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Six Nutrients Women Need Most

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Six key nutrients to keep you healthy

Although part of mainstream thinking today, the idea that women have different nutritional needs to men isn’t as ancient as you may think. The field of study regarding women’s nutrition has only been around for a few decades, fifty years ago, proper nutrition for everyone, simply meant three solid meals each day.

Every year, there’s more promising research revealing how nutrients can have a significant positive impact on disease prevention and general well-being in women, which is great because changing your diet is one of the simplest ways to improve your health.

Six key nutrients have been identified as being the ones that women need most. Making sure that you include them as part of a well-balanced diet will help to ensure that you become, and stay, at your healthiest.

  1. Folic Acid

What it is: “Folic acid” and “folate” are often used interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same. Folic acid is the synthetic form of this B vitamin found in multivitamins and fortified foods, while folate is the type found naturally in food.

What it does:  Folic acid isn’t just for pregnant mothers.  Perimenopausal and postmenopausal women can benefit from the vitamin too. It’s crucial for the creation of new cells and for the creation and maintenance of DNA; it may even have anti-cancer properties. Folic acid also lowers levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that has been linked to dementia, cognitive impairment, stroke and heart disease. Preliminary research also suggests that optimal intakes may help prevent depression.

How much do you need?: A minimum of 400 micrograms (mcg) per day

Where to find it: Folic acid is found in fortified bread, cereals and pasta and in multivitamins. Food sources of folate include dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale, nuts and legumes. Oral contraceptives, antacids and some medications used to treat type 2 diabetes may inhibit folic acid absorption, so women taking them may need to increase their intake. Talk to your doctor to find out more.

  1. Calcium

What it is: Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body. It forms the basic architecture for bones and teeth.

What it does: Calcium has been shown to promote bone growth and prevent osteoporosis or bone loss, which affects millions of women in the UK and USA.  But other benefits of the mineral are less widely recognized. Preliminary research suggests that calcium may play a role in preventing breast cancer, although researchers aren’t sure why. A 2005 study from the American Cancer Society reported that postmenopausal women who consumed more than 1,250 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day were 20 per cent less likely to develop breast cancer than women who consumed less than 500mg daily. Additionally, a 2005 study from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that women with a diet high in both calcium and vitamin D (a nutrient crucial for calcium absorption) were less likely to experience premenstrual syndrome.

How much do you need?: Before menopause, women need 1,000mg calcium per day. Postmenopause, the recommendation rises to 1,200mg to help offset the bone loss that occurs with age. Because the body can only digest so much calcium at one time, divide your dose, consuming no more than 500mg per sitting.

Where to find it: Calcium-rich foods such as low-fat dairy products, almonds and some greens, including kale and broccoli, are the best sources of calcium, but supplements also can help you meet your daily requirement. Calcium citrate is more easily absorbed than calcium carbonate, particularly if taken on an empty stomach.

  1. Vitamin D

What it is: Although it’s classified as a vitamin, vitamin D actually works more like a hormone in your body. When it’s converted into its most biologically active form―calciferol―by the liver and kidneys, it helps the intestines absorb more calcium from food. That’s why you often find calcium-rich foods fortified with vitamin D.

What it does: Because vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, it’s crucial for preventing osteoporosis. Although that’s a great reason for making sure you get enough, it’s not the only reason you need it. “New research shows that vitamin D may play a role in preventing several types of cancer,” Earlier this year, a review of 63 studies conducted by the University of California at San Diego suggested that increasing vitamin D intake may help reduce the incidence of breast, colon and ovarian cancers. One theory is that adequate vitamin D helps cells develop normally instead of becoming damaged and cancerous.

How much do you need?:  It is recommended that adult women aim for at least 400 IU a day. If you’re 51 or older, aim for 600 IU.

Where to find it: Vitamin D is naturally found in oily fish like anchovies and salmon and in fish and cod liver oil supplements. Many dairy products like milk, and even some cereals, are fortified with it. A glass of milk should contain 100 IU of vitamin D. It’s also found in multivitamins and supplements. Since the vitamin is fat-soluble (meaning that it cannot be digested without the aid of dietary fat), be sure to take it with food. Vitamin D is one of the few nutrients our bodies make naturally; it’s produced by the skin as a result of exposure to the sun’s UVB rays. That’s not a license to tan, but spending 10 to 15 minutes in the sun a few times a week, without sunblock, is a good idea, that amount of time will supply all the vitamin D you need.

  1. Iron

What it is: The mineral that helps the body’s blood supply deliver oxygen to cells.

What it does: Almost two-thirds of the body’s iron supply is found in haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to tissues. For that reason, iron is key to maintaining energy levels.  According to the BMA women report fatigue three times more often than men, and this can be directly linked to low levels of iron. Consistently low levels of iron can cause anaemia, a condition experienced by three to five percent of UK women.

How much do you need?: Postmenopausal women need 8mg of iron per day, whilst women of child-bearing age and nursing mothers require 18mg. When a woman is menstruating, there’s a blood loss, so iron levels are lower. During their reproductive years, women are at an increased risk of iron deficiency because they lose 20 to 40mg iron each month during menstruation.

Where to find it: There are two forms of iron: heme iron, found in animal proteins such as red meat, fish, and poultry; and non-heme iron, found in plant foods such as beans and spinach. The body uses 15 to 35 percent of the heme iron obtained from the diet. Only 2 to 20 percent of non-heme iron is absorbed from food. To help increase absorption, eat food sources of non-heme iron along with foods that contain high levels of vitamin C, such as tomatoes, peppers and citrus fruits.

  1. Fibre

What it is: There are two types of fibre-soluble and insoluble. Because both kinds are passed through the body rather than being absorbed into it, not all experts agree that fibre qualifies as a nutrient per se. But they do agree on its importance in the diet.

What it does: Unlike folic acid, the benefits of fibre aren’t unique to female physiology. Its functions apply equally to men and women. Soluble fibre traps ‘bad’ cholesterol before it’s absorbed by your intestines, which helps to reduce the risk of heart disease, the number-one killer of women and men.  Insoluble fibre sweeps through your system, cleaning out your digestive track. Fibre-rich foods also help with two common concerns for many women- energy and weight control.  Moreover, fibrous foods are filling, yet don’t contain a lot of calories, in fact they keep you from feeling hungry and because fibre helps your body digest food more slowly than it normally would, they sustain energy levels for long periods of time.

How much do you need?:  30 grams (g) of fibre per day divided into three segments: 10g at breakfast, 10g at lunch and 10g at dinner. If you eat little fibre now, start slowly, with around 15g per day, working your way up to 30g over the course of a month; stocking up suddenly can lead to digestive problems such as cramping and constipation.

Where to find it: Food sources of fibre contain both soluble and insoluble. Look for slow-cooked oatmeal, steel cut whole oats, whole-grain bread and pasta (remember to check the label closely―look for the word “whole”―enriched wheat or multigrain aren’t the same thing as whole-grain), fruits (including apples and berries), vegetables like peas, broccoli and beans, which can contain up to 10 grams of fibre in a serving, chai seeds, linseeds are high in fibre too.

  1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

What it is: Omega-3 fatty acids, a form of polyunsaturated fat, are one of the “good” fats. They’re part of a group of essential fatty acids, so-called because the body cannot convert other types of fat molecules into the omega-3 form; they can only be supplied by diet.

What it does: Like fibre, omega-3’s benefits are universal. Eating 120g of omega 3-rich fish two to three times a week can reduce stroke risk by up to 60 percent in women according to Director of Sports Medicine Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre. “Omega-3 fatty acids decrease triglycerides (aka blood fats), boost good cholesterol and decrease blood pressure-all of which can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.” What’s more, studies show that omega-3’s function as anti-inflammatory agents, reducing the cellular inflammation that can worsen conditions from arthritis to heart disease.

How much do you need? 1.1g per day

Where to find them: Fish are the best source. Wild salmon, halibut, non-white tuna, sardines, herring and anchovies are high in omega-3s and low in mercury.

 

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