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nutrition tips for women's life stages: women jogging

Nutrition Tips For Every Stage Of A Woman’s Life

You probably anticipate that your fashion choices, taste in art, and Friday night plan preferences will change throughout your life. However, what many women don’t realize is that their nutritional needs also change with each life stage.

“Women have different nutrient and food needs in their 20s than they do in their 30s,” says hormone health expert and registered dietitian Abby Grimm, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., of FWDfuel Sports Nutrition. Similarly, those needs change when you are menstruating versus postmenopausal, pregnant, or breastfeeding. 

Ahead, women’s health experts explain why women’s nutritional needs vary throughout their lives, why eating the same as male pals and partners ultimately does your body a disservice, and how to fuel your best self at every stage. 

Women’s Vs. Men’s Nutritional Needs

If there’s one realm in which women’s and men’s needs differ greatly, it’s the kitchen. “Women have different nutritional needs than men,” says Michael Ingber, M.D., a board-certified pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery provider with The Center for Specialized Women’s Health in New Jersey. Why? Because everything from bone structure and density to heart function and insulin response, to immune system response and hormone production, varies between the sexes, he says. 

All of these systems function at their most optimal when your nutritional needs—think calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients—are dialed in, Ingber says. Generally speaking, women need fewer calories and protein than men, but more iron, calcium, and folate

“Women also generally require a higher percentage of their total daily calories to come from dietary fat, as fat is crucial in building healthy levels of hormones for optimal fertility,” explains Grimm. Indeed, the bulk of the estrogen produced by women is produced by the ovaries and adipose tissue (a.k.a. fat). So, for healthy hormonal production, it is recommended that women consume no less than 20 percent of their calories comes from fat—and ideally closer to 30 percent,” she says. Men still need fat, but then can typically get by on a lower percentage since their key sex hormone, testosterone, is primarily produced in the gonads. 

Women Have Different Nutritional Needs Throughout Life

Women’s needs don’t just differ from men’s, though; they also differ from those of women in other stages of life. “When women go through hormonal transitions, such as during pregnancy and menopause, the body responds to nutritional intake very differently,” Grimm says. As such, certain macro- and micro-nutrient intakes need to be adjusted to align with your changing body. 

Here are six nutritional tips women should heed based on the particular life season they’re in. 

1. When You’re Trying To Get Pregnant, Folate Is Your Friend 

Trying to put a bun in the oven sometime soon? If so, it’s time to ramp up your folate intake, as this B vitamin is essential for fetal development. The CDC recommends that all women trying to become pregnant consume 400 milligrams of folic acid per day. (Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate—and the form found in many supplements, prenatals or otherwise).  Technically, they recommend all women of reproductive age get this amount, given that half of pregnancies are not planned.

Read More: 10 Ways Women Can Support Their Fertility Naturally

“The increased need for folate comes because of how it helps prevent neural tube defects,” says Grimm. The neural tube helps form the brain and spine during the early stages of pregnancy, so defects put an individual at risk for spina bifida and anencephaly. 

Specifically, folate consumption supports nucleotide synthesis, a process required for DNA replication and ultimately a healthy neural tube in the fetus, according to research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Supplementing with folate helps decrease the risk of these types of defects by up to 70 percent. 

“Foods like spinach, leafy greens, broccoli, beans, and nuts are all rich in folate,” Grimm says. The reason governing bodies and health experts recommend supplementing, though, is that many people do not consume adequate folate through diet alone. Since folic acid, the synthetic version of folate, isn’t always broken down effectively, Grimm recommends opting for a supplement that contains methylated folate instead.

2. When Pregnant, Increase Calcium and Vitamin D Intake 

It isn’t just children who benefit from a nice cold glass of milk; mothers carrying children do, too. 

When a woman is pregnant, she needs to consume extra calcium to develop the musculoskeletal, nervous, and circulatory system of the fetus, says Grimm. Plus, data shows that women who do not consume a sufficient amount of calcium when pregnant face a heightened risk of developing osteomalacia and osteoporosis, conditions marked by the softening of the bones, later in life. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that pregnant women consume 1,500 to 2,000 milligrams of calcium per day. Foods chock full of the mineral include milk and other dairy products, nuts and seeds, and beans and lentils, notes Grimm. Unfortunately, one study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that nearly half of all pregnant people don’t consume enough of the nutrient, as many prenatal vitamins do not contain enough to correct low daily intake via food.

That’s where additional calcium supplementation comes into play. The WHO suggests that pregnant women who don’t eat enough calcium take 1,500 to 2,000 milligrams of elemental calcium per day in supplement form.

Then, turn your sights toward vitamin D. “Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and works closely with calcium to ensure optimal bone and teeth development in the baby,” says Grimm. In fact, research published in the journal Molecular Cellular Endocrinology found that vitamin D ‘carries’ calcium through transcellular pathways in the body, helping it get where it needs to go. So, to reap the benefits of the calcium you consume through food or supplements, you also need to get enough vitamin D. 

The National Institute of Health suggests that adults should aim to get at least 600 IU per day. You’ll find some vitamin D in egg yolks, saltwater fish, liver, and fortified cereals, Grimm notes. But unfortunately, data suggests that up to 83 percent of pregnant women are vitamin D deficient. As such, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests that pregnant women with confirmed deficiency—as well as those at risk for deficiency (think vegetarians, women with limited sun exposure, and ethnic minorities)—boost their vitamin D intake by supplementing with up to 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day.

When in doubt, talk to your healthcare provider about how to ensure you get enough of these crucial nutrients into your body throughout pregnancy—and how supplements might factor into that plan.

3. While Lactating, Boost Calorie Consumption

A jaunt on the elliptical has nothing on the calorie burn of breastfeeding. The act of producing the milk and breastfeeding itself burns an estimated 500 calories per day, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Exclusive breastfeeding may burn even more

As such, “the CDC recommends that women increase their daily calorie intake by at least 400 calories per day while lactating,” says Ingber. Ideally, you’ll do it through nutrient-dense foods rich in protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. Without this additional calorie intake, the body is forced to tap into nutritional reserves stored in the bones, blood, and muscles to produce milk, he explains. Over time, this can result in the mother becoming malnourished, and lead to her breast milk being less nutrient-dense. 

Since the exact number of additional calories you need when breastfeeding is impacted by your age, body mass index, activity level, and extent of breastfeeding (think exclusively breastfeeding versus breastfeeding plus formula feeding), Ingber recommends working with a nutritionist who specializes in fertility to figure out exactly how much you should be eating while breastfeeding. In the meantime, you can use the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) Calculator, which takes your sex, age, height, weight, activity level, and pregnancy and lactation status into account to calculate calorie needs. 

4. As You Enter Perimenopause, Prioritize Protein 

The time of perimenopause is often associated with a decrease in lean body mass (muscle), as well as an increase in body fat, says Ingber. 

The menopause transition is marked by an individual’s ovaries slowing (and eventually ceasing) production of estrogen and maturation of eggs. Since estrogen plays a role in how the body metabolizes sugar and fat, when levels decline, the body becomes less adept at metabolizing these nutrients, which leads to weight gain, Ingber explains. 

A woman’s testosterone levels also take a dip during this period of life. Given that testosterone supports muscle growth and retention, it is also possible for individuals to lose muscle mass and gain weight as a result, he adds. Further, “women entering menopause are also at an increased risk for insulin resistance, which can lead to decreased skeletal muscle protein activity,” he notes. (This basically means that muscles’ ability to repair post-workout declines.)

Read More: Why Strength Training Is Absolutely Crucial As Women Age

The good news is that adequate protein intake at this time may help counteract the bodily changes associated both with menopause and generalized aging, says Ingber. One study published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, for example, linked increased protein during the menopausal transition with reduced weight gain. Meanwhile, a “World Health Initiative (WHI) study demonstrated that women who increased protein intake during menopause had a 32 percent decreased risk of bone breakage and frailty,” he adds. 

Your exact protein needs will depend on activity level, current weight and muscle mass, other health factors, and more. But data suggests that 1.1 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day is a good baseline for reducing muscle loss and fat gain at this time. Some low-calorie but protein-dense foods that can help you meet this high mark: chicken, pork, Greek yogurt, white fish, and egg whites, Grimm suggests. If you struggle to get there through food alone, consider adding a protein powder to your daily smoothie (or a simple shake with water or your go-to milk!). Whether you opt for whey or something plant-based, many options offer at least 20 grams of protein per serving.

5. Nearing and After Menopause, Focus On Omega-3 Fatty Acids 

It is common for menopausal women to experience a range of symptoms, but two of the most common are hot flashes and night sweats—which is where omega-3s come into play. (You know omega-3s; they’re the healthy fats oily fish like salmon and sardines are famous for.)

“Research suggests that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation—when combined with vitamin E—may decrease the intensity of hot flashes associated with menopause,” says Ingber. Research also suggests that omega-3s may help individuals experience night sweats less regularly. How? The nutrient, he explains, is thought to improve vascular function. Given that vasodilation (the expansion of blood vessels) is key to body temperature regulation, supplementation may help the body stay cool, thus reducing the incidence of hot flashes and night sweats.  

As an added bonus, “omega-3 fatty acid intake has also been linked with healthy cholesterol composition in postmenopausal women,” says Ingber. One 2023 meta-analysis published in Clinical Therapeutics found that intake of omega-3 fatty acids appeared to improve cholesterol profiles, including an increase in HDL and a decrease in triglycerides, he says.

Omega-3 supplementation may also help ease low mood (a common symptom) for this population, per research published in Nutrition Research and Practice

The National Institutes of Health suggests consuming 1.1 to 1.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids a day. Ingber recommends consuming at least that much, and emphasizing DHA and EPA. If you’re not a big seafood eater (read: at least two servings of fatty fish per week), a supplement made from fish oil is your best bet for hitting this mark.

6. Through It All, Support Your Health With Appropriate Herbs

Each of life’s stages brings with it unique needs, challenges, and blessings—and the right herbs can complement dietary changes you make to fuel and balance your body and mind.

In a woman’s menstruating years, a number of herbs can support a regular cycle and help balance hormone levels. One big one: chasteberry (a.k.a. Vitex). Research highlights its long history of use in the area of women’s health—and that it can help to ease discomfort that many women deal with before menstruating, in addition to helping balance cycle length. You can take chasteberry on its own in capsule form, and you’ll find it in many combination formulas geared towards women’s reproductive health, such as Solaray Her Life Stages PMS & Menstrual supplement.

One thing pregnant and lactating women (as well as women planning to conceive) should keep in mind: During these particular seasons of life, it’s best to consult with a trusted healthcare provider before adding any herbs to your routine, suggests the American Pregnancy Association. While some herbs, such as peppermint, have been deemed likely safe for use in these phases, extensive scientific research on the true safety of many herbs during pregnancy or while breastfeeding is lacking.

Later, throughout the midlife shift of perimenopause, herbs can once again come in handy, helping to relieve some of the frustrating hallmarks of this time and support the body through major change. Traditionally used as a natural remedy for hot flashes, black cohosh has been studied for its benefits for women in the menopausal transition, with researchers suggesting that its antioxidant activity, impact on serotonin, and interaction with estrogen receptors all play a role. Solaray Her Life Stages Perimenopause supplement combines black cohosh with other helpful herbs, including chasteberry and maca, to support women through the great shift as they near the end of their reproductive phase of life.

Black cohosh continues to support women holistically through menopause, at which point menstruation has ceased for a full year, an anniversary often accompanied by changes in mood, weight, and more. That’s why you’ll find it amongst the ingredients in Solaray Her Life Stages Menopause formula. Another herb often turned to at this point: ashwagandha, an adaptogen that works against stress, mood changes, and sleep issues.

Beyond lies the postmenopause chapter of life, in which weight maintenance and brain health often jump up the priority list. In addition to maintaining a healthy diet (check out this framework for supporting long-term brain function), enlist the help of herbs such as saffron, which has been shown to support healthy body composition and heart health, as well as to balance low mood and potentially bolster cognitive function. Along with other natural all-stars such as green tea extract and resveratrol, saffron is a key ingredient in Solaray Her Life Stages Postmenopause formula.

If you’re curious about how incorporating herbs into your diet can support the specific life season you’re in, consider consulting with a clinical herbalist or credentialed nutritionist, who can help you identify which herbal allies might be best for your current age and stage.

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