Most women would hate to admit it, but their mothers were probably right: “Eat your carrots, they’re good for your eyes.”; “Drink your milk if you want strong bones.”; and possibly everyone’s favorite, “Spinach will make you strong – just look at Popeye!”
No doubt, our mothers were on to something. Long before magazine articles touted the benefits of antioxidants, omega-3 oils and folic acid, mothers inherently knew that eating a well-balanced diet meant good health. Then, along came processed foods and America’s daily diet was no longer as simple as meat, fruits, vegetables and dairy.
It wasn’t until 1990 that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required nutritional labeling on foods manufactured in the United States. While nutrition facts are certainly a helpful way to manage calories, carbs, fats and proteins, understanding how to obtain necessary vitamins is a challenging task.
According to the FDA, there are 13 vitamins that the body absolutely needs: vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and the B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12 and folate). Many women, too busy caring for the needs of their family, often pop a multivitamin or take vitamin supplements to cover all the bases. Local licensed dietitian and nutritionist Kim Lett encourages women to first look to a good diet for nutritional needs.
Lett also advises, “While the food pyramid suggests five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, one must look at serving sizes. One large salad for lunch may actually provide four or more servings.”
The nutritional needs of women change with each stage of life. From adolescence to child-bearing, and on through menopause, there are specific nutritional needs that deserve attention.
Teenage Girls at Risk
Teenage girls are especially at risk for vitamin deficiencies, for a variety of reasons. In addition to growth surges during this time of their lives, teen girls also begin their menstrual cycles. Nutritional demands are high, but this is often a time of life when girls restrict calories to stay or become thinner – and a time of life when sodas often replace more nutrient-rich milk and juice.
Pam Kelle, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in private practice, says: “Teens are more at risk for deficiencies because they don’t always see the benefits from food; they only see the cost (weight gain) or fun, social aspect. In addition, they are influenced by the ‘cool factor’ – energy drinks are cool, milk certainly is not!”
While it is important to be cautious in monitoring a teen’s calorie consumption, Kelle advises mothers to serve as examples to their teen daughters in making food choices for themselves that are high in nutritional value. She suggests keeping vitamin-packed snacks on hand as a way to provide nutritional snacks in a pinch. “A starving teen will grab what’s available, so I always encourage mothers to have fruits, nuts, whole-grain crackers and low-fat cheeses available,” Kelle says. The nutritional needs of teenage girls are broad, but calcium, iron and B vitamins top the list.
Nutritional Needs in the Childbearing Years
Whether a woman is currently pregnant or trying to get pregnant, optimal health and weight are important for an easy and reduced-risk pregnancy. Especially important is folate or folic acid in the diet – even prior to conception – as it is known to prevent spinal abnormalities in the unborn child. Most obstetricians put their patients on a good multivitamin that will meet the increased nutritional demands of pregnancy. While a lot of mothers-to-be like to say they are “eating for two,” Kelle encourages mothers to follow the weight gain suggested by their doctor or midwife. “Increased caloric intake of foods that are void of nutritional value just puts mothers at risk for gestational diabetes and the need for excessive weight loss after the baby arrives,” says Kelle.
Managing Middle Age Nutritional Needs
A slower metabolism is the curse of most middle-aged women, causing many women to cut calories to maintain their desired weight.
“Unfortunately, this approach isn’t always the best,” says Lett. “Cutting calories often means cutting out major food groups that contain nutrients especially important for perimenopausal and menopausal women.”
Because a woman’s body no longer produces high levels of estrogen during this time of life, the bones become vulnerable to osteoporosis.
“Adult women are not typically big milk drinkers, so they are at risk for not getting enough calcium in their diets,” Lett adds. “I encourage women to start the day with a vitamin-fortified whole-grain cereal with skim milk and some fresh fruit. By adding a vitamin C-rich fruit, the iron in the cereal is better absorbed, as is the calcium in milk that is fortified with vitamin D.” To combat a sluggish metabolism, Kelle also suggests spreading out food into six mini-meals. “This keeps a stable blood sugar level and also minimizes the urge to impulse eat high-calorie snacks,” she says.
In addition to proper amounts of calcium, middle age women should also check their diet for the appropriate amounts of vitamin D and vitamin B-12. Just a few minutes a day in the sunshine will produce vitamin D, but B-12 is typically found in meats, eggs and cheese.
As we age, so do our taste buds. Food sometimes does not hold the same appeal as it once did. In addition, reduced activity levels usually translate into a smaller appetite. These factors, combined with the fact that older adults may not be motivated to prepare meals, can put them at risk for poor nutrition. Kelle suggests several ways to add some interest to mealtime.
“I often suggest that older individuals try new foods and spices to keep food interesting and more flavorful,” she says. In addition, Kelle encourages family members to make time for occasional meals with older family members. “Sometimes just having a warm body at the dinner table is all it takes to boost the appetite of someone living alone,” she adds.
She also encourages seniors to get plenty of zinc, which is readily available in eggs, as it is key in the ability to taste. Seniors should also include vitamin B-12 and extra vitamin D in their diet or in supplement form.
Good Nutrition: A Woman’s Greatest Beauty Secret
Kelle says she is often amazed at the time and energy that women put into looking good. “From hair, makeup and clothing, women spend a considerable amount of time trying to look their best,” she notes. “What we put in our bodies is reflected in our skin, hair, eyes and teeth. No matter what your age, good nutrition is the best thing you can do to look and feel good today, tomorrow and for years to come.” For more information on nutritional needs, visit www.fda.gov.