If you eat a healthy, balanced diet, it's not difficult to get enough of the essential nutrients the body needs. However, menstruation, the menopause, pregnancy and fluctuating hormone levels affect the need for certain key nutrients.


Tofu bowl

1. Calcium for strong bones

If we build strong bones in our youth, we reduce the risk of osteoporosis (also called brittle bone disease) as we get older. Osteoporosis affects one in four women over the age of 50 in the UK. The risk of suffering from this debilitating condition increases dramatically if your bones are weak. Bones continue to grow in density until our late teens and early 20s. After the age of 35, we naturally lose bone density, making it increasingly important to obtain a good and continuous supply of calcium and vitamin D to keep bones strong and avoid foods and drinks that can make them weaker.

Dairy produce has always been highlighted as the best source of calcium but there are other sources to tuck into if you don’t like dairy or are lactose intolerant such as small boned fish (sardines, anchovies), green leafy vegetables, fortified soya milk, tofu, almonds and seeds such as sesame and sunflower seeds.

How much do you need?
As dairy products are a rich source of calcium, three portions each day should be sufficient to meet an adult’s daily need of 700mg of calcium. After the menopause, the body becomes less efficient at absorbing calcium, so you may need to up your intake.

A portion includes:

  • 100g canned salmon (eaten with bones) = 164mg calcium
  • 200ml semi-skimmed milk = 240mg calcium
  • 150g pot low-fat yogurt = 242mg calcium
  • 30g cheddar = 222mg calcium
  • 25g almonds = 60mg calcium
  • 100g portion sardines canned in tomato sauce = 455mg calcium
  • 100g steamed fortified tofu = 510mg calcium
  • 30g dried figs =75mg calcium
  • 2 slices of white bread = 88mg calcium
  • 135g portion baked beans = 57mg calcium

Should you take a supplement?
You should be able to get all your calcium needs from your diet, however, if you are considering taking a calcium supplement, discuss the options with your GP or healthcare practitioner first, especially if you have a medical condition.

The two main forms of calcium in supplements are carbonate and citrate. Calcium carbonate is more commonly available and is both inexpensive and convenient. Due to its dependence on stomach acid for absorption, calcium carbonate is absorbed most efficiently when taken with food, whereas calcium citrate is absorbed equally as well when taken with or without food. If you experience digestive discomfort when taking a supplement you may find it easier to split your prescribed dose of calcium into two smaller doses taken at different times of the day. Older people often lack sufficient acid in the stomach to absorb calcium in the form of calcium carbonate, so if you're over 65 you may want to take calcium citrate. Calcium also requires vitamin D for absorption which is found in a few foods like oily fish and egg yolks, and is made by the skin in response to sunlight.

Broccoli, peas and lentils

2. Folate - healthy babies, healthy heart

Folic acid or folate (vitamin B9) is essential during pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Because the spinal cord is formed in the first 12 weeks, folate is critical during the very early stages of pregnancy. It can be weeks before you realise you are pregnant, which is why all women of child-bearing age are advised to take a supplement. Folate is also good for the immune system, energy production, preventing anaemia and may also help to protect against heart disease and stroke, so it's worth making sure your diet contains enough even if you're not planning a baby.

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How much do you need?
The RDA for adults and children over 11 years is 200 micrograms. Women of childbearing age considering pregnancy should take a folate supplement of 400mcg a day in addition to the 200mcg from their diet (=600mcg) Pregnant women need a total of 700mcg during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

  • 35g bran flakes = 128mcg folate
  • 115g spinach = 185mcg folate
  • 225ml tomato juice = 22mcg folate
  • 115g black beans = 128mcg folate
  • 1 slice wholemeal bread = 10mcg folate
  • 115g steamed broccoli = 40mcg folate
  • 1 orange = 40mcg folate
  • 115g steamed asparagus = 199 mcg folate
  • 100g wheatgerm = 277mcg folate

Should you take a supplement?
Our body doesn’t absorb folic acid as well when it’s in its natural folate form as it does when it’s synthetic folic acid. Although it is still good to eat foods rich in folate, it's virtually impossible to get 400mcg from your diet, so a supplement is essential. People suffering from malabsorption diseases (Crohns, coeliac) are susceptible to severe deficiency. When taking individual folic acid supplements, combine it with B12 as folic acid can mask B12 deficiency. Always check with your GP before you start taking a supplement.

Baked beans

3. Magnesium for a healthy system

Magnesium is vital to a number of bodily functions. It helps the body deal with stress, generate enough energy and build healthy bones. It also helps the muscles and nervous systems. Studies show that low intakes of magnesium may be linked to pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and migraines. Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include muscular spasms, cramps, lethargy, poor memory and sleep disorders.

How much do you need?
The RDA for magnesium is 300mg. Low dietary intake is common. Green vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and unrefined (brown) grains are the best sources of magnesium. Magnesium is almost completely lost during food processing. It has been estimated that pre-agricultural and industrial intakes of magnesium were approximately 600mg per day.

  • 25g almonds = 68mg magnesium
  • 25g Brazil nuts = 102mg magnesium
  • 25g sesame seeds = 92mg magnesium
  • 150g baked beans = 45mg magnesium
  • 100g spinach = 80mg magnesium
  • 1 bowl bran flakes = 42mg magnesium
  • 1 serving (150g) cooked brown rice = 66mg magnesium
  • 1 serving (60g) hummus = 37mg magnesium

Should you take a supplement?
If you are not eating nuts, seeds, wholegrain cereals, dark green leafy vegetables or beans regularly, consider adding these to your diet or taking a supplement.

A study published in The Journal of Women's Health found that taking a daily supplement of 200mg magnesium reduced PMS, fluid retention, breast tenderness and bloating by up to 40 per cent. Magnesium supplements are available in many forms - magnesium glycinate or citrate are the most easily absorbed. Magnesium oxide may be the least expensive but is the most poorly absorbed.


4. Brain-boosting omega-3 fats

Oily fish are incredibly rich in one of the most beneficial types of fat: omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are vital for the development of a baby's brain, which makes them a key nutrient for pregnant women. Studies also show that women who have a good intake of omega-3 during pregnancy may help to ensure the baby develops a healthy brain and nervous system and possibly reduce the risk of having a premature baby. Omega-3 fats also keep adult hearts healthy and reduce the risk of stroke, and may help to reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Generally, omega-3 offers genuine health benefits whatever your stage of life.

How much do you need?
We can glean all the omega-3 oils we need by eating a couple of 140g portions of oily fish each week.

  • 100g salmon (wild, raw) = 2.0g omega-3
  • 100g mackerel (raw) = 2.67g omega-3
  • 100g tuna (fresh) = 1.3g omega-3
  • 1 small can sardines = 1.4g omega-3
  • 30g walnuts = 2.6g omega-3
  • 30g flaxseeds = 6.3g omega-3
  • 100g Omega-3 eggs = 0.2g omega-3

Should you take a supplement?
As a daily supplement in healthy people who rarely eat fish, fish oil supplements are usually taken in the 0.5-1.0g per day range. This value increases for people with chronic ailments. Omega-3 fatty acids inhibit blood clotting, so consult a doctor before using fish oil supplements if you have a blood disorder or are taking anticoagulant medications. Cod liver oil preparations are a good source of omega-3s but they contain vitamin A, which can be toxic in large amounts, so if you’re taking other supplements such as a multi vitamin, it’s easy to exceed the maximum recommended dose. Pregnant women are advised to use an alternative source of fish oil without vitamin A - look for supplements labelled simply as omega-3 supplements.

Steak salad

5. Iron for energy

Studies suggest that one in four women in the UK has low iron stores. Needed throughout the body, iron is essential for the manufacture of haemoglobin, which carries oxygen from your lungs around the body. The mineral is also part of many enzymes and is integral to the immune system. An iron deficiency can make you feel weak, unable to concentrate and more susceptible than normal to infection.

How much do you need?
According to government surveys, the majority of women do not reach the RDA of 14.8mg per day. Post-menopausal women have an RDA of 8.7mg per day. Until then it's important to ensure you get enough. Initially there are no symptoms, but as iron stores dwindle, so does your body’s ability to produce healthy red blood cells. The result is the iron deficiency anaemia, which can be marked by weakness, fatigue and paleness.

  • 100g pork liver (raw) = 14mg iron
  • 100g beef liver (raw) = 7mg iron
  • 1 bowl bran flakes = 5mg iron
  • 100g sirloin steak (rare) = 2.1mg iron
  • 25g sunflower seeds = 1.6mg iron
  • 25g pumpkin seeds = 2.5mg iron
  • 100g spinach = 1.89mg iron
  • 2 slices wholemeal bread = 1.2mg iron
  • 150g baked beans = 2.13mg iron
  • 30g dried apricots = 1.2mg iron
  • 1 egg = 0.98mg iron

Should you take a supplement?
Women with heavy periods and those who don’t eat meat should consider supplementation. Iron supplements are available, but some forms such as ferrous sulphate may cause constipation and stomach upsets. Iron is toxic in excess and, although there is little risk of getting too much from food, you should consult your doctor before taking iron supplements. Iron is best absorbed when taken on an empty stomach but alongside meals or drinks rich in vitamin C to increase uptake.

Nutritional data from McCance & Widdowson’s “The Composition of Foods”, Seventh Summary Edition (2015).

This article was last reviewed on 6 May 2016 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.


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