Although adequate nutrition is the fundamental key to living a healthy life for both men and women, through all stages of life, it is particularly crucial that women keep up with the increasing demands as their bodies undergo changes as they age.
Why is nutrition important for young women?
It is quite common for women to become deficient in key nutrients as their reproductive lifecycle, such as menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding and pre-menopause, are biological changes that increase nutritional demands.1 Hormonal changes throughout these cycles will affect the body, increasing energy intake and micronutrient requirements and, whilst it’s essential to consume dietary sources to keep up with these increasing demands, most fall short as they underestimate the amount of change their bodies are actually going through – particularly how the drastic changes in hormones can impact the whole body. Because of these hormonal changes, women are at a greater risk for developing osteoporosis, suffering from anaemia, and physical alterations that may cause weight fluctuations.2
In 1931, a chemist named R.J. Williams discovered vitamin B5, also known as Pantothenic acid. He named it as such based on the Greek word ‘panthos’, which means ‘everywhere’ because pantothenic acid serves as a structural role as part of CoA – the foundational unit of energy used in every metabolic pathway in the body. Similar to all B vitamins, vitamin B5 supports the conversion of food into energy. Pantothenic acid deficiency is rare because of its wide distribution and fundamental nature in basic human survival; however, humans are entirely dependent on endogenous – meaning dietary - sources in order to meet the body's metabolic requirements for energy production.3 Accordingly, B5 is an absolute necessity in red blood cell synthesis, steroid metabolism, neurological function and maintenance, and plays an important role in the immune system as it stimulates the production of antibodies. Although B5 is available in a multitude of food sources, you can optimise your intake by consuming foods such as cheese, eggs, meat, peanuts, yeast, wheat, soybeans, and many more.4
Vitamin C – also referred to as ascorbic acid – is one of the most widely used vitamin supplements. The reason being is that the body can’t produce it on its own, so it’s deemed essential to human health. Rightfully so, this vitamin is connected to some incredible health benefits so ensuring your intake is adequate is vital. Your body requires vitamin C to form blood vessels, cartilage, muscle and collagen in bones, and critical in healing processes. Vitamin C is water-soluble and can be found in food sources in the vegetable and fruit family – including citrus fruits, potatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, kale and spinach.5
Research indicates that vitamin C can boost your immune system and strengthen natural defences against foreign invaders as it is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from oxidative damage associated with the accumulation of free radicals. One benefit that is of particular importance, to women especially, is that vitamin C improves your body’s ability to absorb and store iron– particularly vitamin C supplementation has been shown to improve absorption of iron by 67%. Iron is the component in the blood responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body, as well as red blood cell generation. Vitamin C intake is also encouraged in part due to its ability to generate and maintain lymphocytes and phagocytes – known as the body's defence cells that help the body fight against infection.6
One of the most vital minerals to human health is iron. All cells in the body contain iron, however, it is primarily found within red blood cells. Iron is the functional component of blood, essential to synthesising haemoglobin, which is the main transportation of oxygen throughout the body. Deficiency can lead to fatigue, weakness and difficulty concentrating – especially for menstruating women who lack sufficient sources to combat deficiency symptoms. Iron is also required for healthy brain function as it aids in synthesising serotonin which is the chemical responsible for the regulation of behaviour. The brain requires a constant source of oxygen, so it is vital to maintain adequate levels of iron to preserve optimum cognitive function.7-8
There are two forms of dietary iron: haem and non-haem. Haem iron sources include meat, poultry, and fish, whereas non-haem iron sources include cereals, legumes, fruits and vegetables. Haem iron has greater bioavailability, meaning that there is little interference of its absorption in the body by other dietary factors; whilst non-haem iron absorption is substantially lower based on its lower bioavailability which means there is a greater chance of food components interfering. Interestingly, the presence of non-haem iron in dietary sources is much greater in quantity when compared to its counterpart, haem iron.8-9
Folate was discovered when a scientist used brewer’s yeast – an extract high in folate – reversed anaemia in women during pregnancy, where they isolated folate to eventually synthesise it as folic acid. Folic acid is a popular topic in terms of historical significance as, in the world of nutrition, it plays a role in the development of aminopterin, the first cancer drug. In terms of current news, it’s been discovered that folic acid aids the prevention and treatment of health conditions – particularly neural tube defects and vitamin B deficiency symptoms. It is common to confuse folic acid with folate, although one is a synthetic derivative of the other, folic acid is used to treat folate deficiency.10 Folate deficiency is a concern for women especially because it can lead to megaloblastic anaemia, a condition where bone marrow produces red blood cells that are both abnormal, immature, and unusually large in size.11
According to research, combining folic acid and vitamin B12 is beneficial for cognitive health and function. However, there are risks involved in supplementing with folic acid if the individual has an undiagnosed B12 deficiency as it may lead to neurological complications. Interestingly so, a deficiency in B12 creates an anaemia nearly identical to folate deficiency but also causes damage to the nervous system that is irreversible. While folic acid can correct the anaemia caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency, it does not have the ability to reverse or prevent neurological damage or its progression.11 Therefore, it can be assumed that there are benefits of supplementing with these nutrients but only when combined together as folic acid can make up for any failures of solo supplementation with vitamin B12.12
One nutrient that is underestimated in the benefits it provides to the body is zinc. Before zinc was discovered as a metal, it was being used to produce brass material and zinc salts for medical purposes that date as far back as the Babylonian and Assyria era. Zinc is vital to the body as it participates in various biological processes that allow us to function on a daily basis. Following iron, zinc is present in every cell, making is the second-most abundant mineral in the human body.13 Our body requires zinc to participate in enzymatic activities involved in the immune system, metabolism, nerve function, and digestion. Accordingly, it’s involved in collagen synthesis, proper wound healing, inflammatory responses, and reducing oxidative stress because it boosts helper T-cell activity in the body. One function of zinc that is not commonly well-known to the general population is that it’s required to synthesise a particular enzyme that gives us our ability to have a sense of taste and smell.13-14
A severe deficiency is rare, but it’s imperative that women maintain adequate levels during pregnancy and breastfeeding to ensure their babies do not suffer the symptoms of a zinc deficiency – which include impaired growth and development, skin rashes, impaired wound healing and issues with behaviour. However, those who are vegetarians, vegans, pregnant and/or breastfeeding pose a greater risk of developing a deficiency and will suffer from decreased immunity, thinning of hair, mood disturbances, dry and cracked skin, and fertility issues.14 Luckily, zinc is found in natural sources – both plant and animal – as well as fortification in cereals, snack bars, and flour. Foods with the highest levels of zinc are meat, poultry, fish, dairy, grains, eggs and vegetables to name a few.15
- King, J. C. (2000). Physiology of pregnancy and nutrient metabolism. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 71(5), 1218S-1225S.
- Westphal, L. M., Polan, M. L., Trant, A. S., & Mooney, S. B. (2004). A nutritional supplement for improving fertility in women. J Reprod Med, 49(4), 289-93.
- Deuchande, K., & Harrington, D. J. (2019). Discovery to diagnosis. In Laboratory Assessment of Vitamin Status (pp. 1-20). Academic Press.
- Huisjes, R., & Card, D. J. (2019). Methods for assessment of pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5). In Laboratory Assessment of Vitamin Status (pp. 173-179). Academic Press.
- Siepelmeyer, A., Micka, A., Simm, A., & Bernhardt, J. (2016). Nutritional Biomarkers of Aging. In Molecular Basis of Nutrition and Aging (pp. 109-120). Academic Press.
- Hays, N. P., & Roberts, S. B. (2003). Aging–nutritional aspects.
- Hurrell, R., & Egli, I. (2010). Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 91(5), 1461S-1467S.
- Abbaspour, N., Hurrell, R., & Kelishadi, R. (2014). Review on iron and its importance for human health. Journal of research in medical sciences : the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, 19(2), 164–174.
- Zimmermann, M. B., & Hurrell, R. F. (2007). Nutritional iron deficiency. The lancet, 370(9586), 511-520.
- Zhang, S. M., Cook, N. R., Albert, C. M., Gaziano, J. M., Buring, J. E., & Manson, J. E. (2008). Effect of combined folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 on cancer risk in women: a randomized trial. JAMA, 300(17), 2012–2021. doi:10.1001/jama.2008.555
- Visentin M, Zhao R, Goldman ID. The antifolates. Hematol Oncol Clin North Am. 2012;26(3):629–ix. doi:10.1016/j.hoc.2012.02.002
- Bendich, A., & Deckelbaum, R. J. (2001). Preventive Nutrition Throughout the Life Cycle. In Primary and Secondary Preventive Nutrition (pp. 427-441). Humana Press, Totowa, NJ.
- Craddock, P. T. (1987). The early history of zinc. Endeavour, 11(4), 183-191.
- Chuong, C. J., & Dawson, E. B. (1994). Zinc and copper levels in premenstrual syndrome. Fertility and sterility, 62(2), 313-320.
- Bhowmik, D., Chiranjib, K. P., & Kumar, S. (2010). A potential medicinal importance of zinc in human health and chronic. Int J Pharm, 1(1), 05-11.