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As we celebrate Women's Health Month, it's essential to focus on the specific nutritional needs of women. Christina Downey, MD, division chair of Rheumatology and a lifestyle medicine specialist, shares that many women eating a typical Western diet often lack key nutrients like iodine, vitamin D, and calcium.

These deficiencies can be more pronounced among those following vegetarian or vegan diets, who might also be missing iron, vitamin B12, and folate. These vitamins and minerals play a vital role in various bodily functions, from maintaining bone health and energy levels to supporting thyroid function and preventing anemia. Without adequate intake, women can experience a range of health issues, including fatigue, muscle weakness, and even heart problems. Addressing these deficiencies through a balanced diet and targeted supplementation can significantly improve overall health and quality of life for women.

The Role of Vitamins as Women Age

Women have different nutritional needs as they age. According to Downey, women in their menstruating years are at greater risk for iron deficiency due to monthly blood loss. As women age, particularly post-menopause, the risk of weak bones increases, making vitamin D and calcium even more critical. She also noted that women who are or may become pregnant should take folic acid to support healthy fetal development, which starts before pregnancy is even detected.

Older women experience a decrease in lean muscle mass and an increase in body fat, underscoring the need for adequate protein intake. Additionally, women taking certain medications or who drink alcohol may develop vitamin B deficiencies, requiring supplementation.

Deficiencies and Weight Management

Achieving a healthy weight requires a holistic approach that goes beyond just diet and exercise. Nutritionally, Downey says it's crucial to consume enough protein, fiber, and healthy fats. These nutrients support muscle growth and digestion and help you feel satiated, reducing the temptation to overeat.

Downey says resistance training is important for maintaining lean muscle mass, which is vital for boosting metabolism, while cardiovascular exercise helps burn fat, improves heart health, and enhances mood and sleep quality. She also says proper sleep and effective stress management are critical; chronic sleep deprivation and high-stress levels can lead to an overproduction of stress hormones, hindering weight loss efforts.

"Iodine deficiency can cause hypothyroidism, which makes weight loss difficult. Other deficiencies that cause muscle weakness or fatigue can discourage regular exercise, impacting weight control,” Downey says. 

Where to Find Vitamins in Food

“Food is always superior to supplementation," Downey says. "Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and sources of healthy fats is a near guarantee against vitamin deficiency in a healthy person.”

Some foods to find each vitamin in include:

  • Iodine: Seaweed, plain yogurt, milk, enriched bread, eggs, enriched salt
  • Vitamin D: Oily fish, mushrooms, fortified milk, egg yolk
  • Calcium: Dairy products, kale, broccoli, salmon, soy, oats
  • Iron: Fortified breakfast cereal, white beans, spinach, kidney beans
  • B12: Fortified cereal, salmon, milk, nutritional yeast
  • Folate: Dark leafy greens, chickpeas, peanuts, whole grain bread

Downey recommends consulting with a doctor before starting any supplementation, especially if you are on other medications. Multivitamins are generally safe, but it's essential to be cautious with fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, as they can accumulate to toxic levels. Water-soluble vitamins are less likely to cause toxicity due to their excretion by the body.

“There is no magic bullet to weight loss through supplements, but they may be appropriate for some people,” Downey says.

Learn more about the health services designed for women at Loma Linda University Health at lluh.org/womens-health.

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