Diet for the Decades — Your Best Diet at 20

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The following guest post is the first in a 4-part series courtesy of Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D. and author of Food and Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best. I had the opportunity to have lunch with Elizabeth a few weeks ago. I enjoyed quizzing her on all aspects of health and nutrition and came away with a renewed interest in eating better and feeding my family better.

Here Elizabeth addresses the unique needs of women in their 20s. (Don’t worry – if you’re in your 30s, 40s, or 50s, Elizabeth has suggestions for you as well. I’ll be posting those in the coming weeks.)

A woman’s nutritional needs are as unique as her smile, the color of her eyes, or her sense of humor. Those needs change as she ventures through life, navigating the childbearing years, approaching menopause, and entering the golden years. Luckily, most of the 40+ nutrients a woman’s body needs throughout life are met by simply eating lots of wholesome foods, such as whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, cooked dried beans and peas, and nonfat milk products. We need to tailor these basic good-eating habits to meet the specific nutritional needs of each stage in life.

The 20s: Folic Acid, Iron, Dieting – Part One

No matter what your age, all women need at least 8 colorful fruits and vegetables, 3 glasses of nonfat milk, 2 servings of iron-rich protein, and 5 or more servings of whole grains. That said, some nutrients are of particular concern depending on your age. For example, women in there 20s are on the tail end of growing. Their nutritional needs are high, they are still building tissue, and one in every two pregnancies during these years will be unplanned. That means a woman must be on nutritional high alert. Three nutrition issues are of particular concern:

1) Folic Acid: Folic acid-rich foods, such as greens and beans are especially important. Yet, while seven out of ten women know that folic acid helps prevent birth defects, only 25 percent of those women are actively trying to get enough folic acid during the pre-conception period. (Folic acid is most effective for preventing birth defects if taken at the time of conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Once the pregnancy test comes back positive and a woman starts taking a supplement, it could be too late.)

What to do: Make sure you get enough of this key vitamin by including at least 2 dark leafy greens in your daily diet such as spinach, kale, broccoli and romaine lettuce as well as canned beans such as kidney beans and black beans.

2) Iron: Tired? Can’t think straight? Rather than grab a cup of coffee, you are better off reaching for iron-rich foods. While only 8% of women are iron deficient, up to 80% (studies range from 20% to 80%) of women during these early years are iron deficient. The deficiency goes unnoticed because most physicians test only for anemia, the final stage of iron deficiency. For months or even years, a woman can be iron deficient and it goes undetected, yet the symptoms are the same – you’re tired, sleep poorly, your work is compromised, you catch every cold that comes around. Women also have cut back on red meat, the best source of absorbable iron, yet up to 30% of the iron is absorbed from meat compared to only 2 to 7% in beans (which means you need at least 4 servings of beans for every one serving of meat to get the same amount of iron!) Drink tea or coffee with your meals and you won’t absorb the iron you are eating.

What to do: Include several servings daily of iron-rich foods, get tested for serum ferritin, and if you are low, take a supplement. Also include 3 ounce serving of lean red meat, cook with a cast iron pot, and eat dried beans and peas.

3) Dieting: It is impossible to meet all your vitamin and mineral needs when calorie intake falls below 1,800 calories/day, yet young women are dieting in record amounts, cutting daily calories to 1,000 or less. While restrictive dieting does more harm than good and never results in long-term weight loss, there are some super foods that can help ensure optimal nutrition, even when calories are too low.

What to do: Load up on low-cal super foods that fill you up without filling you out, such as wheat germ (even 2 tablespoons packs a wallop of nutrients), oatmeal cooked in [milk, such as] Heritage Foods Organic nonfat milk with omega-3 DHA, salads and vegetable soups.

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  1. This article is very helpful! I’m in my 20’s and I am always struggling to get enough iron in my diet (I found out I was anemic many years ago).

    I didn’t know that drinking tea with your meal caused you not to absorb the iron!!

  2. I am in my late 20’s and I am ALWAYS tired. Feel like I am living in a vat of molasses! So I am going to try to purposefully add more iron to my diet! Thanks for the tip! Great post!

  3. Well, the tired part could just be a by-product of three small children too…lol!

  4. Thanks for this post! I am in my mid-twenties and always knew that nutrition was important, but was unsure of what I needed to be eating. This helps a lot!