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Women have unique nutritional needs compared to men — and these needs change throughout the various stages of life. Women, on average, are shorter and weigh less than men, so this accounts for some of the uniqueness. Yet, while women need fewer calories than men, they typically require more vitamins and minerals.

Many factors, including different hormone levels, reproductive considerations, metabolic differences and more, mean women and girls have special nutritional requirements for optimal health. Let’s discuss some of these needs and explain how to adjust accordingly.

Nutrition and Bone Health

Due to a decrease in estrogen levels during menopause — a hormone that helps maintain strong bones — and biologically smaller and thinner bones, women are at a higher risk for osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become fragile and weak. In fact, the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation reports that of the estimated 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, approximately 80% of them are women. Regardless of age and whether pre- or post-menopausal, osteoporosis can be prevented by getting enough vitamin D and calcium through a well-balanced diet. These are two nutrients that work together to help form and maintain strong bones. Calcium is particularly essential, as not getting enough through food will cause previously stored calcium to be taken from the bones, further causing bone weakness.

Here are quality food sources for these nutrients:

Vitamin D: fish, egg yolks, fortified dairy products or milk alternatives, fortified cereals, fortified orange juice

Recommended intakes:

Women 19-70yo: 15 mcg (600 IU) vitamin D/day

Women >70yo: 20 mcg (800 IU) vitamin D/day

Example: 1 cup of dairy milk contains ~3mcg (120 IU) vitamin D/day

Calcium: milk, yogurt, cheese, fortified milk alternatives, fortified orange juice, fortified cereals, tofu, salmon (particularly canned), green leafy vegetables

Recommended intakes:

Women 19-50yo: 1000 mg calcium/day

Women 50+yo: 1200 mg calcium/day

Example: 1 cup of dairy milk contains ~300 mg of calcium

Iron and Anemia

Due to menstruation, women must consume more iron when pre-menopausal. Iron is an essential nutrient that helps form hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen all around our body, as well as myoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen to muscle. When iron levels get too low in the body, this can lead to iron deficiency anemia, a condition where the body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells. This often results in symptoms like fatigue, lack of energy and brain fog.

Iron occurs in two forms in food: heme and non-heme iron. Plant foods only contain non-heme iron, whereas animal products contain both non-heme and heme iron. Because heme iron is more easily absorbed and used in the body than non-heme iron, vegetarians and vegans must be more conscious of ensuring they are getting enough iron through diet or supplementation, especially if they menstruate.

There are not established iron recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) for vegetarians and vegans, but per the National Institutes of Health (NIH), needs are estimated to be 1.8 times more than those of meat eaters.

Iron absorption can be increased in the body when eaten alongside vitamin C-containing foods, such as citrus fruits, peppers, tomatoes and strawberries. Good sources of iron include the following:

Heme iron (animal products): lean red meats, seafood – particularly oysters, clams, shrimp, sardines, poultry

Non-heme iron (plant-based products): tofu, fortified cereals, beans, spinach, lentils

Recommended intakes:

Women 19-50yo: 18 mg iron/day

Vegetarian/Vegan Women 19-50yo: ~32 mg iron/day (approximated)

Pregnant Women: 27 mg iron/day

Pregnant Vegetarian/Vegan Women: ~49 mg iron/day (approximated)

Women 51+yo: 8 mg iron/day

Vegetarian/Vegan Women 51+: ~14 mg iron/day (approximated)

Example: 3oz of oysters provides ~8 mg iron

Nutrition for Menopause

As previously mentioned, menopause carries greater risk for osteoporosis, as well as increased risk of weight gain and heart disease. Current research indicates that making lifestyle changes when menopause starts can be significant in reducing some of these risks. In addition to frequently eating foods high in vitamin D and calcium, some of the recommended diet changes include:

  • Increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables
  • Getting fats from heart-healthy sources like olive oil, canola oil, fatty fish, nuts, seeds and avocados
  • Limiting saturated fat from red meats, full-fat dairy products like butter or cream, fried foods and processed meats
  • Choosing whole grain carbohydrates like whole wheat bread, brown or wild rice, quinoa and whole wheat pasta
  • Reducing added sugars
  • Limiting sodium

In addition to these broad recommendations, a few individual nutrients have been studied for potential symptom improvement for menopause. Completed research includes a type of plant compound called phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are typically broken into two classes: isoflavones, found primarily in soy, and lignans, found in flaxseed, whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. While the research has been inconclusive, some evidence suggest that increasing consumption of phytoestrogens may reduce frequency of hot flashes. Additional studies also indicate that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, walnuts or flaxseed, could improve menopause symptoms, but more research is needed. Either way, whether these foods do truly produce measurable improvement in menopause symptoms, they are highly nutritious foods that can only improve your overall health.

Help Yourself to Vitamin and Mineral-Rich Foods

To ensure you are meeting your unique nutritional needs and putting yourself in the best position for good health, consider adding more of the foods mentioned above. If you are concerned about potential vitamin or mineral deficiency, please speak with your medical provider before beginning any supplement.

It’s May, and that means it’s Women’s Health Month — an important time to focus on your own health as well as the health of the women you love.

About Marissa Parminter, MS, RD, LDN

Parminter is a registered dietitian who loves to utilize intuitive eating principles to support people in leading happier and healthier lives. With a background in both nutrition and fitness, Parminter holds a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and a master’s degree in exercise physiology and sports nutrition from Florida State University. Parminter is also a Certified Personal Trainer and loves sharing her passion for joyful movement with all of her clients. Joining WakeMed Corporate Wellness Services in 2021, Parminter has enjoyed supporting her clients’ wellness journeys through individualized nutrition counseling and interactive classes. Outside of work, Parminter enjoys trying new restaurants, baking and snuggling her cocker spaniel, Murph.

About WakeMed Corporate Wellness Services

WakeMed Corporate Wellness extends beyond traditional wellness programs. We strive to cultivate healthy habits among employee populations and improve health outcomes all while increasing productivity, optimizing human resource investments and boosting employee engagement.

Our comprehensive corporate wellness services are specifically designed to meet the needs of your workplace. From biometric screenings and educational presentations to health coaching, mobile wellness services, COVID-19 vaccine clinic, and flu vaccine clinics, our team of health care professionals works closely with corporate clients to build a wellness program that best meets the needs of their employees.

Whether you have thousands of employees or just a handful, WakeMed Corporate Wellness has the solutions your employees need to be successful in their health journey. Contact us to learn more about the customized corporate wellness services we offer.

About WakeMed Nutrition Services

Our licensed, registered dietitians in Outpatient Nutrition Services are committed to providing evidence-based, scientific nutrition advice. Nutrition counseling is offered for:

For more information, or to schedule an appointment, please call or have your physician FAX a referral to us. Insurance coverage and costs may vary.

Phone: 919-350-7000, option 1, then option 3

FAX: 919-350-8959


Staying healthy and safe | Office on Women’s Health (womenshealth.gov)

What Women Need to Know – Bone Health & Osteoporosis Foundation (bonehealthandosteoporosis.org)

Effect of omega-3 supplements on vasomotor symptoms in menopausal women: A systematic review and meta-analysis – ScienceDirect

Iron – Health Professional Fact Sheet (nih.gov)

Nutrition in Menopausal Women: A Narrative Review – PMC (nih.gov)

Efficacy of phytoestrogens for menopausal symptoms: a meta-analysis and systematic review – PMC (nih.gov)

Disclaimer: The advice of individual medical providers serves as guidance from the specific provider and is not intended to establish standards of clinical practice or rules of law for WakeMed Health and Hospitals.

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Marissa Parminter MS, RD, LDN