I love, love, love those “how-to at every age” articles in women’s magazines: what to wear in your 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, how to decorate your house, which haircut, lipstick, nail polish, etc. is the most appropriate. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to these articles, but what’s great about them is that some fashion/decor/beauty expert has boiled down what I need to know into a super-short list of recommendations that I will (hopefully!) remember.
So, at the risk of sounding like a nutrition know-it-all, I’m now using my expertise as a registered dietitian to contribute with my list of must-eat foods for every woman at every age.
My disclaimer: these are just the highlights. Get more details on whether you’re getting enough of the nutrients your body needs here.
In your 20s: Lean Beef
Lean beef is rich in iron—3 ounces contains about 3 milligrams, or about 15 percent of your daily needs. (Clams, oysters and poultry are also good sources containing 24, 5 and 2 mg per 3 ounces, respectively.) You need iron to transport oxygen from your lungs to the cells in your body. During your childbearing years, your recommended intake is highest at 18 mg/day because you need to replace what’s lost each month through menstruation—the only other time you need more is during pregnancy at 27 mg/day. Get delicious recipes for healthy hamburgers here.
Other ways to get iron: It’s in beans (up to 13 mg per 3/4 cup), dark leafy greens (1/2 cup cooked spinach = 3 mg) and dried fruit, but in these foods it's in a form that your body can’t absorb as easily. You can boost your iron absorption by pairing them with a vitamin C-rich food, such as oranges and sweet potatoes. Fortified products, such as breads, cereals and breakfast bars, also contribute significant amounts of iron (some fortified cereals can contain up to 24 mg of iron per 1-cup serving), but again in a form that’s not as easily absorbed alone.
In your 30s: Beans
Beans are brimming with folate—a vitamin that women need before and during pregnancy to prevent birth defects. One cup boasts about 200 to 300 micrograms, depending on the variety. Folate (and folic acid, the form used in dietary supplements and fortified foods) is so important for mothers-to-be because it helps produce DNA and form healthy new cells. As with iron, the daily recommendation for folate is highest during your childbearing years (400 mcg/day). The only other times it’s higher is during pregnancy (600 mcg/day) and lactation (500 mcg/day). Nutrition experts advise pregnant women, and those planning to get pregnant, to get 400 micrograms of folic acid from supplements and fortified foods—in addition to eating folate-rich foods.
Other ways to get folate: Green leafy vegetables like spinach (1/2 cup cooked = 121 mcg) and citrus fruits (a cup of OJ = 110 mcg) are also rich in folate. Fortified foods, such as bread, pasta, flour, breakfast cereal and rice, can contain as much as 700 micrograms per serving, although most fall in the 300 to 400 mcg range.
In your 40s: Whole Grains
Whole grains will help you combat two things that you might be battling as you enter your 40s: 1. Increasing blood pressure (thanks to heart and artery walls thickening and stiffening over the years) and 2. A slowing metabolism (it slows by 1 to 2 percent each decade after age 30). Swapping refined grains, such as white bread and rice, for whole grains (whole wheat bread, brown rice, oats, quinoa, etc.) will help you get more fiber and research suggests that adding fiber to your diet will help you prevent weight gain—or even encourage weight loss. Other studies suggest that whole grains help the body hang on to potassium, a mineral that helps maintain normal blood pressure.
Other ways to get fiber: salad! Maximize your nutrient intake by building a vibrantly colored salad—think spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes or even fruits like raisins, oranges or strawberries. All these salad toppings offer fiber, potassium, vitamin C (which may help to keep skin firm and protect against UV rays) and antioxidants.
50+: Low-Fat Yogurt
Low-fat, or nonfat, yogurt is a great source of calcium at about 400 milligrams per cup. (Low-fat and nonfat yogurt and other dairy foods are usually no different in calcium content than full-fat versions.) Bone-strengthening calcium becomes increasingly important in your 50s. So much so that the recommended level increases from 1,000 to 1,200 mg/day. Why? From age 30 on, cells that build bone become less active while those that dismantle bone keep working. And then that loss is accelerated during menopause due to decreasing estrogen.
Other ways to get calcium: Milk (1 cup skim, 306 mg), cheese (1.5 ounces, about 300 mg), kale (1 cup cooked, 179 mg), spinach (1/2 cup frozen then cooked, 99 mg) and calcium-set tofu (tofu prepared with calcium salts; check the label) are all good sources. Also, remember that calcium and iron compete with one another for absorption so it’s best not to eat them together at the same meal. That said, your iron needs actually decrease in your 50s (from 18 to 8 milligrams/day) because of menopause.