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Important nutrients at different life stages

Your body needs many vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. Learn more about important nutrients for women, and nutrition at different life stages.

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Calcium

Calcium is needed for healthy bone development. Your body can’t make calcium, so you need to get it from your food. Bones absorb most of your body's calcium, but if you don’t have enough in your diet, your body takes calcium from your bones. This can lead to loss of bone strength and osteoporosis.

You can get calcium from dairy products and other foods such as:

  • seafood (e.g. fish, mussels, oysters, prawns, canned sardines and salmon with bones)
  • green vegetables (e.g. broccoli, rocket, kale, bok choy)
  • fruit (e.g. strawberries, oranges, figs, dates, kiwi fruit)
  • nuts and seeds
  • meat (e.g. pork and chicken)
  • eggs
  • calcium-set tofu
  • canned chickpeas
  • soybean.

It’s recommended you meet your calcium needs through your diet, including animal and plant-based foods. But if you don’t get enough calcium from food, you may need a calcium supplement. Ask your doctor for more information.

Iron

Iron transports oxygen in the blood. It also helps the immune system work properly. Low levels of iron can make you feel tired and may lower your immunity. If you have heavy periods, you may be at risk of having low iron levels.

Iron can be found in:

  • meat (e.g. beef, lamb, chicken, fish)
  • plant foods (e.g. beans, lentils, green leafy vegetables)
  • nuts and seeds
  • wholegrain cereals
  • iron-fortified breakfast cereals
  • dried fruit and nuts
  • eggs.

Eating a variety of foods will help you get enough daily iron. Aim to eat two to three serves of lean red meat each week. Try to combine iron-rich foods with foods that contain vitamin C (e.g. vegetables and citrus fruit) to help with iron absorption.

Eating meat is a good way to boost your iron levels, but if you don’t eat meat talk to a dietitian or nutritionist about other sources of iron. Iron supplements can be helpful if your iron levels are low. It’s important to have a blood test before taking iron supplements. Ask your doctor or dietitian for supplement recommendations.

Protein

Protein is a nutrient needed to make and repair muscles and bones. It also helps produce hormones and brain chemicals. It supports your immune system and is important for healthy skin, hair and nails.

Your body also uses protein for energy if you haven’t eaten enough carbohydrates.

Protein is made up of amino acids. Your body is unable to make essential amino acids, so you need to get them through food and drink. It’s best to choose unprocessed protein foods that are low in salt and sugar. For example:

  • fish and seafood
  • eggs
  • chicken, turkey and duck
  • lean cuts of red meat such as beef, veal, pork, lamb and kangaroo
  • dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt
  • legumes such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, split peas and soybeans
  • tofu
  • grains such as quinoa
  • nuts, seeds and some wholegrains like wheat, rice, oats and buckwheat.

If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, talk to a nutritionist or dietitian to make sure you are getting enough protein. Learn how to Power up with protein.

Iodine

Iodine helps the thyroid gland make hormones that support metabolism and normal development of the brain, nerves and bone.
Your body doesn’t make iodine, so you need to get it from your food.

The amount of iodine you need each day depends on your life stage. For example, you need more when you are pregnant and breastfeeding, for your health and your baby’s development.

Iodine can be found in the ocean and soil. The amount of iodine in food depends on the season, soil quality and the way food is processed. Sources of iodine include seafood, bread and iodised table salt. Iodine is also added to non-organic flour and bread in Australia.

You can also take iodine supplements if needed. Ask your doctor for more information.

Omega-3 fats

Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat. They support brain function, growth and development. Research suggests omega-3 fats help your body in many ways. For example, they lower the risk of heart disease, reduce inflammation, support the immune system, reduce blood pressure, help treat depression and increase fertility.

Research also shows that a diet rich in omega-3 fats reduces the risk (and severity) of endometriosis.

Omega-3 fats are found in seafood, plant and animal sources, including:

  • fresh and canned fish and seafood, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, anchovies, sardines and oysters
  • nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, pecan nuts, hazelnuts, tahini, linseed and chia seeds
  • oils, such as canola, soybean, vegetable, olive and linseed, and some butters and margarines
  • cheese, meat, eggs and chicken.

Some foods have extra omega-3 fats added to them, such as milk, yoghurt, eggs and bread.

Most people who eat fish, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables can get enough omega-3 fats from food.

If you have heart disease, you may need to boost your intake with omega-3 supplements, such as fish oil supplements (capsules or oil) and omega-3-enriched foods and drinks. Ask your doctor for more information.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus, which are needed for bone development and strength. It’s also important for cell growth, a healthy immune system, hormone function and nervous system regulation.

Some research suggests levels of vitamin D in the body may impact certain diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune diseases and cancer.

Most of your vitamin D is made when your skin is exposed to sunlight. It’s normal for vitamin D levels to change throughout the year. For example, your levels are highest in late summer and lowest at the end of winter.

Small amounts of vitamin D are in foods like oily fish, eggs, mushrooms, fortified margarines, cereals and milk.

In Australia, about one in four adults do not have enough vitamin D. If you have low levels of Vitamin D, your doctor may recommend a vitamin D supplement.

Healthy Bones Australia sunshine map

The amount of time you need in the sun to get enough vitamin D varies depending on the season (summer or winter) and where you live in Australia. It’s important to balance the need for sun exposure with the need to protect your skin from sun damage.

You can use the Healthy Bones Australia sunshine map to work out how much time you need in the sun each day

Folate

Folate (also called ‘B9’ and ‘folic acid’) is a vitamin that is important for your nervous system and supports healthy growth and development.
Folate is found in:

  • green leafy vegetables (raw vegetables contain more folate)
  • legumes (e.g. baked beans, chickpeas, soybeans, split peas, lentils)
  • citrus fruits (e.g. oranges, grapefruit)
  • seeds (e.g. sunflower seeds)
  • nuts (e.g. peanuts)
  • eggs
  • cereals fortified with folate
  • non-organic wheat flour
  • bread made with fortified wheat flour.

It’s recommended you take a folate supplement at least one month before getting pregnant and throughout the first three months of pregnancy, as it’s needed to form a healthy neural tube in your baby. The neural tube eventually develops into the brain and spine. Ask your doctor for more information.

Phytoestrogens

Phytoestrogens (plant oestrogens) occur naturally in plants. They act in a similar way to oestrogen (a female hormone).

Phytoestrogens have many health benefits. For example, they can imitate the effect that oestrogen has on the body and may help relieve menopausal symptoms in some women (e.g. vaginal atrophy, sleep disturbances and problems with memory and cognition).

Phytoestrogens can be found in:

  • soy products (e.g. tempeh, soybeans, tofu, miso, whole soybean soy milk, soy drinks)
  • grains (e.g. oats, rice, barley, quinoa, rice bran, rye, wheat germ)
  • seeds and nuts (e.g. linseed, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pistachios, almonds)
  • legumes (e.g. chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, alfalfa, mung beans, split peas.

Tips to increase phytoestrogen intake

You can:

  • choose soy-linseed breads and crackers
  • choose oats for breakfast
  • add tofu to your meals instead of meat-based protein
  • add wheat germ or linseed to your smoothies
  • include legumes in your salads and casseroles
  • sprinkle nuts on your yoghurt.

You can also try these recipes:

Phytoestrogens are also available as supplements. Ask your doctor for more information.

This con­tent has been reviewed by a group of med­ical sub­ject mat­ter experts, in accor­dance with Jean Hailes pol­i­cy.

1
Khan SU, Lone AN, Khan MS, et al. Effect of omega-3 fatty acids on cardiovascular outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. EClinicalMedicine. 2021;38:100997. Published 2021 Jul 8. doi:10.1016/j.eclinm.2021.100997
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Giacobbe J, Benoiton B, Zunszain P, Pariante CM, Borsini A. The Anti-Inflammatory Role of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Metabolites in Pre-Clinical Models of Psychiatric, Neurodegenerative, and Neurological Disorders.Front Psychiatry. 2020;11:122. Published 2020 Feb 28. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00122
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Abodi M, De Cosmi V, Parazzini F, Agostoni C. Omega-3 fatty acids dietary intake for oocyte quality in women undergoing assisted reproductive techniques: A systematic review. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2022 Aug;275:97-105. https://doi: 10.1016/j.ejogrb.2022.06.019. Epub 2022 Jun 27. PMID: 35779332.
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Marcinkowska A, Górnicka M. The Role of Dietary Fats in the Development and Treatment of Endometriosis. Life (Basel). 2023;13(3):654. Published 2023 Feb 27. doi:10.3390/life13030654
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Dietitians Australia, Vitamin D, https://dietitiansaustralia.org.au/health-advice/vitamin-d
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Dunlop E, Boorman JL, Hambridge TL, et al. Evidence of low vitamin D intakes in the Australian population points to a need for data-driven nutrition policy for improving population vitamin D status. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2023;36(1):203-215. doi:10.1111/jhn.13002
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Department of Health and Aged Care, Pregnancy Care Guidelines, Nutrition and physical activity
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Bedell S, Nachtigall M, Naftolin F. The pros and cons of plant estrogens for menopause. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2014;139:225-236.
Last updated: 
12 February 2024
 | 
Last reviewed: 
24 January 2024

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