In general women tend to take good care of their health, but even for the very health conscious, it is sometimes difficult to know how to adapt dietary and supplement intakes to optimise nutrition for each life-stage.
Nutritional Challenge: Iron
Puberty is associated with numerous nutritional challenges. Firstly, with the onset of the menstrual cycle, optimal intake of iron is essential, to make up for the small losses of iron due to menstrual bleeding.
Iron is a mineral, which forms part of the red blood cells and help the red blood cells in carrying oxygen through the body. A deficiency in iron is associated with fatigue, which interferes with concentration and physical activity, which may impair performance at school on several levels.
Iron rich foods include lean red meat, dark green leafy vegetables and molasses. It is important to note that even though the iron from meat or other animal food sources is readily available for absorption, iron available from plant food sources is more difficult to absorb.
For optimal absorption, the presence of Vitamin C is recommended. For example, when spinach is incorporated into a salad, add raw sweet red peppers, since they are packed with Vitamin C, which would enhance the absorption of the iron from the spinach.
Iron supplementation is recommended to correct iron deficiency anaemia. However, it is important to note that there are different types of anaemia.
If a teenage girl is feeling tired, it is important to assess iron status via a blood test before supplementation is started, to ensure that the correct supplement and associated treatment is chosen.
Vitamin C optimises the absorption of iron in the digestive system, which is why iron supplements are sometimes enriched with Vitamin C. Furthermore, certain B Vitamins are required for the treatment of certain types of anaemia.
Pre-menstrual stress, or the pre-menstrual syndrome is associated with symptoms such as mood swings, irritability, abdominal bloatedness, water retention, breast tenderness and skin breakouts.
Chocolate and caffeine cravings are common during PMS, however it seems that caffeine and chocolate intake may aggravate the symptoms of PMS. So much for listening to your body!
Certain supplements may assist the nutritional support of PMS. Vitamin B6 and Magnesium not only support energy metabolism, but may also help improve mood and may help to prevent or reduce water retention. Evening Primrose Oil is another popular supplement for mood-swings, irritability and breast tenderness.
Acne during puberty is typically caused by the hormonal changes and fluctuations of puberty.
Even though there is little scientific evidence linking chocolate intake to acne, it is still recommended to try and avoid processed foods, sweets, chocolates and caffeine containing soft drinks and coffee.
A healthy balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, low fat protein foods such as fish and poultry, whole-grain cereals, nuts, seeds and dairy products all help contribute to healthy eating.
A multivitamin specifically formulated for healthy hair, skin and nails is ideal during puberty, to ensure optimal intake of the essential nutrients required for skin health.
Evening Primrose Oil is a popular supplement for acne during puberty, as it contains the omega 6 fatty acid GLA. Vitamin E is also crucial, as it is an important antioxidant, which helps in the prevention of cell damage. Zinc, vitamin B complex, vitamin D, vitamin E and omega 3 fatty acids are also recommended.
Very few people know of the significant impact medicines can have on one’s nutritional status. Oral contraceptives interfere with the metabolism of nutrients such as vitamin B complex, zinc, magnesium and vitamin E. It is interesting to note that all these nutrients are important for healthy hair, skin and nails.
A multivitamin specifically designed for women will help optimise the intake of a variety of essential nutrients.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Nutritional requirements are significantly increased during pregnancy, to supply enough nutrients for the mother and the developing baby. Most women take multivitamins specifically designed for pregnancy, which are widely recommended by gynaecologists and other health professionals. A point of concern is that even though most pregnant women realise the need for supplementation during pregnancy, many do not realise that supplementation is as important during breastfeeding. As a matter of fact, requirements for certain nutrients are even higher during breastfeeding than during pregnancy.
A pregnancy multivitamin is typically a well balanced supplement, with high levels of folic acid, iron, B vitamins and minerals. However, a pregnancy multivitamin can never provide sufficient levels of calcium.
Therefore, a separate calcium supplement needs to be taken to optimise calcium intake, which is required for the formation of the baby’s bone structure.
With insufficient calcium intake during pregnancy, the mother’s calcium stores in bones and even teeth may be mobilised to supply sufficient calcium for the baby’s developmental needs. This explains dental health problems following pregnancy and the increased risk of osteoporosis in women with calcium deficient diets during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Timing of calcium supplementation during pregnancy is also important. Calcium and iron should not be taken together in high doses, as they compete for absorption.
Therefore, a pregnancy multivitamin enriched with iron should ideally be taken in the morning with breakfast. Calcium supplements should be taken at night, after a meal to ensure optimal absorption.
Calcium requirements during pregnancy and breastfeeding are increased to 1200 mg per day. Typically, a healthy balanced diet comfortably supplies about 400-600 mg calcium per day, which means an additional 600-800 mg is required from supplementation during pregnancy.
Menopausal symptoms, such as mood swings, irritability, water retention, hot flushes and sleeplessness are predominantly associated with the decrease in oestrogen levels at the end of the reproductive cycle in a woman’s life.
Apart from these symptoms, a very important health risk associated with menopause is the increased risk of osteoporosis. Before menopause, oestrogen supports bone density, by helping to maintain calcium levels in bone tissue. With the onset of menopause and the associated drop in oestrogen levels, this protective effect is lost.
Calcium is found in a big variety of foods. Apart from the well-known option of dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese, there are other food sources that should be incorporated into the diet to help optimise calcium intake. Non-dairy calcium sources include dark green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.
Other sources include soy beans, soy milk, sesame seeds, almonds and last but definitely not least, canned sardines and pilchards. Canned fish is regarded as one of the best calcium sources as the calcium content of the fine, soft bones in the canned sardines and pilchards is easily absorbed by the body.
To prevent calcium losses from bone tissue, certain dietary guidelines have to be adhered to, as follows: Avoid high salt intakes, as excessive dietary salt increases calcium losses from the body. Avoid caffeine, as it may cause urinary losses of calcium from the body.
High protein diets should also be avoided, as high protein intakes tend to increase the acid levels of the body, with subsequent urinary calcium losses.
Calcium supplements are vital to support healthy bone density. The recommended intake of calcium during menopause is 1000-1200 mg per day. With a healthy balanced diet typically supplying 400-600 mg calcium per day, supplementation should ideally add about 400-600 mg per day.
To assist with the relief of menopausal symptoms, natural alternatives such as soy isoflavones are popular among menopausal women. The soy isoflavones, also known as phyto-oestrogens, are believed to help reduce the hot flushes, insomnia, mood swings and irritability associated with menopause.
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