Everyone needs vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to stay healthy and keep our cells, organs, and tissues working well. Ideally, we’d always be able to get all the nutrients we need through the foods we eat. But eating a balanced and nutritious diet can be challenging. In fact, less than 10% of Americans meet the daily recommended intake for vegetables, setting the stage for nutrient deficiencies. Women in particular go through unique life stages — like pregnancy and menopause — that come with different nutritional demands and can make it more difficult to get necessary vitamins and minerals from diet alone.
The good news is that there are dietary supplements available to help women stay healthy in each of these important life stages. In fact, more than 60% of adult women and 80% of women over 60 use dietary supplements as a safe way to get the nutrients they need.2
Here are some of the most common nutrients women need at key moments in their lives:
Iron: From when women start their periods until they enter menopause, they are losing iron on a regular basis and are more likely to be iron deficient. Peak bone mass occurs in the late twenties, so it is important that young woman consume enough bone building nutrients calcium and vitamin D during their teens and twenties. In addition, developing women who do not eat fish several times a week should consider a fish oil supplement with omega-3 fatty acids to support heart health and balance excess inflammation.
Adult Women (18 – 50 years)
Fiber is important to keep our gut healthy and help control blood sugar and cholesterol levels. But too many women don’t get the 25 grams of fiber they need each day. A review of more than 250 scientific studies showed that getting enough fiber can decrease the risk of dying from heart disease or cancer by 16%to 24%.3
Pregnant and Nursing Women
If you are pregnant or could become pregnant, it’s important to take a multivitamin that includes folic acid, iodine, and choline. Each of these nutrients supports brain and spinal cord development in babies. Often, women also need iron supplements to ensure a healthy blood supply for growing babies. Prenatal multi vitamin also provide other nutrients that are critical to a healthy pregnancy including B12,vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium.
Hormone changes that accompany menopause cause women to lose bone density faster than men. Many women don’t get enough calcium and vitamin D from the food they eat, and need supplements to fill the gaps. It is helpful to estimate the daily amount of calcium you consume and only supplement the missing amount. For example, a cup of milk provides about 300 mg of calcium. [SW(5] There are helpful websites4 or mobile apps5 that can help determine calcium intake from food. Vitamin B12 supplements are also recommended for older women (and men) because as we age, our bodies don’t absorb vitamin B12 as well.
Vegetarian and Vegan Women
If you follow a plant-based diet, it can be challenging to get sufficient amounts of certain nutrients. For example, vitamin B12 is readily available in eggs and dairy but is not found in most plants. Other nutrients that can fall short in the diet of a vegetarian or vegan include, calcium, iron, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins B12, B2, and D.6
Supplements to Support Life Stages
Taking dietary supplements is not a replacement for a healthy diet. However, supplements are a safe and smart option to fill nutrient gaps. Not all women need to use supplements, but experts agree that there are different groups of women that benefit from taking supplements to get key nutrients during different life stages or diet choices.
When deciding which dietary supplements to use, it is important to think about what you eat. For example, if you work on a fishing boat and eat salmon three times a week, an omega-3 supplement is probably not necessary. However, if you are a vegetarian woman planning to become pregnant, an algae-based omega-3 supplement is the perfect supplement for you. The National Institutes of Health maintains a library of supplement information that can be a helpful resource.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables, 2018. Atlanta, GA
2 Mishra S,Stierman B, Gahche JJ, Potischman. Dietary Supplement Use Among Adults: United States, 2017–2018. NCHS Data Brief No. 399, February 2021.
3 Reynolds A, Mann J, Cummings J, et al. Carbohydrate quality and human health: a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Lancet.2019 Feb 2;393(10170):434-445.
4 International Osteoporosis Foundation. Calcium calculator. Available at: https://www.osteoporosis.foundation/educational-hub/topic/calcium-calculator
5 OF Calcium Calculator. Available at: https://appadvice.com/app/iof-calcium-calculator/956198268
6 Craig WJ. Nutrition concerns and health effects of vegetarian diets. Nutr Clin Pract. 2010;25:613-20.