Do you need supplements to stay healthy? Dietitian Karissa Woolfe explores what your body needs at every life stage.
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Shelves in the health-food aisle of supermarkets and pharmacies are stacked with colourful supplements.
One-third of Australian women take a daily vitamin supplement, but with such an array to choose from, how do you know if they’re something your body needs, or expensive ‘snake oil’?
Evidence suggests you can meet most of your health needs by eating a well-balanced diet. But there are times in your life when you might need a ‘top up’ to meet your extra requirements.
Here’s an easy guide to what to swallow, decade by decade, from your 20s through to your 60s.
In your 20s
Research shows peer groups and social media shape women’s eating habits in their 20s.
Those who spend a lot of time on social media can develop an unhealthy obsession with maintaining a perfect diet (known as orthorexia nervosa).
This can lead to depression, body-image issues and an unhealthy relationship with food, which may increase their chance of developing a nutrient deficiency. Warning signs include cutting out whole food groups, such as meat, dairy or whole grains, or — at the other extreme — overeating junk food or binge drinking. Filling up on unhealthy options, combined with iron losses from menstruation, is a recipe for fatigue and unwanted weight gain.
You need… iron
Young women need 18mg of iron a day to prevent anaemia, but the latest National Health Survey reveals Aussie women only get half this from food. The mineral is also poorly absorbed, so you may need to consider an iron supplement, especially if you’re vegetarian or vegan, have heavy periods or are planning a pregnancy. Talk to your doctor about having your iron levels tested via a blood test.
Eat… more vitamin C
You’ll find iron in beef, chicken, lamb, baked beans and grainy bread, but it’s important you pair them with vitamin C-rich foods to absorb the iron better. Add capsicum and broccoli to your stir-fry, or eat an orange with your morning baked beans on toast.
Plus… dose up on dairy
Your bone density is set in your early 20s, so this is the time to deposit bone-strengthening calcium to prevent osteoporosis later in life. Three-quarters of Australian women don’t get enough calcium from their diet. Dairy foods are a rich source — a 250ml glass of milk, a small (200g) tub of yoghurt and two slices of cheese every day will hit your calcium target.
In your 30s
This is a decade of partnering and parenting, plus big changes to meals, fitness and sleep routines.
Two foods that women in their 30s should focus on eating more are vegies and wholegrain bread. Why? A recent survey found less than two per cent of women in their 30s meet the daily target for veg, and only seven per cent eat enough grains.
Veg and grainy bread provide hunger-busting fibre, which promotes a healthy weight, and are a rich source of folate and iodine. These nutrients are essential for mums-to-be to ensure the healthy development of their babies.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding are key times women may need additional nutrients, but ask your doctor which supplements — if any — you should take. A recent study found 63 per cent of Aussie mums-to-be took a supplement, but some popular brands don’t follow Australian recommendations, and could, in fact, increase the risk of harm.
You need… folate and iodine
Mums-to-be are recommended to take a daily supplement with 0.4mg (400µg) of folate and 150µg of iodine. Your doctor may also check your vitamin D and iron levels, and recommend a vitamin B12 and omega-3 supplement if you’re vegetarian.
Eat… wholegrain bread
You’ll find folate and iodine in most breads made in Australia and New Zealand because it’s mandatory to add it. Other good sources include baby spinach, bran flakes, chickpeas and eggs.
Plus… bump up the fruit
Fifty per cent of Australian mums-to-be eat the recommended two daily servings of fruit. Fruit provides vitamin C to enhance iron absorption and fibre to ease constipation, reason enough to enjoy an orange or kiwi every day.
In your 40s
Your 40s are a time to feel your best, but busy women’s syndrome is real.
A recent study monitoring the effect of juggling family and work commitments found that time pressures worsen in middle age. This may explain ‘wine o’clock’, with more than 500,000 Australian women aged 35 to 59 drinking at harmful levels, which can increase the risk for developing breast cancer and dementia later in life.
Women are notorious for putting their health needs last in the family. Studies link skipping meals with weight gain, a habit which deprives your body of fuel and nutrients needed to stay healthy.
The key to longer-lasting energy and a healthy body weight is eating nutritious meals regularly across the day, and limiting alcohol.
You need… B vitamins
Your body needs B-vitamins to release energy from food and to detox alcohol, and you’ll find them in wholegrain bread and cereals, dairy foods, leafy green vegetables and eggs. A vitamin B12 supplement may be recommended if you’re vegan. You can become B-vitamin deficient if you don’t eat enough food in general, or drink too much alcohol. But before you rush out to buy Berocca, discuss it with your doctor, as some B-vitamins can be toxic if taken incorrectly.
Eat… high-fibre cereals
Until you turn 50, six servings of grain foods, preferably whole grain, daily are recommended. But fewer than 10 per cent of Australian women meet this target, and are missing out on energy. So go for grains to boost your intake of B-vitamins! A standard serving of wholegrains is a quarter cup of muesli, a slice of bread, or a half-cup of cooked porridge, brown rice or quinoa.
Plus… ramp up self-care
Self-care helps you to avoid burning out. Setting an example for your family is one of the best gifts you can offer, and includes eating well, prioritising fitness and getting enough sleep.
In your 50s
Hello, menopause! Your 50s is when metabolism slows down, you lose muscle and bone strength, and gain belly fat.
This ‘middle-aged spread’ can lead to fatty liver, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and insulin resistance, which increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
You can help to reduce your risk of a heart attack by eating a healthy diet, and getting your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers checked regularly by your GP.
Globally, one in three women over 50 will have a fracture, but carrying an extra 2kg of padding can help protect you when you have a fall.
You need… vitamin D
Women with higher vitamin D levels have stronger bones and fewer fractures. Sunlight helps your body make vitamin D, but a recent study found 42 per cent of women are vitamin D deficient, even in summer. A supplement is a safe and effective way to restore vitamin D levels if your GP finds you are deficient.
Eat… calcium-rich foods
Once you turn 50, your calcium requirements increase to 1300mg a day to protect your bones. An Australian study found just one per cent of women aged 50 to 55 have the suggested four daily servings of dairy, so it’s important to eat more and to have other calcium-rich foods, such as fortified soy milk, canned salmon with bones, tofu and leafy green veg. Nearly one in five Australian women in their 50s take a calcium supplement, but some studies have linked these supplements with an increased risk of heart attack or stroke, so consult your GP before taking them.
Plus… pick up weights
Weight-bearing exercise, such as lifting weights or walking outside, is recommended twice a week to strengthen bones. This also helps to rev up your metabolism and reduce your falls risk.
In your 60s
As you head into your 60s and beyond, maintaining an active body and mind is the focus.
An empty nest and pending retirement can make you want to wind down, as can health concerns like stiff joints and the onset of such chronic conditions as arthritis and type 2 diabetes.
But the evidence is clear: to age well, you need to continue to eat healthily and stay active. As we age into our 60s and beyond, women are twice as likely as men to develop knee osteoarthritis and more likely to have a heart attack, and dementia becomes the leading cause of death.
The good news: studies suggest a Mediterranean style of eating is healthy for your heart, as well as being beneficial for your joints and brain. Here, then, is the trifecta you need.
You need… omega-3
The National Heart Foundation recommends a marine-sourced omega-3 supplement if you don’t eat fish, have high triglyceride levels or are prone to heart failure.
Eat… oily fish, nuts and seeds
Eating oily fish, like fresh or canned salmon, twice a week, and plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, including walnuts, linseeds and chia seeds, daily can provide the recommended amount for good health.
Plus… keep moving
Continuing to strength-train twice a week strengthens your bones, and evidence suggests it helps your heart and brain, too. A University of Sydney study found adults aged 55 to 86 who did this for six months improved their cognitive function and lowered their risk of dementia.