Discovery Vitality dietitian Terry Harris tells us what nutrients women need most and how to make sure you’re getting enough…

This Women’s Month, we’re inspiring South African women to take control of their health by making better food choices.

In this second edition of our nutrition series, we’re zoning in on vitamins and minerals that are especially important at particular times of a woman’s life.

Follow a healthy daily diet

“Opting for a variety of nutrient-dense foods on a daily basis should provide you with the micronutrients your body needs,” says Discovery Vitality dietitian Terry Harris.

Choose the healthy options from the following food groups:

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  • Colourful vegetables and fruits — plain fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables are your best choice.
  • Whole grain and high fibre carbohydrates, including brown rice, bulgur wheat, oats and popcorn kernels.
  • Proteins, such as legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas) skinless chicken, ostrich, fish (prioritising omega 3 rich options) and eggs.
  • Healthy fats from foods such as olive, avocado or canola oil, avocado, and raw unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Dairy products including unsweetened milk and yoghurt

Related: 4 Quick healthy dinner ideas (ready in just 30 minutes)

Nutrients you may be lacking

However, the following nutrients require special attention as they often fall short of a women’s daily requirements.

Iron

Iron is one of the keys to good health and optimal energy levels for pre-menopausal women.

Essential for healthy blood cells, iron becomes especially important when girls start to menstruate. Adult women between the ages of 19 and 50 need approximately 18 mg a day, and during pregnancy, the requirement of iron shoots up to 27 mg a day. The volume of blood almost doubles when women are pregnant, which dramatically increases the demand for iron.

Foods that are good sources of iron include beef, lamb, pork, chicken, liver, shellfish, fish, eggs (particularly the egg yolk), tofu, quinoa, spinach, beans, lentils and some fortified ready-to-eat cereals. The iron from animal products (haeme iron) is more easily absorbed.

To enhance the absorption of iron from plant sources (non-haeme iron), pair them with a food high in vitamin C — such as strawberries, oranges, papaya or guavas. Try this iron-rich dish from the Vitality HealthyFood Studio.

Over time, if you aren’t getting enough iron from your diet, or if you are losing too much iron, such as through heavy periods, an iron deficiency can occur.

The symptoms of iron deficiency (anaemia), include fatigue, impaired immunity and poor performance at school or work. If you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, eat enough beans and lentils, spinach, tomatoes and other iron-rich plant foods, and consider taking a daily iron supplement.

Calcium (and Vitamin D)

Getting enough calcium is important for all ages, but it’s particularly important for young women during adolescence and early adulthood, when bones are absorbing calcium. Calcium keeps bones strong and helps to reduce the risk for osteoporosis, a bone disease in which the bones become weak and break easily.

Most experts recommend 1 300 mg of calcium a day for girls aged nine to 18, and between 1 000 mg and 1200 mg a day for adult women. That’s about three cup-equivalents of calcium-rich foods daily.

Calcium-rich foods include low-fat or fat-free milk, or calcium-fortified non-dairy milk like soy or almond milk, yoghurt and cheese, sardines, pilchards, canned salmon and calcium-set tofu.

Here are some ideas for including more calcium-rich foods in your daily diet:

  • Make a breakfast smoothie by blending fruit and yoghurt or milk together.
  • Cook oats in milk instead of water.
  • Drink a glass of milk with a meal or in between as a snack.
  • Yoghurt mixed with cut fresh fruit, nuts, and seeds makes a quick calcium-rich snack.
  • Make a healthy “chocolate” milkshake by blending plain milk, fresh banana, and a little cocoa powder together.

Enough vitamin D is also important to enhance the absorption of calcium in your body, so get at least fifteen minutes of sunshine a day. Apart from being exposed to sunlight, good sources of vitamin D include fatty fish, such as pilchards and salmon, eggs and fortified foods.

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding or unable to have a regular intake of dairy products, you may need to consider taking a daily calcium supplement. 

Omega-3s

These essential fatty acids, EPA and DHA, play many important roles in the body, including building healthy brain and nerve cells. They are critical for a healthy metabolism, but they’re not produced by the body, so it’s important that you get enough omega-3 fatty acids through the foods you eat.

For pregnant women, studies have shown that omega-3s, especially DHA, can help prevent preterm births. Even women who don’t plan to have children should be sure to get plenty of omega-3s, as these healthy oils have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, which is the number one killer of women globally.

To meet your omega 3 fat requirements, you need to eat fish at least twice a week.  This includes all fish, but particularly fatty fish, such as pilchards, sardines, herring, salmon and mackerel which are high in omega 3 fatty acids. Each serving should be around 100g, or about ¾ cup of flaked fish.  Try this rainbow trout ceviche with pomegranate guacamole for something different.

If you’re unable to have two servings of fish a week, consider taking an omega-3 (fish oil) supplement two to three times a week. For vegans, there’s a marine algae supplement available.

“Getting your vitamins and minerals in food form is always best”

“For the general population, there’s no need to ‘overdose’ on vitamin pills and supplements, so save that for when it’s specifically prescribed for you, or a temporary Plan B. Getting your vitamins and minerals in food form is always best because the balance between vitamins and minerals play a big role in their efficacy,” says Harris.

Thankfully, you don’t have to worry about knowing exactly which supplements to consume with what for best results, because “healthy foods already package an ideal mix of different vitamins and minerals,” she adds. Just eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods of different colours, and you’ll be covered!

Read the first article in this Women’s Month series: 6 Tips for a month of healthy eating

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.