seeds, dried fruits (e.g. dates, prunes, apricots), dark chocolate and cruciferous vegetables (e.g. Bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower).

For more information, please read the BDA Food Fact Sheet on Menopause.

Find out more about women’s health and the gut microbiome: changes over a lifetime.