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Women and Nutrition

A Life Course Approach1


Nutrition in women affects their overall health from adolescence through the reproductive years and middle age to the elder years. At each milestone, women experience physical changes requiring nutritional interventions that lay a foundation for a continuum of healthy life.

 

Hormonal changes that occur during menstruation alter the metabolism to burn more energy. The blood loss that occurs during menstruation may cause iron levels to decrease, resulting in mild anemia. This can be circumvented by including red meat, legumes, nuts, eggs, fortified cereals, and dark leafy vegetables in the diet.

A woman's blood volume increases dramatically to help nourish the baby and keep her own body healthy. It is critically important to add iron-rich foods and iron supplements to facilitate an increase in the production of red blood cells.

Because iron supplements may interfere with the absorption of zinc, zinc supplements are also commonly recommended. Leavened whole-grain products, liver, eggs, red meat, and seafood are all good sources of zinc.

Much of the calcium needed for a developing baby can be drawn from the mother's body, but pregnant women should be sure to replace calcium through supplements to ensure that they do not experience bone loss. A diet balanced with milk, yogurt, and cheese can help keep mother and baby healthier throughout the pregnancy and early months.

Folic acid plays a crucial role in the proper development of a baby's nervous system. Folic acid supplements are normally recommended even before pregnancy occurs to ensure that there is plenty available during early embryonic development. In addition to supplements, folic acid can be found in red meat, liver, egg yolks, and green leafy vegetables.

Breast milk is extraordinarily concentrated with nutrients, and since all the nutrients come from the mother, she must restore them regularly to avoid developing deficiencies. It is particularly important to continue to supplement calcium, iron, folic acid, and all the vitamins recommended during pregnancy. Magnesium and vitamin B6 are crucial during breastfeeding. It is also important to include protein in the diet and remain very well hydrated.

One of the major concerns for women during menopause is the development of osteoporosis. The loss of estrogen can lead to a significant loss of bone mass, leaving the bones brittle. Measures for maintaining healthy bones should begin earlier in life with intake of calcium through dairy products. Vitamin D can increase absorption of calcium, so its inclusion in the diet can also help decrease the risk of developing a calcium deficiency. Diets that are low in salt, alcohol, and caffeine can also help improve calcium retention. Maintaining a healthy body composition and exercising regularly can also help reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis after menopause.

It is essential to promote positive nutrition practices by encouraging a varied and balanced diet among women throughout all life stages to ensure their health and well-being, as well as that of their offspring.

Resources:
1. Patients Medical Overview of Nutritional Deficiencies [Internet]. [cited 2014 August] Available from: http://www.patientsmedical.com/healthaz/nutritiondeficiencies/default.aspx

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