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Women's Health: 5 key nutrients

Following a healthily balanced diet comprising a variety of different nutrients is fundamental for everyone’s health and wellbeing. This is also true for women’s health: there is not a single miraculous nutrient, all nutrients play a role in women’s health. Moreover, your dietary needs may change depending on your life stage (e.g. pregnancy, menopause) or goal (e.g. optimising your diet for your period, PMS, fertility). However, if you are looking for a starting point to improve your eating habits, here are 5 key nutrients to include in your diet.



Calcium

Calcium keeps our bones (including teeth!) strong and supports the healthy functioning of our muscles and nerves. At the age of 30-35 women reach their “peak bone mass”, that is the highest concentration of calcium in bones. After that, women start to lose calcium and the speed of loss increases with menopause. But there is good news: making sure that you reach the daily recommended intake of calcium (700mg/d) (1) can support your health during this change.


Sources of calcium:

- dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)

- fortified non-dairy milk

- fish with bones (e.g. sardines)

- calcium-set tofu

- fortified lour

- sesame seeds and tahini (sesame paste)





Vitamin D

Vitamin D supports the absorption of calcium, hence it is important for the health of bones, teeth and muscles. Vitamin D also supports the normal function of the immune system.

The main source of vitamin D is the sun. Vitamin D is present in some foods, such as enriched eggs, fortified mushrooms, salmon and fortified non-dairy milks. However, food sources are not enough to meet the daily nutrient need (10 mcg). In northern countries (e.g. the UK), people who regularly spend time outside can get their daily dose of vitamin D from the sun. However, from end of September to end of March it is recommended taking a supplement of 10mcg (2). That is because people are less exposed to the sun, due to the weather changing and clothing covering more of our skin.



Iron

Iron is essential to produce red blood cells (responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body). Women with diets low in iron and heavy periods are at higher risk of iron-deficiency anaemia. Symptoms may be tiredness, fatigue, difficulty to focus and hair loss. The daily nutritional need for iron is 14.8 mg/d and for post-menopausal women (50+) is 8.7 mg/d (3).

Iron can be found in:

- red meat

- poultry

- eggs

- legumes (e.g. lentils, chickpeas, beans)

- dark leafy greens

- lower content in some kinds of dried fruit (e.g. apricots, raisins)


To an extent, our body can increase and decrease the absorption of iron. Vitamin C helps iron to be better absorbed by the body. So a simple squeeze of lemon juice on your meat, including bell peppers in your salad or adding a small glass of orange juice at breakfast can help you to absorb more iron.



Magnesium

Magnesium is involved in 300+ biochemical reactions in the human body. For example, it is needed for energy metabolism, to keep normal nerve and muscle function (including your heartbeat!) and to control the blood glucose levels. Moreover, some studies have shown that adequate levels of magnesium may help alleviate PMS and dysmenorrhea (medical term to describe painful periods) (4,5).

Magnesium can be found in nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens and wholemeal bread.



Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids have an immune protective action and are linked with lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Moreover, omega-3 fatty acids may help to reduce premenstrual symptoms (PMS) (6).


Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in oily fish (e.g. salmon, sardines), chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts. You can find more information about omega-3 fatty acids in my previous blog.





So what?

Women need a variety of nutrients to support their health and their dietary needs change during the course of their life. If you are looking to make some dietary changes, start here, by asking yourself two questions:

1) Are you including these five key nutrients (calcium, vitamin D, iron, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids) in your diet?

2) What are 2 foods that can you add (or include more) in your diet?


Remember that small and consistent changes can make a big difference!




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