Understanding the key stages of a woman’s life by Dr. Sarah Schenker

Women are powerful. Whether they’re studying, working, parenting, caring for elderly relatives or looking after grandchildren, they are key influencers when it comes to health – not just their own but that of their families, communities and even future generations. So much so, the Global Nutrition Summit held in Milan in 2017 underlined that a healthy diet is a vital ingredient in helping to develop their contribution. It’s a view in sync with the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025).

We know that good nutrition is the foundation of good health. We also know that healthy eating and active living during different life stages – from childhood through adolescence and the reproductive years – can have positive effects later in life. And as a bonus, we know good health is the foundation of beauty.

We also know that women require different amounts of nutrients at various stages of their lives. And when it comes to the details – the individual nutrients – there are notable differences between the nutritional needs of men and women.

In its Women and Health report* the World Health Organization (WHO) divides that journey into five. While not all of us fit neatly or exclusively into each category, these broad definitions help us understand how each stage impacts the others. And while these time periods certainly have their own challenges, they also offer opportunities to empower women and their families to take positive steps towards better health. So let’s take a closer look.

Women’s Five Life Stages…

 * Early Childhood – from birth to nine years.

* Adolescence – from ten to 19 years.

* Adulthood – from 20 – 59 years.

* Reproductive years  – during the ages of 15 – 44 years.

* Older age – from 60 years onwards

Starting out. Eating right

This could be one of life’s most valuable mantras, particularly because some health problems encountered by adult women can have their origins in childhood, when proper nutrition is key. Children have high energy and protein needs relative to their size to ensure healthy growth and development. This should be provided from a good balance of high quality protein and carbohydrate foods. They also need plenty of fresh fruit and veg to provide vitamins and minerals as well as foods that will supply healthy fats and extra calcium for bones. Did you know that omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain development? Food for thought.

Adolescence. It’s all go. It’s all grow

Emotions? They run high. Passions? They run deep. Boundaries? They’re often tested. And development is faster than at any other time except for the first year of life. This means the teenage years provide an important second window to maximise the benefits of good nutrition. For example, with the onset of menstruation, girls need more iron. And it’s important to steer them away from ‘empty’ calories found in high fat, high salt, high sugar snacks and focus on nutrient-dense food. Establishing healthy eating habits and being physically active can bring benefits later in life, including reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases, strokes and cancers

Ideally, teenagers should be enjoying fresh air and sports, but our current culture is so focused on screen-time, the temptation is to hit delete on exercise. Finding an activity that sparks passion, be it dancing, cycling, swimming or skating, can help. Vigorous exercise not only works the heart and lungs and builds bone mass and muscle strength, it also delivers a rush of feel-good endorphins. There’s also evidence that physically active teenagers more readily adopt other healthy habits. In short, the way a girl lives her life now can have a huge impact on her life as a woman and mother.

No matter what age you are, reassessing your diet and lifestyle and making positive changes can have an impact on your health and how you feel, which in turn plays a significant part in how you look. Bottom line? Good nutrition is the foundation of good health and good health is the foundation of beauty.

Mum’s the word

Pregnancy and becoming a new mother are exciting times in a woman’s life. What she eats and drinks is crucial because her diet during pregnancy can influence not just the baby’s growth before birth, but also the child’s long-term risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

A pregnant woman has a higher requirement for nutrients such as folate, iron, vitamin B12 and iodine. Medical professionals advise taking a folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms per day while trying to conceive and during the first trimester Many  countries recommend that pregnant women and those who may become pregnant eat folate-rich foods and take folic acid supplements (400 μg/day).1-4] to help guard against neural tube defects. Folates are also found in green leafy vegetables, fortified breads and cereals, fruits such as oranges, brown rice and berries and vegetables such as green beans. Vitamin D in foods such as oily fish, eggs and red meat, is also important. It is  recommended pregnant women take a daily supplement of 10 micrograms throughout pregnancy.

We all know it’s important for women to look after themselves in pregnancy, but future parents don’t automatically plan to be in good shape before they conceive. However, healthy pregnancies are favoured by conceiving when you have a healthy body mass index (BMI), you’re eating a balanced diet, you’re physically active, not smoking and avoiding alcohol.

 All grown up

The goal for us as adult women is to eat a nutritionally sound diet. We know that, right? But let’s face it, this can be hard to stick to when there are so many demands on your time and emotions, from looking after children, working, maintaining friendships, keeping an eye on ageing parents, perhaps coping with bereavements and dealing with changing dynamics in relationships. This is why finding easier ways to eat well really pays off.

“It’s common knowledge that vitamins and minerals perform essential roles to keep your body functioning and that a severe lack of a vitamin or a mineral can lead to a deficiency, which can cause unpleasant symptoms and various diseases,” says Dr Sarah Schenker, Dietician, Liiv Heath Sciences. “However, a lot of us don’t realise that even if we are not technically deficient in a nutrient, a less than optimum intake can have a knock-on effect, whether that’s chronic tiredness, low mood, lack of concentration, poor sleep, irregular appetite or niggling aches. In short, it can mean you don’t feel and look your best.

“What’s more, when intakes are low, the body will prioritise the use of those vitamins and minerals for crucial processes, at the expense of  maintaining your skin, hair and nails,” she adds. Even more reason to turn the pages and find out how Liiv is shaking things up when it comes to convenient ways to optimise your nutrition

Wisdom beyond years

One of the biggest challenges today is to prevent and manage chronic health problems in old age. Many are the result of habits kick-started in youth and adulthood, such as smoking, leading a sedentary lifestyle and a diet heavy in sugar, saturated fat and salt, but low in fresh fruits and vegetables. Establishing healthy habits earlier on in life is the game-changer. But it’s never too late to switch up your nutritional strategy.

What’s more, your nutrition needs shift again. While you won’t need a diet as high in iron as you did before, it’s easy to fall short in vital nutrients such vitamins a and D. Also, as basal metabolic rate decreases with age, so high nourishment foods are the best choice.

There’s no doubt that a healthier mature woman is better equipped to play a continuing role in caring for her family and enriching her community. That’s the most positive outcome of a woman’s life stages. That’s the power of five.

* Women and Health, Today’s Evidence, Tomorrow’s Agenda 2009 World Heath Organization.

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