Women's diets often fall short in vital minerals and vitamins.
A woman's physiology can make it harder to hang onto some nutrients, too. Women also are more likely than men to develop an eating disorder, which makes it difficult to maintain healthy nutrition.
Here are six nutrients that women are often deficient in, either because they lose too much of a nutrient, don't get enough of a nutrient, or both.
Why you need it
Calcium builds teeth and bones, curbs premenstrual syndrome, helps maintain normal blood pressure, and may protect against colon cancer. It is also needed for muscle contraction, hormones and enzymes, and nervous system function, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Nearly all of the body's calcium is stored in the teeth and bones.
Women's risk for bone loss rises at menopause with waning levels of estrogen, a hormone that helps keep calcium in your bones. Getting adequate calcium, vitamin D, and exercise as a child and teen can lessen the impact of bone loss later in life, the National Osteoporosis Foundation says.
What you need
1,000 mg a day for women of childbearing age; 1,200 mg a day after menopause.
More than three out of four women don't get the recommended amount of calcium, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), part of the National Institutes of Health. Many weight-conscious women forgo dairy products, calcium's richest source. Even when women include dairy products in their diet, however, the amount of calcium they absorb can be affected by age, pregnancy, and the amount of vitamin D they consume, the ODS says. The amount of calcium you absorb declines with age. According to AND, by age 18, a woman's bones are completely done forming and if there is not enough calcium deposited in bones during childhood, they may become weak later in life. Although some plant-based foods, such as spinach and collard greens, contain significant amounts of calcium, this source of calcium may not be absorbed as well as the calcium found in dairy products.
Choose more dairy foods. A cup of low-fat yogurt, milk, or cottage cheese provides about 300 mg of calcium. Good nondairy choices include kale, turnip greens, almonds, dried figs, and fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals and fruit juices. Weight-bearing exercise like brisk walking prevents calcium loss from bones. Research has shown that for women at risk for fractures, taking calcium and vitamin D supplements alone after menopause is not enough to protect against fractures. Additional medicines may be necessary. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables and regular weight-bearing exercise are essential to bone health for women of all ages.
Why you need it
Vitamin D helps the body maintain normal levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood, and helps form and maintain strong bones, the ODS says. It also may help maintain a healthy immune system and help healthy cell growth and development. It helps prevent rickets, a condition in children that weakens the bones. There is also evidence that vitamin D may help prevent falls by improving muscle strength.
What you need
600 IU a day for women up to age 70, and 800 IU for those 71 and older. For pregnant and breastfeeding women, 600 IU daily is recommended.
The primary source of vitamin D is your body; your body makes vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun's ultraviolet rays. But getting vitamin D this way may be difficult for some women. People who are 50 and older don't make vitamin D as efficiently as younger people; people who live in northern climates may not get enough sun exposure, particularly during the winter months; people who don't spend time outdoors are unable to make vitamin D. Vitamin D levels also have declined because of widespread sunscreen use. Sunscreen blocks the ultraviolet rays that can damage the skin--but these same rays cause the body to produce vitamin D.