Are women more at risk of a nutrient deficiency?
Ever wondered how women’s nutritional requirements change throughout life? Find out how this may put you at increased risk of a deficiency.
The UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2008-2014)  showed that women's average vitamin and mineral intake was significantly lower compared to men. In fact, this was true for nine key nutrients, including iron, calcium, and B12, among others.
The result is that many women fall below dietary benchmarks when it comes to certain vitamins and minerals — but why the discrepancy?
As you move through life, your nutritional needs differ. This is particularly true for women who experience more unique life stages, such as periods, pregnancy, and menopause. Knowing this can help you to adapt your diet accordingly to optimise your health.
In this blog we discuss:
- Nutritional needs of younger women
- Nutritional needs of women in pregnancy
- Nutritional needs of women in menopause
- Nutritional needs of older women
- Why are women more at risk of a nutrient deficiency?
Nutritional needs of younger women
There are a few nutrients that you may need to be more aware of as a young woman, including:
Most women start their period around the age of 12. This continues until menopause, which on average occurs at 51. During your period, blood (and iron) is lost, so your need for iron is greater. Over a quarter of women may be getting less iron than they need . Therefore, it’s important to consider whether you are getting enough iron sources from your diet.
One of the richest sources of iron is red meat, but other great sources include:
- Dried fruits
Consuming foods high in vitamin C, such as fruits and vegetables, can help your body absorb iron from food .
Calcium is an essential nutrient for maintaining healthy, strong bones. Calcium intake is especially important for younger women, as women keep building bone mass until around 30 years of age. The UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey  showed that women in their 20s were less likely to meet their minimum calcium intake needs than women in their 50s .
Not only is calcium especially important for younger women for growth, but it is also an important factor in reducing the risk of developing osteoporosis (something women are more at risk of developing than men) .
The best calcium source in our diet is dairy products. But you can also find calcium in foods such as:
- Nuts, like almonds
- Spinach and broccoli
- Calcium-set tofu
- Calcium-fortified plant milk
If you’re still finding it difficult to meet your recommended daily intake of calcium, supplements can help. Just bear in mind that supplements should never be a substitute for a nutritious diet.
Nutritional needs of women in pregnancy
Healthy eating during pregnancy is essential for getting all the nutrients your body and baby need to stay healthy. When pregnant, there are certain foods that you may need to avoid, such as foods high in mercury and anything that runs a higher risk of food poisoning, such as unprocessed cheeses and smoked salmon.
Alongside foods that you shouldn’t be eating, there are certain nutrients that you will need to pay more attention to such as iron, folate, and vitamin D.
During pregnancy, the number of red blood cells has to increase to supply enough oxygen to the baby. Iron is needed as a building block for this process, so more is needed by the body. The baby will also use some of this iron to create its own red blood cells.
Because of this increased demand for iron, women are more prone to iron deficiency during pregnancy. Iron deficiency anaemia increases the likelihood of postnatal depression, low birth weight babies, and premature delivery. To minimise this risk, pregnant women are offered screening blood tests.
If your iron stores are low, your doctor may prescribe an iron supplement to correct this. Usually, a pregnancy-related iron deficiency will rectify itself post-birth.
Experts recommend that women trying to conceive and women in their first 12 weeks of pregnancy should take a folic acid supplement of 400ug a day. This is because the body needs more of this nutrient during the growth and development of the foetus. You should take this supplement alongside a diet containing lots of folate-rich foods.
Foods rich in folate include:
- Green, leafy vegetables
- Legumes, such as lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, and soybeans
Folic acid is essential for your baby’s health because it supports the development of a healthy nervous system and prevents neural tube defects (NTDs).
If you are pregnant or want to check your folate levels to make sure your diet is providing you with what you need, our Folate (Serum) Blood Test can help. The test comes with expert advice from our doctors alongside the next steps should you need any.
3. Vitamin D
Everyone needs vitamin D, and during winter, experts suggest taking a daily supplement of 10µg. This is especially important if you’re pregnant, to make sure your baby has enough vitamin D for the first few months of life .
If you do not take a vitamin D supplement through pregnancy, your child could have an increased risk of rickets (a disease that affects bone development in children).
A vitamin D deficiency can also cause other unwanted symptoms. You can read more about vitamin D and vitamin D deficiency in our Vitamin D Guide.
Nutritional needs of women in menopause
During menopause, hormone levels fluctuate which can affect your body in different ways. These hormonal changes can increase the rate of calcium loss from bones and increase the risk of developing conditions like osteoporosis (a condition that makes your bones weak and more likely to fracture) and heart disease.
Therefore, for menopausal women, a heart-healthy diet high in omega-3 fats and calcium is optimal.
Foods rich in omega-3 include :
- Oily fish
- Chia seeds
Some research suggests that foods containing isoflavones (a special compound found in some plant foods) can help reduce some symptoms of menopause, such as the severity of hot flushes . Some people may even benefit from a supplement – look for supplements containing 18.8mg of genistein (the most effective type of isoflavone).
Nutritional needs of older women
Menopause isn’t the only thing that can affect your risk of nutrient deficiency later in life. In older age, appetite tends to decrease, and your calorific needs change. Many experts believe that protein requirements increase in the elderly, to help preserve muscle mass and strength. Insufficient protein intake can lead to sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is a loss of muscle and strength leading to an increased risk of falls and fractures and is more common in the elderly.
Good sources of protein include:
- Dairy products
As well as keeping an eye on protein levels, older adults should also monitor their vitamin D levels. As you get older, your ability to convert vitamin D from sunlight decreases, increasing the risk of a deficiency .
Why are women more at risk of a nutrient deficiency?
Above, we have explained the nutritional needs of women throughout life and how they change over time. Because of the changes that happen to a woman’s body over her lifetime — from periods to menopause – women are at increased risk of certain nutrient deficiencies.
As well as physiological processes like periods, it’s likely diet culture has a role to play in the development of nutrient deficiencies in some women. Making drastic changes to your diet — like cutting out carbs completely or eating a very low-calorie diet — may mean you’re missing out on key nutrients. Of course, for some people, dieting can be a very successful way to lose weight, but it’s worth being mindful of what’s on your plate and making sure it’s still balanced.
Ultimately, both biological factors and social factors can leave women more prone to nutrient deficiency. So, the best thing you can do to ensure you are not deficient in any key nutrients is to eat a healthy balanced diet, and if you are worried, get tested.
- Derbyshire, E. (2018) “Micronutrient intakes of British adults across mid-life: A secondary analysis of the UK national diet and nutrition survey,” Frontiers in Nutrition, 5.
- Recommendations for women (no date) British Nutrition Foundation. Available at: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/life-stages/women/nutrition-recommendations-for-women/ (Accessed: December 29, 2022).
- Life stages (no date) Nutritionist Resource. Available at: https://www.nutritionist-resource.org.uk/articles/life-stages.html (Accessed: December 29, 2022).
- EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA), 2014. Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of a health claim related to vitamin C and increasing non haem iron absorption pursuant to Article 14 of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. EFSA Journal, 12(1), p.3514
- Vitamin D in pregnancy (no date) Tommy's. Together, for every baby. Available at: https://www.tommys.org/pregnancy-information/im-pregnant/nutrition-in-pregnancy/vitamin-d-pregnancy (Accessed: December 29, 2022).
- nutritionist, N.S.– R. (2022) The best sources of omega-3, BBC Good Food. BBC Good Food. Available at: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/best-sources-omega-3 (Accessed: December 29, 2022).
- aku, K., Melby, M.K., Kronenberg, F., Kurzer, M.S. and Messina, M., 2012. Extracted or synthesized soybean isoflavones reduce menopausal hot flash frequency and severity: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Menopause, 19(7), pp.776-790
- Gallagher, J.C. (2013) “Vitamin D and aging,” Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America, 42(2), pp. 319–332. (Accessed: December 29, 2022).