Nutrition and Women's Health: iron,folic acid, calcium

Nutrition and Women's Health For many women, running a home, bringing up children and taking care of elderly relatives, as well as working outside the home, can influence their physical and mental well being. Ensuring good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle can contribute significantly to women's health throughout their lives.

Rapid growth during adolescence, menstruation and the demands of pregnancy and lactation can result in an increased risk of low levels of nutrients such as iron, folic acid and calcium.

Surveys of nutritional status frequently demonstrate chronic shortages of these nutrients, not only in a woman's earlier years but extending through into later life.

Low-energy diets, slimming regimes, eating disorders and the increasing number of vegetarians make women even more vulnerable to nutritional inadequacies.

The importance of iron Women of childbearing age have increased iron needs and hence are at risk of iron deficiency anaemia. It is important for them to eat those foods that are not only rich in iron but are also eaten in significant quantities and from which iron is reasonably well absorbed.

Haem iron from haemoglobin, present in meat and meat products, is well absorbed. Sources of non-haem iron include green vegetables, baked beans, peanuts and fortified breakfast cereals.

Dietary sources of vitamin C are also significant because they improve the absorption of non-haem iron.

Folic acid and pregnancy All women of childbearing age who are capable of becoming pregnant should also consume additional folic acid every day for the purpose of reducing the risk of having a pregnancy affected with spina bifida and other neural tube defects.

Folate requirements increase substantially during pregnancy, and it is generally recommended that women of childbearing age should consume an extra 400 mg of folate daily from supplements, fortified foods, or both, in addition to consuming folic acid from a wide variety of foods, including offal and raw green leafy vegetables.

Calcium for strong bones Calcium is an important factor in bone mineralisation and skeletal development during growth, and the main sources are milk, cheese, yoghurt and green vegetables.

Already it is apparent that some young children and adolescents seem to reduce their intake of calcium just at a time when their need is greatest, and the impact on bone health is compounded by a decline in physical activity.

Along with other nutrients such as folic acid, vitamins B6, B12, C and D, which help build up the framework of bone onto which the calcium deposits, there is a need to ensure optimal calcium nutrition at this time of skeletal development as well as during the pre- and post-menopausal states.

The decreased oestrogen production in menopausal women is associated with accelerated bone loss and osteoporosis in women after their fifth decade.

During this time, women lose on average about 3% of their skeletal mass per year.

With rising life expectancy exceeding that of their male counterparts, women can expect to reach the age of 80 or more, and since the age of menopause has not greatly changed, a woman can anticipate spending 30 years-nearly one third of her life in a post-menopausal state.

It is therefore essential to promote positive nutrition practices, by encouraging a varied and balanced diet among women throughout all their life stages to ensure their own health and well-being, as well as that of their offspring.

References The Nutrition Society (1997) Symposium on nutritional issues for women. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 56 (1B), 291-391.

The Lancet (1997) Women's health. The Lancet 349 (supp. 1), 1-26.

National Dairy Council Nutrition Service (1996) Nutrition and women's health. Fact File no. 13. NDC, London.Aggett, P. (1995)

Iron and women in the reproductive years in British Nutrition Foundation: Iron, nutritional and physiological significance. Task Force Report, 110-118. Chapman and Hall, London.

References: European Food Information Council (EUFIC) Date last updated: 16 November 2006

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