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Nutritional Health for Women

Minerals are inorganic chemical nutrients that perform vital roles in the body. The important minerals for women include calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc. Unfortunately, many women's diets are deficient in these important minerals. Other minerals required in much lower quantities include phosphorus, copper, selenium, manganese, and chromium.

Important Minerals and Their Function

Mineral Function
Calcium bone building
Iron carries oxygen in blood
Magnesium muscles, nerves, bones
Zinc metabolism, growth, immunity

Calcium is one of the most important minerals for women. It is essential not only for bone strength and health, but is also needed for heart, muscle, nerve, enzymes, and blood clotting. Calcium is required by the body as the building material for bones, and low dietary calcium is directly linked to osteoporosis. Because calcium is constantly needed to rebuild bone and also for other body functions, it must be replenished daily. The body loses calcium in nails, hair, skin, sweat, urine, and stool. Athletic women lose extra calcium through sweat, and women on high-protein diets or those who drink several carbonated beverages daily also lose calcium more quickly.

Unless you are a real dairy-product lover, it is tough to get enough calcium without eating calcium fortified foods or taking supplements. Other natural sources include almonds, broccoli, kale, canned salmon, sardines, spinach, and dried peas or beans.

Calcium is available as supplements in compound form, including calcium carbonate, found in antacids; calcium phosphate, found in cereals and food bars; and calcium citrate, the most efficient form of calcium supplement for your body and the type recommended if taken with iron. The recommended amount of calcium for women is 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams a day. This translates to at least four calcium-rich products a day such as yogurt, milk, cheese, or calcium-fortified food. If you are taking calcium supplements, try to take them in the evening in split doses (dinner and bedtime) to promote absorption. If you are taking iron supplements, choose calcium citrate instead of carbonate to improve absorption of both minerals.

It is very important to have a diet with enough calcium. Practical advice for all girls and women is to take one 600 milligram calcium supplement before bedtime to replace calcium-rich foods not eaten during the day. If dairy products are not eaten regularly, try to drink calcium-fortified juices or other calcium products (check labels for content). Calcium also has other added benefits, including easing symptoms of PMS, preventing muscle cramps, and improving weight loss success.

Iron is involved in all body cell functions. It plays the very important role of transporting oxygen throughout the body in red blood cells. Women are at greater risk of low iron levels due to menstruation; athletes also tend to have lower levels of iron because it is broken down with exertional exercise and lost through the kidneys, digestive system, and sweat. Women should get 18 milligrams of iron daily, and needs go up in pregnancy. The best sources of iron are meat, poultry, fish, eggs, fortified foods, and foods cooked in an iron skillet. Nonmeat sources include wheat germ, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits. There are also many iron-fortified cereals and foods available.

Iron supplements, other than those found in a multivitamin, should not be taken unless prescribed by a doctor. If you are required to take iron supplements, ask your doctor for a ferrous gluconate formula, as this tends to have less constipating and digestive system side effects. Iron absorption is improved when taken with a source of vitamin C and is made worse with caffeine products.

Magnesium helps regulate glycogen (thought to prevent diabetes), regulates body calcium, and aids in muscle, nerve, and body enzyme function, playing a role in preventing fatigue. Magnesium can help relieve muscle cramps and also helps with symptoms of PMS. Magnesium has also been found to prevent hypertension, hardening of the arteries, and can also help prevent migraines. Magnesium is found naturally in hard tap water, spinach, beans, whole grains, nuts, seafood, meats, and chocolate (it can help prevent chocolate cravings in PMS).

Zinc helps metabolize nutrients and allows growth and immune function. It also affects hormones. Zinc is needed in higher doses during growth, pregnancy, and with athletic activity. Zinc is found in meats, seafood, and milk products, and absorption is inhibited by fiber; therefore, vegetarians are at particular risk of having low zinc levels. Women should get 12 milligrams of zinc per day.

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From The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook by Nadya Swedan. Copyright © 2003 by Nadya Swedan. Used by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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