Women's health: Nutrient needs and lifestyle considerations
A woman’s life is full of big transitions, from puberty to menopause. Maintaining a healthy, nourishing diet and a holistic lifestyle is important, as it will help you sail through all these natural stages. In this article, we'll explore the various stages of a woman's life, and look at nutritional and lifestyle guidance to help with each of these transitions.
Adolescence is a time of rapid growth and nutritional needs are increased. Having a variety of fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates, and making sure there is enough protein will help girls thrive during puberty.
It’s not about perfection. Encouraging them to follow a low-processed diet 80% of the time, and allow for more freedom 20% of the time is usually a good compromise with teenagers.
Exercising regularly is also important for them. It helps support their physical health and their mental health. Besides, if they do a sport or activity they enjoy, they are more likely to stick with it.
If girls have heavy periods, it may be best to speak to a GP, as it can cause anaemia. Heavy periods could be linked to an underlying health issue, such as hormone-related problems, a bleeding disorder or a sexually transmitted disease (STD). They may also need to review their diet to ensure they meet their new requirements.
20s and early 30s
In my experience as a registered nutrition practitioner, the women in their 20s that I see in my practice tend to have issues they would like to address, such as period pain, hormonal conditions, digestive issues or skin issues.
In your 20s, you are still growing and developing, and the nutrients that you consume during this stage may also have an impact on your future health. It is important to include a variety of whole foods from all food groups, as well as keeping up with hydration and exercise.
I would love to see more young women work with us at this stage of life, and not wait until they are ready to conceive (if they decide to have a baby). It is often in our 30s that we start noticing changes in our bodies, so the earlier a woman looks after her diet and lifestyle, the better.
If a woman is trying to conceive, it is advisable to review her diet and lifestyle at least three months before trying to conceive. It is also key to address anything that could get in the way of fertility, such as hormonal issues, fibroids or endometriosis, or infections, such as urinary tract infections or vaginal infections.
I would also recommend ruling out vitamin and mineral deficiencies that could impact fertility and pregnancy. Also, it is great when partners make changes to their diet and lifestyle, too. After all, it takes two to tango!
Pregnancy is a nutrient-demanding time. The foetus takes a lot of your nutrients and sometimes women suffer from sickness, especially in the first trimester. So, making sure you do not start a pregnancy with deficiencies is key. To give you an example, iron needs are nearly doubled during pregnancy! You may also need to take a prenatal multivitamin which includes 400 micrograms of folic acid, as well as a DHA supplement.
Late 30s and 40s
Addressing diet and lifestyle before you get to your 40s may help you go through the period of menopause transition called the perimenopause, which often starts in the early 40s. While it is a completely natural process, some women can experience emotional and physical symptoms as a result of hormonal fluctuations. We cannot predict how a woman will feel during perimenopause but, if you experience symptoms, reassessing diet and lifestyle can really help.
My best advice would be to avoid or limit alcohol, as it tends to promote hot flushes and impact on sleep and mood. Ideally, the diet will be varied and nutrient-dense. It may also include phytoestrogens, which are beneficial oestrogen-like compounds derived from plants found in soy products such as tofu, as well as in flaxseeds.
It’s also important to prioritise self-care. It may be a demanding time for women, but including some exercise you enjoy, getting enough sleep and spending time in nature may help you during this period of change.
Once again, it may be a good time to run blood tests or talk to your general practitioner, especially if you are symptomatic. They can also rule out other conditions that could be causing your symptoms.
50s and beyond (post-menopause)
Your energy requirements do decrease post-menopause and as you get older. However, you still need a nutrient-dense diet to ensure you get all the vitamins and minerals your body needs. Post-menopausal women also need to consume enough protein, as they are now at an increased risk for losing muscle mass and bone density. Also, due to the decrease in bone density, nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D are important, as well as engaging in regular weight-bearing exercise, such as weight training or walking.
As you can see, different stages of life have specific requirements and sometimes it is good to reassess what we do during these transitions, so we can thrive as best as we can as we go through life.
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