Good nutrition is important throughout your whole life and all nutrients have their place. But are there particular nutrients or food groups that you should be eating more of, according to your age or life stage? Here, Jean Hailes dietitian Stephanie Pirotta and Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella provide their expert advice on which foods to focus on when, to help you protect your current and future health.
Whatever your current age, be sure to read over all the sections below, or at least each of the 'Key focuses and foods'. Looking back, you can pick up some extra tips and start applying them now. Looking forward, you can prepare yourself for the years ahead.
Investing in your mental health can be important for women of all ages. However, recent research suggests it may be particularly important for young women.
The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health found that 45% of women in their early 20s experience high levels of stress and psychological distress, and that a third of women aged 18-23 years have been diagnosed at some point with depression or anxiety.
With this in mind, Sandra Villella's nutrition tips for young women focus on an emerging and exciting field of research: the link between food and mental health.
"A large Italian study that came out this year showed that a particular diet was linked to having higher psychological resilience – meaning, being better able to cope with stress," says Ms Villella.
This diet was the Mediterranean diet, which has also been found to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and various cancers.
"The Mediterranean diet is rich is natural wholefoods, with a particular focus on vegetables, as well as olive oil, fruits, legumes and wholegrains," says Ms Villella. "In this study, consuming high amounts of antioxidants present in these foods and including a large variety of fruits and vegetables was associated with higher mental resilience and stress-coping ability." Read more about the Mediterranean diet.
Accredited practising dietitian Stephanie Pirotta advises women to start thinking about their calcium intake in their 20s, to make it a habit for life.
"Bone health in women usually starts declining rapidly around 50 years of age, so it is important to build healthy bones from early life by eating enough calcium and doing weight-bearing physical activity," she says.
Loss of bone strength leads to osteoporosis, a condition in which your bones become more fragile and more prone to breaks. To help prevent this, women in their 20s onwards need to pay attention to their calcium intake. "Aim for 2.5 serves of dairy – for example 200ml of milk, 200g yoghurt and 40g cheese – per day," advises Ms Pirotta.
Key focuses and foods:
- Protect and enhance your mental health with the Mediterranean diet and include a wide variety of colourful fruits and vegetables – eat the rainbow!
- Stay on top of your calcium intake to protect your bones for later life. Good sources include dairy (such as milk, yoghurt and cheese) and sardines (with the bones in) – try this 'un-fishy' recipe. Calcium is also found in vegetarian/vegan-friendly food such as calcium-enriched tofu/tempeh, soy, almonds and broccoli. It requires a bit more work to reach your required levels with these foods, but every bit helps.
For many women in their 30s, fertility and pregnancy are often on the agenda, which is significant when it comes to nutritional needs. A "crucial" part of preconception nutrition, says Ms Pirotta, is the nutrient folate.
Folate is a B vitamin and is particularly important in pregnancy and breastfeeding for the development of the baby's nervous system and for preventing neural tube defects from developing in utero.
You can increase your folate intake by eating folate-rich foods or by taking a folic acid supplement. Folate is found in dark green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and cabbage, as well as sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and fortified breakfast cereals. "As a nutrient, it is very sensitive to heat and light, so raw forms of these foods are best – cooking will decrease the levels," says Ms Villella.
Ms Pirotta says that women in their 30s and 40s can sometimes find themselves low in iron. "Heavy menstrual bleeding is one cause of low iron, and pregnancy also increases your iron needs," she says. "Common symptoms of iron deficiency are fatigue, weakness, poor immunity, loss in concentration and dizziness."
Ms Villella agrees. "At this life stage, women are often juggling many roles – working and parenting – and fatigue can really become an issue." Ms Villella advises women to include 100-150g (raw weight) of red meat, a rich source of iron, in their diets three times a week. "This is consistent with the recommendation of eating no more than 500g of red meat per week, which has been linked with an increased risk of some cancers," she says.
If you think you may be low in iron, talk to your GP about whether an iron test is right for you. It's important to get your levels checked before taking an iron supplement.
Key focuses and foods:
Heart disease is one of the top killers of women in Australia and many risk factors can be avoided by diet and lifestyle changes. The earlier in life you make these changes, the better.
"Women in their 40s should set themselves up for optimal heart health," says Ms Villella.
The Mediterranean diet is backed by solid evidence that it can reduce your risk of heart disease. Read more about it here.
In line with one of the guiding principles of the Mediterranean diet, eating the right balance of fats is particularly crucial in preventing heart disease, says Ms Pirotta. "Monounsaturated fat is a heart-healthy fat," she says. "Sources include avocados, almonds, peanuts, cashews, olive oil and sesame oil – so include these in your diet.
"Omega-3 fats (polyunsaturated fats) are also proven to have heart-healthy benefits. You can find these fats in fish, walnuts and linseeds."
Ms Villella adds that soluble fibre can help to lower your 'bad' cholesterol levels (a risk factor for heart disease) so women in their 40s should start including wholegrains in their diet if they haven't already. "Oats, barley and psyllium are good sources of soluble fibre," she says.
Key focuses and foods:
- Set yourself up for heart health by following in the footsteps of the Italians, Greeks and Maltese – eat the Mediterranean way.
- Turn your focus to healthy fats and get the balance right. Increase your dietary monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats (listed above), and decrease saturated fats.
An important nutrient for women in their 50s is vitamin D. "Bone mineral density tends to sharply reduce around this time due to hormonal changes of menopause," says Ms Pirotta. "Vitamin D helps to strengthen your bones and helps your body absorb calcium.
"Approximately 20 minutes of daily sunshine (depending on the time of year, location in Australia and your skin colour) should increase your vitamin D levels. Otherwise a vitamin D supplement may be appropriate if you are low in vitamin D, but make sure you keep up the calcium too!" (refer to 20s section above).
The symptoms of menopause can have a significant impact on women in their 50s and onwards, but there are particular food groups which may help to ease the symptoms. Ms Villella explains that about one in three women may get symptom relief from eating adequate amounts of soy foods. Why only one in three? "Because only about a third of the population have the particular gut bacteria that is crucial to the process," she says.
However, Ms Villella reminds us that not all soy foods are created equal. She recommends whole soy foods such as tofu, soybeans, tempeh and soy milk made with whole soy beans. "The protein in soy is also useful in lowering 'bad' cholesterol so it can be a heart-healthy choice too," she says. Check out her recipe for a Minestrone-style soup with soybeans.
Key focuses and foods:
- Keep bone health front and centre and ensure you're getting enough vitamin D and calcium.
- Could you be the one in three? Whole soy foods may help to relieve menopausal symptoms in one in three women.
As we age, our nutrient requirements remain roughly the same. However, ensuring you're getting moderate amounts of protein may be especially beneficial at this time. "Protein helps us to retain lean muscle mass, which is important in keeping us fit and mobile," says Ms Villella. "Protein also promotes feelings of fullness and appetite satisfaction, so we don't snack excessively on sweets."
Another important consideration for women in their 60s onwards is that their digestive systems will likely become less efficient at absorbing nutrients. "This is part of the ageing process, and unfortunately it can increase the risk of nutrient deficiency," says Ms Pirotta.
One such nutrient that older adults may be lower in is the mineral zinc.
"The research shows us that zinc deficiency is linked to issues with cognition, such as difficulties with memory, learning, concentrating, or making decisions," says Ms Pirotta. "Zinc deficiency can also increase the risk of depression and mood disorders."
And where do you find zinc? In protein foods (see the sources below). So by having a moderate amount of protein in your diet, you're addressing two potential problem areas with one solution!
Key focuses and foods:
- Keep your muscles mobile by eating good sources of quality protein every day and, as a bonus, you'll also be keeping up your zinc levels. Go for fish, seafood, chicken, red meat, nuts, dairy, legumes (such as beans, chickpeas and lentils) and seeds.
Find more nutrition tips and delicious recipes by visiting the Jean Hailes Kitchen.