As women, we never shy away from taking on too much (even when guilty as charged). We take on everything from planning our girls’ trips to the wage gap, but now it’s time to take on a different kind of gap—the nutrient gaps we face throughout our lives. Because, like wage gaps, nutrient gaps are cheating us out of living our best lives.
So what exactly is a nutrient gap or shortfall? It’s that space between meeting the recommended dietary intake of a vitamin or mineral and the amount of that essential nutrient that we actually manage to consume each day.
Nutrient gaps are nothing new, but we’re learning more about just who is in need and when. With the demands on our bodies, it’s no surprise that women are getting hit the hardest. For example, according to a study using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), women are more likely than men to suffer from vitamin D and calcium shortfalls.1 Nutrient gaps can lead to nutrient deficiencies, which can cause more significant health issues. We aren’t boding well here either, given that 37% of U.S. women are at risk of a vitamin deficiency or anemia.2
“37% of U.S. women are at risk of a vitamin deficiency or anemia.”2
But as women, we’re used to facing challenges head on, and with the right nutritional knowledge we can tackle nutrient gaps too. So let’s get to it.
A Lifetime of Good Health Through Good Nutrition
We have enough going on to keep us on our toes. And to add to the fun, our health priorities are a bit of a moving target throughout our lives. But with the proper nutrition, we can keep feeling and looking our best no matter what life stage we’re in.
Career, Kids, Or Both: Nutrient needs in your 20s-40s
Whether you’re working your way to a degree, starting a career, or starting a family, you should ensure you’re getting enough of the following nutrients in either your diet or through dietary supplements.
Calcium is one of those nutrients that all women are in need of from childhood through adulthood in order to help build and maintain strong bones and teeth. While calcium is important throughout our lives, our need for this mineral is even greater during pregnancy and breastfeeding. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet during pregnancy, for example, your baby will draw what they need from your bones.3†
Getting enough calcium in your younger years, in addition to following a healthy diet and getting enough physical activity, may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.†
On the topic of bone health, vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium and is essential for bone, teeth, muscle, and immune system health—making it a must for all women who find it difficult to meet recommended nutrient intake for vitamin D.4†
Beyond bones, vitamin D shortfalls can cause issues elsewhere. Almost every tissue in our bodies has vitamin D receptors, including our brains, so even unexpected things like a low mood may be due to vitamin D deficiency.6
Iron deficiency affects about 1 in 10 women who are pregnant and 1 in 4 women during their third trimester.7
Vital for red blood cell formation, iron is an essential nutrient for women in their reproductive years for a few reasons. Menstruating women, especially women who experience heavy bleeding, may find themselves depleted of iron. Additionally, pregnancy increases the blood volume in a woman’s body, requiring iron to make the extra blood. Studies show that an iron deficiency in women during childbearing years may affect mood and even cause fatigue.8 So it’s a good idea to get a little extra iron in your diet along with vitamin C, which can help your body absorb it better.5†
Folate or Folic Acid
Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9. Folic acid is the synthetic version of folate that is added to many fortified foods and for good reason. Folate is a vital nutrient in supporting our nervous system and helping with the development of our babies. It helps prevent neural tube defects in developing fetuses, which can cause significant problems or be fatal to the baby. That’s why it’s recommended that all women of childbearing age who might get pregnant ensure they are getting enough vitamin B9 through their diet or
Like us, the mineral magnesium knows how to multitask, but most of us aren’t getting enough of it. Not only does it help support nerve, heart, and muscle function, but also bone and teeth health. Some studies suggest women with PMS may have low levels of magnesium and vitamin B6, so it’s even more important to get enough of these essential nutrients in your diet.9†
There’s a ton running through our minds during this time in our lives. So our brains could use a little love. Luckily the EPAs and DHAs in fish oil omega-3s help support brain health, specifically DHA for brain health10 and EPA for mood.11†
If family planning is on the agenda, DHA is good for pregnant women as it plays a role in supporting fetal brain and eye development. But according to a study looking at NHANES data, most pregnant women fall short of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans on the recommended amounts of omega-3s.12 So if you’re pregnant (or trying to be) serve up some seafood or supplements with an omega-3 that contains at least 200 mg DHA.†
Getting in the daily habit of consuming enough omega-3s today will help support your heart healthnow and in the future.†
Whether it’s full steam ahead on your career or chasing after kids, this is the time in your life when energy is in high demand. And vitamin B12 is important for converting the food you eat into cellular energy as well as helping out your nervous system. Vitamin B12 is found mostly in foods such as fish and meat, making it important to supplement with B12 if you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet. B12 is also important for healthy nervous system development in fetuses and babies.†
Prenatal and Postnatal Vitamins with DHA If you haven’t noticed from the list above, growing a healthy human inside of you requires some extra nutritional support. It can be hard to meet all those needs from food alone, especially when nausea and morning sickness are added to the mix. That’s why health organizations and most doctors recommend women complement a healthy diet with prenatal multivitamins with DHA during pregnancy and postnatal multivitamins with DHA while breastfeeding.
Making The Most Of Mid-life: Nutrients you need in your 40s–60s
As we move through our 40s, we start hitting our stride in our careers and home life but run into new changes in our health and wellness such as perimenopause and menopause. So while you’re busy tackling everything on your list, don’t forget to add a line for taking these essential nutrients.
Estrogen is a hormone that we all know well. In addition to being one of the hormones that regulates menstruation, estrogen helps support our bone health as well. But as we age and enter perimenopause and menopause, our estrogen levels start to decline. This makes us more prone to developing osteoporosis in our bones. As a result, we have a greater risk of fractures, making it critical that we get enough calcium in our diet along with other bone-health supporting nutrients like magnesium and vitamin D3.†
Vitamin D shortfalls continue to be a concern for women as they age. In fact, women are more likely than men to experience a vitamin D shortfall during this time in their lives.1 Mood swings can be common symptoms of perimenopause and menopause. And when it comes to mood and vitamins, some interesting connections are being made. Low mood has been associated with a lack of vitamin D and for good reason. Muscle aches are another surprising and yet very common symptom of a vitamin D nutritional shortfall.
“...women are more likely than men to experience a vitamin D shortfall during this time in their lives.”1
Vitamin D and calcium have long been hailed as the dream team when it comes to helping support bone health. But a shortfall in both nutrients has also been associated with poor sleep in women,13 which can already be a challenge during menopause. So doubling down on both of these nutrients will help support your bones and hopefully your sleep as well. Almost every tissue type in the body contains a vitamin D receptor including, you guessed it, the brain.6 With these many tissues relying on vitamin D, it’s worth making sure our diets provide us with enough of it.†
Magnesium Magnesium is finally having its moment in the spotlight, and it’s about time. As a mineral, magnesium is responsible for over 300 metabolic reactions in the body, and the majority of us aren’t getting enough.4 It also helps support nerve, heart, muscle function, and bone health.†
Omega-3s Omega-3s are known to help support heart health along with diet, exercise, and other lifestyle factors. Therefore, women of any age could benefit from adding omega 3 fatty acid supplements to their diet or dietary supplement routine, but as we age cardiovascular health becomes increasingly more important. Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.†
Post-Menopause, Retirement & The Golden Years: Nutrient needs in your 60s and beyond
For many women, retirement and empty-nesting can be a time to focus on yourself and your health. But sometimes we can quickly find ourselves in a new role of caregiving to either our aging parents or grandchildren. Whatever your life brings, be sure to include these essential nutrients in your diet.
As we pass menopause and enter post-menopause, our rising and dipping estrogen levels finally level out but are much lower. Because estrogen is a hormone that plays an important role in protecting bone health, women during this phase of life are at an even greater risk for developing osteoporosis, and as a result are vulnerable to bone fractures making it critical that we get enough calcium in our diet.†
Vitamin D Aging not only takes a toll on our bones, but also on our muscle mass. The good news is that vitamin D helps bone and muscle health.14 It’s also been found to support muscle function, which is important to help prevent falls as you age.†
B Vitamins, Especially B12
As we age, we don’t absorb vitamin B12 as well from common protein sources due to a reduced level of a specific stomach acid.15 But vitamin B12 is important for converting the food we eat into cellular energy and supporting our nervous systems, all of which are things we should care about no matter how old we are. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may need a supplement of B12 since it is mostly found in animal products such as meat, poultry, and fish.
As we age, our sleep patterns tend to change and sometimes not for the better. In fact, women who experience inadequate sleep were also found to have magnesium shortfalls.13 Magnesium is also a component in helping bone health and is good for muscles—all of which need a little more love as we age.†
Multivitamins for Women 50+
As we grow older our appetites tend to decline. This can make it difficult for older women to get many of the essential nutrients they need. For this reason, it’s a good idea to supplement with a multivitamin formulated for women 50+ to cover any nutrients that may be missing from your diet.
TAKE A LOOK AT YOUR NEEDS
Empowering ourselves with nutritional knowledge can help us today and give us foresight for the future. Talk about unstoppable.
† These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Wallace, T et al. Calcium and Vitamin D Disparities Are Related to Gender, Age, Race, Household Income Level, and Weight Classification but Not Vegetarian Status in the United States: Analysis of the NHANES 2001–2008 Data Set. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2013; 32 (5): 321–330. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24219375
Blumberg, JB et al. Impact of frequency of multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplement intake on nutritional adequacy and nutrient deficiencies in U.S. adults. Nutrients. 2017; 9 (8): 1–8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28792457
Fathizadeh, N et al. Evaluating the effect of magnesium and magnesium plus vitamin B6 supplement on the severity of premenstrual syndrome. Iran J Nurs Midwifery Res. 2010; 15 (1): 401–405. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22069417
Firth, J et al. The efficacy and safety of nutrient supplements in the treatment of mental disorders: a meta-review of meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials. World Psychiatry. 2019; 18 (3): 308–324. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31496103
Carroll is a nutrition scientist and communicator with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, researcher, and educator at major universities, medical centers, and nutrition industry settings. She is a passionate advocate of nutritional health and established the nutrition education and science platforms at Pharmavite. Carroll is an expert in personalized nutrition and has published several scientific papers on vitamin and mineral inadequacies and the impact on health and wellbeing. Prior to joining Pharmavite, Carroll taught nutrition at UCLA Medical School and Santa Monica College and was a chief clinical dietitian and researcher.