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  • Writer's pictureTracy Davies

Key Nutrients Important to Women's Health

Women are complex biological creatures, and understanding how to manage health issues unique to them can be complicated. Key factors such as diet, lifestyle and stage of life play a critical role in understanding which nutrients can best support their optimal health.

1. Calcium

Calcium is a mineral that is responsible for building strong bones. It is necessary for many bodily functions, including blood clotting, nerve and muscle function. Calcium is especially critical for women throughout all life stages, particularly during childhood and adolescence, when the body is supporting peak bone mass development and storing calcium for later in life. Ensuring calcium intake is adequate during these years is the best defence against bone density loss later in life. Women are more susceptible to developing osteoporosis, particularly during menopause, due to a decline in the female sex hormone oestrogen. Risk factors for calcium deficiency include not getting enough calcium in your diet, being female,having a family history of osteoporosis, being underweight, having irregular periods, not doing weight bearing exercise, and smoking. Calcium rich foods are the best way to obtain the calcium you require.

Foods high in calcium include:

  • milk, cheese and other dairy foods

  • green leafy vegetables – such as curly kale, okra and spinach

  • soya drinks with added calcium

  • bread and anything made with fortified flour

  • fish where you eat the bones – such as sardines and pilchards

2. Iron

Iron is an important mineral needed to make haemoglobin, part of red blood cells that transport oxygen and carbon dioxide to the lungs, organs and tissues in the body, as well as providing energy for daily life. Iron deficiency is a major concern for women, particularly teenage girls, pregnant women, and vegan & vegetarians, with menstruation, pregnancy, and diets low in iron depleting iron stores. Iron deficiency occurs when the body doesn’t have enough iron, leading to low levels of red blood cells. Symptoms of iron deficiency can include fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness, heart palpitations, headaches, and dizziness. There are two types of iron in food: haem and non-haem. Haem iron is only found in animal sources and is easily absorbed. Non-haem iron is also found in plant foods, but is not absorbed as well by the body.

The body absorbs two to three times more iron from animal sources than from plants. Some of the best animal sources of iron are:

  • Red meat

  • Fish

  • Chicken

  • Turkey

Although you absorb less iron from plant sources, they are incredibly important to our health! Adding a source of vitamin C to plant sources of iron can increase absorption. Some of the best plant sources of iron are:

  • Legumes

  • Nuts

  • Tofu

  • Baked potatoes

  • Cashews

  • Dark green leafy vegetables

  • Fortified breakfast cereals

  • Whole-grains and enriched breads

3. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is an important vitamin that supports several systems throughout the body. While it is called a vitamin, it actually works like a hormone that’s boosted by exposure from sunlight and is made from cholesterol. It plays a critical role in women’s health, particularly to bone health, calcium absorption, and immunity. When the body is vitamin D deficient, it takes calcium and phosphorus from the bones, which over time makes them thin and brittle, leading to osteoporosis. It is particularly important to pregnant women, as low Vitamin D levels have been found to increase the risk of low birth weight in babies. While the easiest way to get vitamin D is from sun exposure to the upper body for approximately 10-20 minutes per day, this may not be possible for most people to achieve.

Few foods contain vitamin D naturally, which has led to vitamin D being added to some foods (fortification). Good food sources of vitamin D include:

  • Salmon

  • Sardines

  • Tuna

  • Mackerel

  • Liver

  • Egg yolks

  • Mushrooms

  • Shrimp

  • Fortified Milk and Margarines

Including these vitamin D rich foods in your diet, combined with getting outdoors to enjoy the sun, are the best ways us to prevent vitamin D deficiency.

4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods, such as fatty fish, flaxseed, as well as dietary supplements, such as fish oil. The three main omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found mainly in plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils, while EPA and DHA are found in fish and other seafood. As an essential fatty acid, omega-3 must be sourced through the diet, with oily fish found to have high concentrations of these fatty acids. There is now strong evidence for the health benefits associated with omega-3 consumption, suggesting that marine-derived EPA and DHA are responsible for substantial health benefits, including contributing to brain and vision development in infants, improving cognitive development, supporting mental health conditions, lowering the risk of coronary heart disease, easing of menstruation pain and alleviating rheumatoid arthritis. Omega 3 is known for it's anti-inflammatory properties, which helps to reduce menstrual pain and is recommended for pregnant women as it supports babies cognitive development, increases gestation periods, and lowers the risk of low birth weight among babies.

Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Fish and other seafood (especially cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines)

  • Nuts and seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts)

  • Plant oils (such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil)

  • Fortified foods (such as certain brands of eggs, yoghurt, juices, milk, soy beverages, and infant formulas)

5. B Vitamins

Complex B Vitamins play a critical role in maintaining health and include B-1 (thiamine), B-2 (riboflavin), B-3 (niacin), B-5 (pantothenic acid), B-6 (pyridoxine), B-7 (biotin), B-9 (folic acid), and B-12 (cobalamin). They are the building blocks of a healthy body, directly impacting brain function, energy levels, and cell metabolism. They are critical during pregnancy, required for boosting energy levels, reducing nausea, supporting foetal development, reducing the risk of birth defects, and lowering the risk of pre-eclampsia. They are a water-soluble vitamin and cannot be stored in the body, so you must get them from your diet each day. Eating a varied whole food diet is the best way to ensure you get all B-group vitamins.

Foods sources high in B-vitamins include:

  • Whole grains (brown rice, barley, millet)

  • Meat (red meat, poultry, fish)

  • Eggs and dairy products (milk, cheese)

  • Legumes (beans, lentils)

  • Nuts and seeds (sunflower seeds, almonds)

  • Vegetables (dark, leafy vegetables - broccoli, spinach)

  • Fruits (citrus fruits, avocados, bananas)

6. Zinc

Zinc is a mineral essential to good health, required in over 300 enzyme functions in the body, and involved in metabolising nutrients, tissue growth and repair, maintaining a healthy immune system, protein synthesis. The health benefits from zinc include maintaining a healthy immune system, stabilizing blood sugar levels, wound healing, decreasing inflammation and digestive support. Our body cannot store zinc, so we need to ensure we get enough through our diet on a daily basis.The amount of zinc required is small (milligrams), however some people can still be at risk of zinc deficiency, increasing their susceptibility to a variety of pathogens, including young children, teenagers, the elderly and pregnant or breast feeding women. The best sources of zinc come from animal meats, fish and other seafood, beans, nuts, dairy products and whole grain cereals. Vegetarians may require an additional 50% more zinc than the RDI, due to the low bioavailability of zinc from plant-based foods.

Foods high in zinc include:

  • Meat

  • Shellfish

  • Legumes

  • Nuts & Seeds

  • Dairy

  • Eggs

  • Whole grains

  • Dark chocolate

  • Potatoes & Sweet potatoes

  • Green beans

  • Kale

7. Magnesium

Magnesium is one of the most important minerals required for human health. It is involved in over 350 biochemical functions in the body, including production of female hormones, neurotransmitter function, nerve and muscle function, cognitive development, and energy production to name a few. It is required to support bone health, calcium absorption, blood sugar & blood pressure regulation, heart health, migraines, anxiety, PMS symptoms, and sleep. Magnesium levels can be affected by various factors including excess alcohol, salt, soft drink, coffee, acute and prolonged stress, heavy menstrual periods, diuretics and other drugs.

Good sources of magnesium include:

  • Almonds

  • Spinach

  • Cashews

  • Peanuts

  • Green leafy vegetables

  • Soymilk

  • Oatmeal

  • Whole wheat bread

  • Avocado

  • Brown rice

  • Salmon

  • Mackerel

  • Tuna

  • Cacao

  • Legumes

  • Milk

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