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Women's Nutrition by Age and Stage

Last updated: May 13, 2019


Women and Nutrition
Proper diet and a healthy life go hand in hand. Therefore, everyone—young or old, male or female—should eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. Women, however, have very specific nutritional needs that shift throughout the various stages of their life. Summit Medical Group Certified Diabetes Experts and nutrition services specialists, Mary Friesz and Lindsay Maurer, break down the different ages and stages of nutritional needs for women, from the young teen years to the onset of menopause and beyond.


Adolescent Girls
The adolescent years can be tough, especially when body image comes in to play. Having concerns over appearance is natural and very common at this age; however, if not well managed, it can lead to intentional restriction of food intake and/or nutrient deficiencies. During this time, it’s critical for parents and caregivers to be supportive and provide positive body image messages. So, what should you do? Encourage your teen to take charge of their health and be aware of what they put into their bodies. Get them to develop the habit of choosing wholesome foods from all food groups—foods closer to their natural state (less processed), such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables—and ensuring appropriate intake of calcium (vitamin D) and iron, which can be obtained from low fat dairy products, such as skim milk and yogurt, and lean beef.

Some of the biggest pitfalls in an adolescent’s diet are too many sweets and caffeine, too much added fats (from foods such as chips and French fries), too few fruits and vegetables, and not enough fiber. Small, simple changes in eating and physical activity can help maintain a healthy weight during this period of transition.


Young Adult Years
It is typical for females in this age group to struggle with fitting a healthy diet into a working lifestyle. Some will “grab and go”, which often leads to diets very high in saturated fat, protein, and cholesterol, with limited fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fiber. This is especially true for those who were active in high school and college but may no longer be training. Thus, the dilemma becomes adopting a nutritious diet with less calories.

Relying on prepared foods, whether from a fast food establishment, restaurant or deli, without a focus on food quality and choices, can easily lead to weight gain as those foods typically contain more fat, salt, and oversized portions of inexpensive, starchy carbs (pasta, rice, potato, bread). If you must rely on prepared foods, be choosy. Ask for foods prepared without added fats and sauces. Be sure to include vegetables and whole grains, and use the plate method


While Pregnant
Proper nutrition during pregnancy is very important for both baby and mom. Mom’s health is at risk when her diet is poor because the fetus uses the mother’s nutrient supply for its growth. On average, there is only a 300 calorie increase in nutritional needs per day over one’s pre-pregnant requirement, so despite popular belief, women are not really eating for two.   

During pregnancy, as with all stages in life, it’s best to choose foods that are more nutrient dense (more nutrients per calorie). Here’s what’s good to know:

What happens?

What helps?

Protein, calcium, and iron needs tend to increase.

Include 3-4 ounces of animal or plant-based protein (meat, chicken, cottage cheese or eggs) 2-3 times per day.

Sometimes calcium intake becomes inadequate, and the fetus uses mom’s bone to obtain the calcium it needs.

 

Include 3-4 servings of low-fat dairy products (or calcium fortified orange juice or almond milk for those who are vegan)

The heart works harder, and the body increases its blood volume.

Include 4 ounces of lean beef 2-3 days per week for iron. Minerals are best absorbed from animal, but it is possible to obtain one’s iron requirements from legumes, grains, and dark greens. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron. Also increase water intake.

The neural tube forms with help of folic acid.

Incorporating folic acid, which is found in eggs, legumes, beans, green vegetables, and whole grains, is also important for fetal development.


Tip: A prenatal vitamin usually contains adequate iron and the recommended daily amount of folic acid; however, it usually does NOT contain adequate calcium.


Food safety is extremely important during pregnancy. Many pregnant women fail to acknowledge the full array of foods they should avoid. Here’s what to avoid while pregnant:

  • DO NOT eat any food that is at a high risk for being contaminated with foodborne organisms. As such, pregnant women should not eat raw or undercooked animal proteins (meat, chicken, or fish).  It’s best to cook to an internal temperature of 165 BUT avoid raw sushi.
  • DO NOT eat raw or undercooked eggs or any items that contain them such as eggnog, salad dressings, raw cookie dough
  • DO NOT eat hot dogs, cold cuts/lunch meats, smoked seafood, meat spreads or pates unless reheated back up to 165 degrees
  • DO NOT eat fish containing high levels of mercury, such as swordfish, shark and tilefish
  • DO NOT eat soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, such as feta, brie, blue cheese and other “moldy” cheeses such as camembert, queso fresco, queso blanco, and panela)
  • DO NOT eat raw sprouts such as bean and alfalfa sprouts
  • DO NOT eat certain ready-made salads from the grocer or deli, such as chicken salad, egg salad, tuna salad, and ham salad
  • DO NOT eat unpasteurized dairy products or unpasteurized fruit and vegetable juices


During Menopause
Menopause itself doesn’t typically cause weight gain. However, metabolism tends to slow down with age and over time muscle decreases. During menopause, this loss in muscle is often accelerated due to a decrease in activity.

The basic principles of nutrition apply to this age group, too. All food groups are important, but portion control tends to become critical. Convincing people to consume four or five mini-meals (opposed to two or three large meals) tends to work better when trying to maintain weight and overall nutrition. In menopause and beyond, it’s important to obtain adequate B vitamins (in protein foods and dairy), omega 3 fatty acids found in fish (flaxseed and flaxseed oil), and iron and zinc (lean beef, dark greens). Iron from food is best absorbed when consumed with a vitamin C source such as tomato or some type of citrus. Some doctors recommend CoQ10.


Over the Age of 65
After age 65, appetite tends to decrease, but it is still important to ensure adequate protein intake. Multiple small "snack meals" throughout the day will provide just what you need and help keep your appetite up.

Quick Tip: Smoothies sometimes do the trick to help avoid skipping meals.

Not getting proper nutrition can decrease a person's mood, but vitamin D, B vitamins, omega 3s, iron, and zinc can all help give it a boost. You can obtain these by eating fresh fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, fatty fish (salmon), whole grains (quinoa), and dairy products (milk and yogurt). This age group should be getting at least 1,000 mg of calcium daily and 400-800 IU (IU is International Unit) of Vitamin D. This will help support bone health. If it’s not possible to obtain those amounts through food, it’s okay to consider a supplement.

Weight-bearing exercises such as walking, dancing, or light weight training (with either resistance bands or light weight dumbbells) at least twice weekly can help combat bone loss.
 

In a Nutshell
Aging is inevitable, so keeping up with nutritional needs that affect the aging process is critical. To support growth and development, pregnancy, and the maintenance of tissues, bones, body function, and mental sharpness throughout life, be sure to choose nutrient-rich foods that add value to your body.

Obtaining adequate vitamins and minerals from food is preferable to supplements.

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