arrow-small-left Created with Sketch. arrow-small-right Created with Sketch. Carat Left arrow Created with Sketch. check Created with Sketch. circle carat down circle-down Created with Sketch. circle-up Created with Sketch. clock Created with Sketch. difficulty Created with Sketch. download Created with Sketch. email email Created with Sketch. facebook logo-facebook Created with Sketch. logo-instagram Created with Sketch. logo-linkedin Created with Sketch. linkround Created with Sketch. minus plus preptime Created with Sketch. print Created with Sketch. Created with Sketch. logo-soundcloud Created with Sketch. twitter logo-twitter Created with Sketch. logo-youtube Created with Sketch.

Nutritional must-haves in your 20s and 30s

Life is often full to the brim in early adulthood, making it difficult to tick all the nutritional boxes. So we’ve asked the experts to highlight some of the best nutrients for young women – and easy ways to get enough.

The nutrient for periods

Iron is your go-to mineral for healthy blood and a healthy immune system. It’s also an especially important nutrient if you have periods, because blood loss can lower iron levels, according to Jean Hailes Naturopath Sandra Villella. “This is particularly the case if you have heavy periods,” she adds.

When iron levels get too low, you may experience tiredness, weakness, difficulty exercising, brittle nails, headache and pale skin.

Good iron-rich sources include beef, lamb, chicken and fish. You can also find it in plant foods, such as beans, green leafy vegetables, wholegrains and iron-fortified cereals. “Just be aware the iron in plant foods isn’t as well absorbed as the iron in animal foods,” says Ms Villella.

To increase iron absorption from these plant foods, Accredited Practising Dietitian Dr Anika Rouf recommends eating them alongside foods high in vitamin C. For example, try dressing your spinach salad with lemon juice.

Also be aware that meat eaters can have low iron levels if they don’t consume enough iron or have heavy periods, adds Dr Rouf.

If you’re pregnant, your iron needs will also be higher.

A note on supplements: Dietary supplements can be useful at certain stages of life and in certain cases. Just be aware that some supplements can interact with medications and cause harm in high doses. Before taking them, speak to your GP.

Bone builders

“Calcium is a bone builder that’s really important during your 20s because that’s when you achieve peak bone mass [your bones reach their maximum strength],” says Dr Rouf. “After about the age of 25, bone strength starts to decline.”

To help protect bone health, look for good sources of calcium, such as dairy products, calcium-fortified dairy alternatives, tofu, sardines, tinned salmon (with bones), nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables. Ms Villella’s bircher muesli, sardines on toast and roast vegie salad offer excellent doses of the nutrient.

Just be mindful that your body needs vitamin D to help absorb calcium. Vitamin D is mainly produced when you expose your skin to sunlight. (You can also get small amounts of it through food, such as egg yolks, salmon and fortified margarine.)

Power food

Protein is important for strengthening your muscles and immune system. It also provides energy and helps you feel full.

Good sources of protein include lean meat, poultry, seafood, tofu, legumes, nuts, seeds and dairy.

Dr Rouf suggests spreading your protein intake throughout the day. “At main meals, aim for a quarter of your plate to be protein. For snacks, try easy options like nuts, eggs, canned tuna, yoghurt, or cheese and crackers.”

Pregnancy essentials

If you’re planning a pregnancy, there’s a list of nutrients that are particularly important. Folate is one of them. It helps prevent neural tube defects in the unborn baby. (The neural tube eventually becomes the baby’s brain and spinal cord.)

You can find folate in supplement form (as folic acid), or in foods such as raw green leafy vegetables, legumes, citrus fruits and fortified breads and cereals.

According to Ms Villella, it’s important to take folic acid supplements that contain the B-group vitamins at least one month before and for three months after falling pregnant. Adds Dr Rouf: “If the pregnancy is unplanned, it’s important to incorporate the supplement as soon as you find out.”

Another important nutrient during pregnancy (and breastfeeding) is iodine. It helps the baby’s developing brain.

“For pregnant and breastfeeding women, an iodine supplement is recommended,” says Dr Rouf.

The vitamin to watch (if you don’t eat meat)

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, it’s important to keep vitamin B12 on your radar. Found mainly in animal-based foods, such as meat, poultry, seafood, dairy and eggs, vitamin B12 helps make red blood cells and keep your nervous system healthy.

Unfortunately, early signs of vitamin B12 deficiency aren’t always obvious. That’s why Dr Rouf recommends asking your GP whether you’d benefit from taking vitamin B12 supplements and having regular blood tests to monitor your levels.

It’s all about balance

As with most things in life, healthy eating is about balance. Dr Rouf says: “Eat widely from the different food groups to ensure you’re meeting your nutritional needs. If you’re vegetarian, vegan, trying to conceive, pregnant or breastfeeding, visit your GP or an Accredited Practising Dietitian.”

All rea­son­able steps have been tak­en to ensure the infor­ma­tion cre­at­ed by Jean Hailes Foun­da­tion, and pub­lished on this web­site is accu­rate as at the time of its creation. 

Last updated: 
15 January 2024
Last reviewed: 
15 April 2024