Nutrition is one of the simplest ways to have a positive impact on your health and quality of life, through every age and stage, and no matter your health concerns. We spoke with Lynne Shinto, N.D., M.P.H., who helps patients incorporate nutrition into their health care at the OHSU Center for Women's Health.
With her focus on naturopathic and integrative medicine, her care is complementary to the medical care patients receive from other providers.
"Many of my patients have reached a point where medical treatments and prescriptions aren't managing all of their symptoms or adding to their quality of life," she says. "With a holistic, mind-body approach, I can recommend natural therapies to complement conventional drug therapies."
Here's what she had to say about the nutrients women need to be healthy at each stage of life.
At this age, eating fish or taking fish oil capsules, which contain DHA, is important for brain development. The adolescent brain is still growing and needs nutrients like DHA and B vitamins found in whole grains.
As menstruation starts, young women also need to get enough iron, from lean red meats, green leafy vegetables and dried fruit. To best absorb iron, avoid coffee, tea and calcium when eating iron-rich foods. Pair these foods with foods high in vitamin C instead.
Adolescence can be a time of poor nutrition, but developing healthy eating habits young can have a lifelong impact. Dr. Shinto recommends as many whole foods, fruits and vegetables, and as little processed food, as possible.
"Paying attention to nutrition at this age is important," she says.
Eating whole foods, including fish and meat, and plenty of leafy greens will go a long way to meeting nutritional needs during pregnancy. Our My Pregnancy Plate tool is a great guide. Dr. Shinto also recommends prenatal vitamins and methylfolate, the natural form of folic acid.
"Methylfolate may be a better choice than folic acid," says Dr. Shinto. "Some women have a gene mutation that keeps them from processing folic acid well, but everyone can process methylfolate."
As women approach menopause, they may experience more fatigue. "It's worthwhile to have your iron stores checked," says Dr. Shinto.
She also recommends making sure you're getting enough calcium and vitamin D, especially if you are experiencing osteoporosis or bone loss.
At Every Age
A healthy, whole foods diet works well for virtually all women, across the lifespan. This is because a healthy diet contains a variety of nutrients women need throughout their lives, including:
- Fiber, from whole grains, legumes and vegetables
- Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory vitamins (vitamin C, vitamin E), from colorful fruits and vegetables
- Omega-3 fatty acids, from fish, nuts and seeds
- Vitamin B12, from lean meat or a multi-vitamin for vegetarians
- Vitamins B1 and B2, from whole grain foods
What about Supplements?
Getting nutrients from food is best, but sometimes taking a supplement can be a necessity. Taking prenatal vitamins during pregnancy is just one example.
In the Pacific Northwest, we go without our key source of vitamin D, the sun, for a large part of the year. "The best food sources of vitamin D are fatty fish, like salmon, mackerel and cod liver oil," says Dr. Shinto. "For vegetarians, a vitamin D supplement might be needed."
Iron deficiencies often need to be treated with supplements, especially during the menstruating years and for women who don't eat red meat.
For post-menopausal women who have trouble digesting dairy, a low-dose calcium-magnesium supplement can help. "Some calcium can come from leafy greens and fortified non-dairy milks, but it may not be enough," Dr. Shinto says. "Bovine lactoferrin is a dietary supplement that can increase iron levels along with calcium levels."
Still, Food is Best
"There is a view of health and healing that if something is wrong, a pill is the answer," says Dr. Shinto. "This view has been transferred to dietary supplements."
Patients may see supplements as 'natural pills,' that are safer than other drugs or treatments, but this isn't always the case. High-dose supplementation may not be as effective as a carefully-prescribed medication or treatment, and may cause side effects in some cases.
"Start with a healthy diet, and talk to your provider about any supplements," Dr. Shinto recommends. If you have questions about unconventional diets or are looking for dietary interventions to support your specific health goals, she's here to help.