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Overview of Nutritional Deficiencies

The nutritional needs of women are quite different than those of men, due in large part to all the different stages of their reproductive life. Menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause each leave within with unique nutritional demands that must be met to ensure longevity and good health. Nutritional deficiencies occur quite commonly in young women that are striving to be thin or physically fit. A healthy, balanced diet is necessary at all ages, and women should be aware of their body's changing needs as they progress through all the stages of womanhood.

Common Types of Nutritional Deficiencies in Women During Menstruation

Because of the hormonal changes that occur during menstruation, the metabolism shifts to begin burning more energy, often causing food cravings. It is generally good to avoid carbohydrates and instead focus on protein-rich snacks, which can help curb too much snacking.

The hormones may also cause bloating. The amount of fluid retained is related to the body's levels of sodium, so lowering salt intake can decrease these discomforts.

Because of the blood loss that occurs during menstruation, iron levels may also dip to lower levels, causing mild anemia. This can be circumvented by including red meat, legumes, nuts, eggs, fortified cereals, and dark leafy vegetables in the diet. Iron supplements may also help with the symptoms of anemia, which may include tiredness, weakness, and malaise.

Exercise may also help quell the discomforts of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), increasing energy and alleviating constipation. B vitamins may help relieve PMS, as well.

During Pregnancy

A woman's blood volume increases dramatically during pregnancy to help nourish the baby and keep her own body healthy, as well. The increase in red blood cell creation can cause an overall drop in iron levels if it is not supplemented, so it is critically important for pregnant women to add iron rich foods to their diets and take prenatal vitamins that include iron.

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, though pregnant women should be sure to replace this through supplements to ensure that they do not experience bone loss. Although it is quickly replaced after the baby is weaned, 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. In fact, folic acid supplements are normally recommended even before pregnancy occurs to ensure that there is plenty available during early embryonic development. In addition to taking folic acid supplements, this vitamin can be found in red meat, liver, egg yolks, and green leafy vegetables.

During Breastfeeding

Breast milk is extraordinarily concentrated with nutrients, and given that all the nutrients come from the mother, she must be certain to restore these 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 also crucial during breastfeeding. To make sure that the breast milk is ample and nutritious, it is also important to include protein in the diet and remain very well-hydrated.

During Menopause

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. Habits for maintaining healthy bones can begin even earlier in life, however, by being sure to take in lots of calcium through dairy products. 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.

Vitamin D can increase absorption of calcium, so its inclusion in the diet can also help decrease the risk of developing a calcium deficiency. Vitamin D can be synthesized in the skin in response to sunlight and also found in foods such as fatty fish (sardines and mackerel), liver, and eggs.

Supplements for Nutritional Deficiencies in Women

We also recommend that women of all ages consider taking phytoestrogens for their health. These natural substances are derived from plants and offer a wide range of health benefits:

  • Flaxseed
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Herbal teas, such as sage and aniseed
  • Whole grains, such as barley and cracked wheat
  • Nuts (particularly almonds)
  • Soy, chickpeas, and other legumes
  • Alfalfa sprouts
  • Extra virgin olive oil

To learn more about preventative measures and treatments of related to these topics, please see our articles on Anemia, Pregnancy, Children's Health, Hormonal Imbalance, Menopause, and Osteoporosis.

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Article Last Updated: 08/26/2015