Women need to get enough of six key minerals and vitamins for optimal health. The good news? It’s easy to do.
Everywhere you turn, there’s advice on what, how and when to eat. It can feel totally overwhelming—but it doesn’t have to be all that complicated. The first step to achieving a balanced diet is to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, protein and whole grains, says Crystal Karakochuk, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s department of food, nutrition and health. Then be sure to get enough of the minerals and vitamins that will help you feel vibrant through mid-life.
Calcium is a mineral we store mostly in our bones and teeth to keep them strong and healthy. Some calcium is also needed for muscle function and to help our nerves send messages from the brain to other parts of the body.
It’s important for all women to get enough calcium in their diet. “You want to make sure you keep your bone integrity healthy,” says Shauna Lindzon, a registered dietitian in Toronto. Health Canada recommends women under age 50 get 1,000 mg of calcium per day and women over 50 get 1,200 mg of calcium per day.
Calcium is often associated with a glass of milk—that’s because 250 mL of milk has 300 mg of calcium in it, or almost a third of your daily requirement. But if drinking milk is not your thing, you can turn to other types of dairy, like cheese and yogurt, for a quick calcium fix.
If you avoid dairy, it’s a bit harder to get enough calcium, but not impossible, Lindzon says. Milk alternatives like almond, soy and oat milk are typically fortified with calcium at the same levels you’d find in the equivalent amount of cow’s milk. Other foods, like canned sardines and canned salmon, vegetables like bok choy, and nuts, seeds, legumes and lentils all contain calcium. But with these foods, says Lindzon, you really need to focus on making sure you get enough into your diet on a daily basis to meet your calcium requirement. “I recommend that people who aren’t drinking cow’s milk explore the milk alternatives, because it makes it a lot easier to get up to the 1,000 milligrams.”
is a nutrient our bodies produce when exposed to sunlight; it’s found naturally in and added to some foods. It helps your body absorb calcium, to keep your bones strong, and also supports your immune system. “It’s such a complex nutrient—it’s doing so many things on so many different levels,” says Karakochuk.
Samara Felesky-Hunt, a registered dietitian in Calgary, adds that vitamin D may also reduce your risk for certain cancers, like colon, breast and prostate cancer.
Health Canada says adults under 70 years of age need 600 IU of vitamin D a day. Lindzon, however, says the amount each person needs can vary based on factors like age and skin colour. “As we get older, the absorption of vitamin D in our gut goes down,” she explains.
How much vitamin D you get from the sun will also dictate how much you need to make up in food or supplements, but that’s hard to judge. “For instance, people with darker skin or people who cover their skin will be getting very little from sun absorption,” says Lindzon, who adds that you can ask to have your vitamin D levels checked as part of a routine blood test.
Your body naturally makes vitamin D when the sun hits your bare skin, but most people don’t get enough of it this way. “Especially in Canada, we do not get enough vitamin D between October and March,” Lindzon says. Milk and milk alternatives are typically fortified with vitamin D, and you can often get as much as you need by consuming these—in Canada, 250 mL of milk is required to contain 100 IU of vitamin D. Other than that, there aren’t that many food sources people eat regularly that are high in vitamin D, says Lindzon, although fatty fish, fish oils and eggs do contain some.
Health Canada recommends everyone over the age of 50 take a vitamin D
supplement of 400 IU; however, women of any age should talk to their doctor or a registered dietitian about whether they should be taking a supplement.
supports the nervous system and DNA production, and helps the body form red blood cells. Because it is found mostly in animal products, people who are vegetarian or vegan can develop vitamin B12 deficiency or even anemia, which occurs when there aren’t enough red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body.
Adults need 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 a day, although that goes up to 2.6 mcg if you’re pregnant and 2.8 mcg if you’re breastfeeding.
Vitamin B12 is found in animal products, and people who eat adequate amounts of animal products typically get all they need from their diet. “Things like beef, clams and trout are all high in B12,” says Lindzon. Eggs and dairy also contain B12, since they come from animals, and milk alternatives like soy, almond and oat milks are often fortified with it. Nutritional yeast, which you can find at most grocery stores, is a cheesy-flavoured seasoning you can sprinkle on foods like kale chips, popcorn or potatoes—and it is high in vitamin B12.
If you’re vegan, Lindzon notes you’ll likely need to supplement with a vitamin B12 pill. Women over 50 can have lower stomach acidity and be unable to absorb B12 as well as they could when they were younger, so may also need to supplement. Vitamin B12 shots are pretty common now, says Karakochuk, who recommends speaking with your doctor or dietitian.
is a mineral your body uses for growth and development, and to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to other parts of your body.
“Iron is so important for women during the years they’re menstruating,” says Felesky-Hunt. That’s because you’re continuously losing iron through blood loss every month; it’s also why the amount of iron a woman needs (18 mg per day) is significantly higher than a man’s requirements (8 mg). Felesky-Hunt says this often surprises women in her practice, whose male partners tend to eat much more red meat than they do. Pregnant women need even more iron: 27 mg per day. Women’s needs drop to the same level as men’s after menopause.
There are two types of iron: heme iron, which comes from meat (particularly red meat), and non-heme iron, which is found in plant-based sources, like lentils, legumes, nuts and seeds. “Heme iron is absorbed better than the plant-based iron,” says Lindzon. This means if you’re a vegetarian or tend not to eat a lot of red meat, you might need to consume more iron-rich foods to meet your daily requirements. You can also increase the absorption of iron by adding vitamin C to your meal. “For instance, you could combine spinach, which has iron in it, with strawberries in a salad,” she says.
is a mineral that, along with calcium and vitamin D, helps maintain bone health. “Magnesium is also really important for muscle and proper heart function,” says Felesky-Hunt.
Adults over the age of 30 need 320 mg of magnesium a day, and that goes up to 360 mg a day during pregnancy.
Thankfully, magnesium is found in many of the foods we eat. “Foods that are high in magnesium include dark, leafy greens, nuts and seeds,” says Lindzon. Magnesium is also found in dairy products, fish like halibut and wheat bran. “You can add wheat bran to any baked good you make,” Felesky-Hunt says.
is a B vitamin that makes DNA and helps your cells divide. Many people know it by the name of its synthetic form: folic acid. Taking folic acid supplements in pregnancy is known to reduce the risk of neural-tube defects in babies. “Even later on, women need folate for healthy red blood cells and for reducing homocysteine [an amino acid produced when proteins are broken down], which reduces our risk for cardiovascular disease,” says Felesky-Hunt.
Health Canada recommends women who are planning to get pregnant take a folic acid supplement of 400 mcg for at least three months before conception and continue to take it (or a prenatal multivitamin) throughout pregnancy.
If you’re not pregnant or planning on getting pregnant, you can generally get all the folate or folic acid you need from your diet. Vegetables like asparagus, Brussels sprouts and dark, leafy greens contain folate, as do nuts, beans and peas. In Canada, folic acid is also added to many flours, pastas and cereals. “For the most part, nobody’s really folate deficient unless, for example, you’re making your own bread and you’re not adding any fortified flours,” says Karakochuk. In that case, you should talk to your doctor about adding a supplement.
Experts emphasize that when it comes to good nutrition, it’s not just about the vitamins and minerals we consume—it’s the whole package. “One of the focuses now in Canada’s Food Guide is on more protein from plant-based sources,” says Karakochuk, who encourages women to add more plant-based proteins to their diets. Felesky-Hunt notes that in her practice, she finds many women aren’t eating enough calories for energy during the day and aren’t meeting their daily nutrition needs. “It’s just so important, with hectic lifestyles and dealing with kids and work schedules, to eat enough to provide the specific nutrients women need at a very important stage of life.”
THE AMOUNT OF IRON A WOMAN NEEDS DURING THE YEARS THAT SHE’S MENSTRUATING IS SIGNIFICANTLY HIGHER THAN A MAN’S REQUIREMENT