Although girls are not necessarily made of 'sugar and spice and everything nice', they are indeed made up differently to men. This means there are some unique nutritional requirements for women, largely due to the hormone differences that kick in during puberty.
As children, boys and girls generally need the same things from their diet. Around the age of nine, or when puberty begins, this changes as the body begins to release unique hormones. For women, their role as the child bearers is the driving force behind most of their nutritional needs.
On this page we will look at nutrition for women, including key vitamins and minerals and how a nutritionist can help you maintain a balanced diet.
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The NHS recommends that the average man and woman of healthy weight should consume approximately 2,500kcal a day for men, and 2,000kcal a day for women. So why is this number different? Generally speaking, women tend to be smaller than men and have a higher fat percentage. Men tend to be larger and leaner, meaning that they burn more calories.
While everyone is different and the amount of calories you need will depend on a number of factors, in general women will need to consume fewer calories. If you are looking to gain or lose weight, speaking to your GP or a nutritionist can help you decipher how many calories you should be consuming.
Nutritional requirements for women
As well as needing fewer calories than men, women's nutrition have some different requirements than men. As aforementioned, this is mainly because of the hormones women produce. The following vitamins and minerals are particularly important to include:
When women reach childbearing age, blood loss through menstruation can lead to iron deficiency or anaemia. For this reason women will usually require more iron than men.
Iron can be found in a range of foods, including meat, fish and poultry and non-animal products such as spinach, lentils and fortified grains. Vitamin C will help your body to absorb more iron, so you should also look to include foods that are rich in this vitamin like broccoli, tomatoes and citrus fruits.
Another key mineral to consider is calcium. Both men and women (over the age of 19 and not breastfeeding) are recommended to consume around 700mg of calcium. This should be easily acquired from your diet. Although the recommendation is the same for men and women, as women consume fewer calories, the proportion is larger. Women start to lose bone density from 35-years-old onwards and are thought to be more prone to developing conditions such as osteoporosis. This is especially the case past the menopause as calcium requirements typically increase.
Foods that contain calcium include dairy products, green leafy vegetables, nuts, soya beans and fish where you eat the bones (i.e. sardines).
Vitamin D helps the absorption of calcium from foods. While most of this comes from sunlight, you can include vitamin D in your diet. Vitamin D rich foods include oily fish, eggs, dairy and foods fortified with the vitamin.
Folic acid (or folate, the name for its natural form) is essential for both women and men, however it becomes especially important for women when they become pregnant. This is because folic acid helps to reduce the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida in unborn babies.
If you are not consuming enough folic acid, you may develop folate deficiency anaemia, which can make you feel unwell.
Experts recommend adults to consume 0.2mg of folic acid per day. If you are trying to get pregnant (or during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy) this should be increased by a further 0.4mg via a supplement. If you are unsure however, seek advice. If you have a family history of spina bifida, you should speak to your GP as they may advise you to take a different dose of folic acid supplement.
Good sources of folic acid include asparagus, peas, brown rice, eggs, spinach and Brussels sprouts.
Nutrition for women - what to consider
There are certain aspects of women's health, and certain life stages, that can benefit from nutritional therapy. Below we look at some of the most common areas that a nutritionist may be able to help with.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS or PMT)
Premenstrual syndrome or PMS refers to physical and psychological symptoms that may occur in women two weeks before her monthly period. Almost all women will experience symptoms, however the type of symptoms and the degree of severity will vary from person to person. Typical symptoms include feeling irritable, breast pain and bloating.
If these symptoms are impacting on your daily life, you may want to consult your GP who can suggest treatment options. A nutritionist can look at your diet with the view of complementing any prescribed treatment. In some cases dietary changes can help improve PMS symptoms. To find out more, please read our fact-sheet on premenstrual syndrome.
Pregnancy and preconception
Enjoying a balanced diet full of nutritious food is necessary at all stages of life, however if you are trying to get pregnant it becomes even more essential. A nutritionist can help create a healthy diet plan for women at this stage of their lives. Doing this will ensure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals to support conception.
If you are already pregnant, it's important to monitor your diet to ensure you are consuming the right amount of vitamins and minerals to keep your baby happy and healthy. A nutritionist can help guide you through the dos and don’ts of what you can eat, leaving you free to relax during this exciting time.
To find out more about the role of nutrition during preconception and pregnancy, please read our pregnancy and preconception fact-sheet.
The menopause is when women stop producing eggs. The average age for this is 51 years, but in some cases it can be earlier (this is known as premature menopause). When this happens the body stops producing as much oestrogen, which can result in physical and emotional symptoms such as hot flushes and mood swings.
If these symptoms are bothering you, your GP can suggest treatments. Often, a change in diet and lifestyle is recommended to help ease menopause symptoms. This is where a nutritionist can help, they can analyse your current diet and talk you through any changes you can make that may improve certain symptoms.
Find out more about menopause and how nutritional therapy can help on our menopause fact-sheet.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects the ovaries. Key features of PCOS include cysts that develop within the ovaries, irregular ovulation and high levels of androgens (the 'male' hormones). There are various symptoms that could point to this condition such as excessive hair growth, weight-gain and acne. If you suspect you have this condition it is important that you visit your GP for a formal diagnosis.
Once you have been diagnosed, your doctor will talk you through the various treatment options. As one of the common symptoms of PCOS is weight-gain, you may find it helpful to consult a nutritionist to help manage this symptom. Having this extra support to manage your weight can help improve your health, which will only complement the medical treatment you are receiving.
Find out more about the condition on our polycystic ovary syndrome fact-sheet.
Devising a healthy diet plan for women - how a nutritionist can help
A nutritionist's role is to investigate your diet and suggest adjustments to ensure you are getting everything you need from the foods you eat. This will be tailored to your specific needs, not only as a woman but also as an individual. If there are any areas of women's health you would like to address (for example if you are going through the menopause) be sure to mention this to your nutritionist. This will prompt them to look at possible additions or changes to your diet that may be able to help reduce unwanted symptoms.
Content reviewed by dietitian, Christina Merryfield. All content displayed on Nutritionist Resource is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional.
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