In honor of National Women’s History Month, I came up with my quick and dirty guide to the top 5 nutrients women should pay special attention to.
We all need iron, but women of child-bearing age need more. Iron forms part of the hemoglobin molecule whose job it is to carry enough oxygen throughout our body and return carbon dioxide to the lungs so you can breathe it out. If you don’t have enough iron, you can’t make enough hemoglobin, and your oxygen/carbon dioxide shuttle can’t keep up. The result is fatigue and lack of energy that can’t be fixed by a nap or sleeping in (although you’ll feel like doing both). The exhaustion from iron-deficiency can affect lots of things, including brain function and your immune system’s ability to fight infections. Women between 19-50 need 18g of iron per day (compared to 8mg/d for men and women over age 50) because they lose blood every month during their menstrual cycle. Pregnant and breastfeeding women also have increased needs as a result of the demand on the body of growing and nourishing the baby.
Chronic fatigue is the main symptom of iron-deficiency, but you may also have chills, feel short of breath, have brittle or spoon-shaped (indented) nails or hair loss, or you may have a sore tongue, difficulty swallowing, and sores at the corners of your mouth. If you have any of these symptoms, a simple blood test at your doctor’s office can identify iron-deficiency. Don’t take an iron supplement unless instructed to do so by a healthcare professional.
Good food sources of iron are organ meats (consume sparingly!), red meat, some shellfish, sardines, tofu, beans, enriched grains like breakfast cereals or bread, prunes, and dark green leafy vegetables, to name a few. Iron from animal sources is more readily absorbed by the body than that from plant sources, but keep in mind that either way, the average person only absorbs about 10% of the iron consumed. To get the most of your iron-rich foods, avoid calcium-rich foods at the same meal, as the two will compete for absorption.