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Individual nutritional needs vary according to age and overall health status. Some requirements are specific to women, and they can also change during the lifespan.
Women can benefit from a higher intake of some nutrients at specific stages of their life. This article looks at some of the vitamins and minerals a woman needs at different stages of life.
In the United States, the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) advise on nutrition. They set the recommended daily allowance (RDA) and adequate intake (AI) for a range of nutrients.
The FNB set the RDA for a specific vitamin when there is enough scientific evidence to suggest that a specific daily dietary intake is beneficial. This happens when the vitamin is proven to meet the nutritional requirement of 97–98% of healthy people in a particular group.
If the FNB do not have enough scientific evidence to establish an RDA, they usually recommend an AI instead.
The tables below, which use information from the FNB and the Office for Dietary Supplements (ODS), list the RDAs for some vitamins and minerals for women of various ages. AIs have an asterisk (*), and vitamin amounts are in milligrams (mg) or micrograms (mcg).
This table shows the requirements for women aged 9–50 years:
|9–13 years||14–18 years||19–30 years||31–50 years|
|Vitamin A (mcg)||600||700||700||700|
|Vitamin C (mg)||45||65||75||75|
|Vitamin E (mg)||11||15||15||15|
|Vitamin D (mcg)||15||15||15||15|
|Vitamin K (mcg)||60*||75*||90*||90*|
|Vitamin B6 (mg)||1||1.2||1.3||1.3|
|Vitamin B12 (mcg)||1.8||2.4||2.4||2.4|
The table below shows the requirements for women aged 51 years and older, those who are pregnant, and those who are breastfeeding:
|51–70 years||70 years or above||During pregnancy||While breastfeeding|
|Vitamin A (mcg)||700||700||750–770||1,200–1,300|
|Vitamin C (mg)||75||75||85||115–120|
|Vitamin E (mg)||15||15||15||19|
|Vitamin D (mcg)||15||20||15||15|
|Vitamin K (mcg)||90*||90*||75–90*||75–90*|
|Vitamin B6 (mg)||1.5||1.5||1.9||2|
|Vitamin B12 (mcg)||2.4||2.4||2.6||2.8|
The childbearing years last from puberty to menopause. Menstruation and hormonal factors can affect someone’s nutritional needs at this time.
Vitamin B6 and vitamin D
In 2017, a group of scientists published a study that focused on data for over 15,000 people. Their results showed that, overall, women aged 19–50 years and those who were breastfeeding or pregnant were more likely to have nutritional deficiencies than other groups. This included low levels of vitamin B6 (pantothenic acid) and vitamin D.
Women aged 19–50 years need a daily intake of 15 mg of vitamin D.
The requirements for vitamin B6 are 1.3 mg per day for those aged 19–50 years, 1.9 mg per day during pregnancy, and 2 mg per day while breastfeeding.
Iodine is crucial for the healthy development of the fetal brain during pregnancy.
According to a 2012 national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women aged 20–39 years had lower iodine levels than any other age group in the study.
Those in this age group are the most likely to become pregnant. The RDA for iodine for this group is 150 mcg, rising to 220 mg during pregnancy and 290 mg while breastfeeding.
However, people should not take iodine supplements unless a doctor recommends them. Unnecessary iron supplementation may negatively affect thyroid health. Anyone who has concerns about their iodine levels should ask their healthcare provider for advice.
Folate (vitamin B9)
Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is essential during the reproductive years. It reduces the risk of fetal complications, especially those involving the spine and brain, helps create red blood cells, and aids protein digestion.
People often use the terms folate and folic acid interchangeably, but there is a difference.
Folic acid is a general term for vitamin B9, which comes in different forms, according to the CDC. It occurs naturally in foods such as beans, green leafy vegetables, and citrus fruits.
Folic acid is a synthetic form of folate. It is present in supplements and some fortified foods. Taking folate supplements may help prevent problems in a fetus’s developing spine or brain.
Women aged 18 years and older who are not pregnant need 400 mcg per day. The ODS recommend taking 600 mcg per day during pregnancy and 500 mcg per day while breastfeeding.
Many women experience iron deficiency during their reproductive years. Iron is a mineral that is essential for reproductive organs and functions.
It is also important for:
- energy production
- wound healing
- immune function
- red blood cell formation
- growth and development
The RDA for iron for women aged 19–50 years is 18 mg. It is 27 mg during pregnancy and 9 mg while breastfeeding.
As menopause approaches, nutritional needs may change. Falling estrogen levels and the aging process can increase the risk of different types of deficiency.
Vitamin B6, B9 (folic acid), and B12
B vitamins are crucial to overall health. The need for various B vitamins may increase after menopause.
Vitamin B6, B9 (folic acid), and B12 help with:
- red blood cell production
- energy production
- protein metabolism
- cognitive development
- nervous system function
Research also indicates that B vitamins may lower the risk of many conditions that impact older women more frequently.
The requirement for vitamin B6 rises from 1.3 mg to 1.5 mg after the age of 50 years. It can help support the immune system.
There is also a higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, though the recommended intake does not change.
According to the FNB, 10–30% of older adults do not get enough vitamin B12 because their bodies cannot absorb it properly. The FNB recommend taking a B12 supplement and consuming more foods fortified with vitamin B12 to meet the RDA.
Vitamin D and calcium
During menopause, estrogen levels fall, and the risk of developing osteoporosis increases. Osteoporosis weakens the bones and increases the risk of fractures. Calcium and vitamin D are essential for good bone health.
So, women should ensure that they adopt a diet and lifestyle that enable them to maintain levels of these vitamins.
Vitamin D deficiency is a common issue at this age. Women should ask about undergoing a test to see if they need to take supplements.
Some people also take calcium supplements for bone health, but it is unclear whether or not this is a good idea.
One 2015 review concludes that increasing calcium intake by taking supplements or making certain dietary changes might increase bone mineral density slightly. However, other researchers have raised concerns that getting too much calcium may lead to adverse effects, such as those that affect the cardiovascular system.
A 2018 review calls for further research before making any solid recommendations about calcium supplements for specific age groups.
The RDA of calcium is 1,200 mg for women over the age of 50 years. Some good sources of calcium include dairy products and green, leafy vegetables.
Vitamin D is essential to bone health and helps maintain muscle mass. As people age, they naturally begin to lose bone and muscle mass. People over the age of 70 years need more vitamin D than younger people.
Exposure to sunlight provides most of a person’s vitamin D, but vitamin D is also available in supplement form, oily fish, pasture-raised and free-range eggs, and some fortified foods.
Women’s activity levels and overall health status can affect their dietary needs.
Women who are very active
Women who exercise a lot or have physically demanding jobs may need to consume more nutrients to stay healthy.
Research from 2014 suggests that female athletes and those with active military jobs have a higher risk of deficiencies in vitamin D and calcium. This can lead to weakened bones and a greater risk of injury.
Those who are very active may also have a greater risk of iron deficiency.
Very physically active women should speak with a doctor or dietitian about tailoring their diet and supplement intake to meet their specific needs.
Women with heavy periods
Excessive blood loss from heavy periods can lead to iron deficiency and anemia. Women who regularly experience heavy periods may benefit from eating more iron-rich foods or taking iron supplements.
Anyone who has concerns about their periods or heavy menstrual bleeding should speak with a doctor.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Diet and nutrition are important for pregnancy and breastfeeding. Most requirements tend to be higher at this time.
Researchers estimate that vitamin D deficiency affects 18–84% of women during pregnancy.
Choline is also essential for the health of both the mother and the fetus. Studies suggest that most women’s intake of choline during pregnancy is below the recommended 450 mg per day. Many prenatal vitamins do not contain choline.
Food sources of choline include beef liver, eggs, and soybeans.
Iodine is important for healthy brain development. The RDA is 220 mcg for pregnant women and 290 mcg for those who are breastfeeding.
Folate helps reduce the risk of congenital anomalies. The RDA for folate is 600 mcg during pregnancy and 500 mcg while breastfeeding.
Vegan or vegetarian diet
Women who follow a plant-based diet may need to plan their meals to ensure that they consume enough of each nutrient.
For example, vitamin B12 only tends to occur naturally in animal products. Therefore, vegans and vegetarians may need to take supplements or eat foods fortified with vitamin B12. Examples of these include some breakfast cereals and milk alternatives.
There may also be low levels of iron, protein, calcium, and zinc in a vegetarian or vegan diet. The best way to prevent deficiencies while following one of these is to eat a balanced and varied diet that includes foods such as:
- beans, peas, and legumes
- whole grains
- nuts and seeds
- soy products
- dark green, leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and mustard greens
- fortified breakfast cereals, drinks, and milk alternatives
- nutritional yeast products
During pregnancy, women should supplement with iron, vitamin B12, and vitamin D, as well as folate and other nutrients.
A doctor can advise whether or not certain supplements are beneficial.
Hispanic and Black American women
A 2012 national survey from the CDC found that American women who were Black or of Mexican descent were twice as likely to have low levels of iron than non-Hispanic white women.
Women from these groups may benefit from eating more iron-rich foods or taking supplements.
Some important nutrients for women and good sources of them include:
- Folate: Sources include spinach, rice, avocado, broccoli, oranges, asparagus, and fortified breakfast cereals.
- Iodine: Sources include seafood, seaweed, eggs, grain products, iodized salt, and unsweetened dairy products.
- Vitamin D: Sources include fatty fish, fortified or pasture-raised or free-range egg yolks, mushrooms, and liver.
- Iron: Sources include red meat, seafood, poultry, spinach, lentils, and soybeans.
- Calcium: Sources include dairy products, fortified milk alternatives and juices, sardines, salmon, tofu, and kale.
A woman’s stage of life, overall health status, and activity levels can affect their nutritional needs.
The best way to meet nutritional needs is to eat a balanced and healthful diet. Sometimes, however, it may be necessary to take supplements.
Anyone who is concerned that they may not be getting enough vitamins or minerals should speak with a doctor or dietitian.
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