The decisions you make at mealtime are important for your future health. Filling your plate with nutrient-rich foods will help keep your body in top shape and reduce the risk of age-related health issues.
For women, eating well between your late teens and early 50s is especially important for a variety of reasons.
Here are some key nutrients that young adult women need to pay attention to.
- How much you need: 400 micrograms (mcg) daily
- Foods it’s found in: spinach, nuts, beans, orange juice; fortified foods such as bread, pasta, and breakfast cereal
Your body needs this B vitamin to make new cells. During pregnancy, folic acid helps to form the neural tube that will develop into your baby’s brain and spinal cord.
Prenatal vitamins contain folic acid because it may help reduce the risk of having a baby with a brain or spinal cord defect. Folic acid is a synthetic form of folate and not all of it can be used by the body.
Folate is also necessary for red blood cell formation, and young women are at greater risk of developing folate-deficiency anemia.
It’s important to take this vitamin daily, even if you’re not planning to get pregnant. About half of all pregnancies are unplanned. A growing baby needs folic acid in the early weeks of pregnancy before many women realize they’re pregnant.
These other B vitamins are also important for energy production and cell growth:
- B-1 (thiamine): from fortified cereal, pork, fish, beans, peas, and sunflower seeds
- B-2 (riboflavin): from eggs, organ meats, breakfast cereals, and dairy foods
- B-3 (niacin): from poultry, beef, and fish
- B-6 (pyridoxine): from beef, fish, fortified cereals, and chickpeas
- B-7 (biotin): from beef, fish, eggs, avocados, sweet potatoes, and nuts
- How much you need: 18 mg daily
- Foods it’s found in: lean meat, seafood, nuts, beans, vegetables, and fortified grain products
Iron is an essential nutrient. Your body needs it for:
- transporting oxygen to your tissues
- making certain hormones
Young women often have low levels of iron in their body either because of heavy periods or they get too little of this nutrient from their diet.
Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, which is when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body.
While you do need iron, don’t overdo it. Excess iron can cause:
- belly pain
Iron is best absorbed when taken with vitamin C. Pairing a good source of iron, such as chicken or beans, with a Vitamin C source such as strawberries at a meal will maximize absorption.
- How much you need: 600 international units (IU) daily
- Foods it’s found in: fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel, fortified milk, cheese, and egg yolks
Some of your supply of this vitamin comes from dairy foods like milk and cheese. The rest, your body makes when your skin is exposed to sunlight.
If you live in a more southern latitude and you wear sunscreen regularly, you may also be deficient.
Vitamin D works as calcium’s partner to promote healthy bones. It’s also involved in:
- cell growth
- immune function
- reducing inflammation in the body
You don’t want to get too much of this nutrient, though. In very high amounts, vitamin D can raise blood levels of calcium. High calcium could damage your heart, blood vessels, and kidneys.
- How much you need: 15 mg daily
- Foods it’s found in: nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils
This vitamin is essential for a healthy immune system. Vitamin E is also an antioxidant that protects your body against the harmful effects of damaging molecules called free radicals.
That protective effect may help prevent problems getting pregnant, or delivering a healthy baby,
Studies are looking at whether this vitamin can help with heart health and normal cell division.
There aren’t any risks when you get your vitamin E from food. But very high supplement doses could increase bleeding, especially if you’re already on a blood thinner like warfarin (Coumadin).
- How much you need: 310 mg daily (ages 19 to 30); 320 mg (ages 31 to 50)
- Foods it’s found in: Nuts, spinach, soy products, beans, peas, oats, wheat, barley, and dairy products
Magnesium helps regulate many different chemical reactions in your body, including:
- maintaining healthy blood sugar and blood pressure levels
- keeping muscles and nerves working as they should
- helping your body produce protein
It’s important to get enough of this nutrient, especially if you’re planning a pregnancy.
Getting too much magnesium from your diet isn’t harmful, because your body removes any extra you consume. However, high doses of supplements could cause nausea and belly cramps.
- How much you need: 425 mg daily
- Foods it’s found in: Meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and eggs
You need choline to keep your cells structurally sound. This essential nutrient also helps your body produce the chemical messenger acetylcholine, which is important for mood, memory, and muscle control.
Yet many young women, especially vegetarians, don’t get enough of this nutrient from their diet. Like folate, this has implications early in pregnancy. Talk with your healthcare provider about specific recommendations on choline supplementation if you’re planning to get pregnant.
Getting too much choline can cause side effects like a fishy body odor, as well as vomiting, excess sweating, and low blood pressure.
Probiotics aren’t nutrients, per se. They’re beneficial bacteria found in foods and supplements that offer a range of health benefits. Research about probiotics’ connection to health has boomed in recent years.
You’ll find probiotics in fermented foods like these:
- unpasteurized apple cider vinegar
Certain types of probiotics can help to maintain normal bacterial balance in the vaginal and urinary tracts.
Probiotic supplements usually contain multiple strains, as others are being studied for their effects on everything from maintaining intestinal regularity and overall gut health to mood and mental health.
Consult with a doctor before buying to make sure you get the probiotics that best fit your needs.
Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, lean protein, and dairy will help ensure you get the recommended amount of each essential nutrient.
If you have dietary restrictions or a condition like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that makes it harder for your body to absorb nutrients, talk to your healthcare provider about how to make sure you get all you need.