Moms are all about their children’s nutrition. They are never caught without snacks in tow, they always make veggies fun, and they know that macaroni and cheese really does taste better when it’s in bunny form.
But when it comes to their own nutrition, many moms fall short. After all, when you’re busy trying to juggle everything that motherhood entails, paying attention to the food on your own plate can feel like a luxury.
Don’t fall for it! Prioritizing your own nutrition—from pregnancy and lactation to grandchildren and beyond—is vital to keeping you and the other special women in your life the healthy, happy moms that your children love. But just like motherhood never stops changing, so do your nutrition needs. Here’s your decade-by-decade guide to fueling your health:
During your 20s and 30s…
1. Increase your folic acid intake: New recommendations published in the International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, called “Think Nutrition First,” emphasize that your folic acid intake years and even decades before pregnancy can affect your fertility. What’s more, during early pregnancy, folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, helps ensure closure of the neural tube that becomes the baby’s spinal cord. By doing so, it helps to prevent neural tube defects (NTDs)—serious birth defects of the spinal cord (such as spina bifida) and the brain (such as anencephaly). NTDs affect about 3,000 pregnancies a year in the United States, and typically occur at a very early stage of pregnancy before many women even know that they're pregnant, says Christina Sherry, PhD, RD, a research scientist in prenatal nutrition with Abbott.
While you can find folic acid in dark leafy greens such as spinach and other vegetables like asparagus and Brussels sprouts, your doctor will likely recommend that you take supplements when trying to get pregnant.
2. Pump more iron: By helping your red blood cells transport oxygen to all of your tissues, iron prevents anemia and related fatigue. But during your childbearing years, you need to consume more iron to keep your levels where they need to be. That’s because, during menstruation, you lose blood monthly, which could contribute to some iron loss each month as well, Sherry says.
Plus, during pregnancy, the amount of blood in your body can increase by about 50 percent, boosting your need for iron along with it. While fertile and lactating women need 18 mg and 9 mg of iron per day, respectively, those who are pregnant require a full 27 mg per day. Turn to meat, nuts, white beans, dark leafy greens and tofu to fulfill your needs.
3. Shake some iodized salt: Iodine can be tricky, especially for moms to be. A mineral contained in seafood, iodized table salt and dairy products, iodine helps to regulate thyroid hormones and support your baby’s brain development during pregnancy. However, in an effort to improve their heart health, many women are working to lower their sodium intake. Meanwhile, many moms shy away from fish during pregnancy. In that case, it’s easy for deficiency to occur, explains Carolyn Alish, PhD, RD, a registered dietitian with Abbott.
To get enough iodine while keeping your sodium levels in check, use iodized table salt as opposed to non-iodized sea salt when cooking, avoid heavily processed foods and eat fish wisely as instructed by your doctor.
4. Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids promote brain health at every stage of life. But in pregnant and breastfeeding moms, it’s ultra-important in promoting their children’s cognitive development, too. “For pregnant women, the third trimester is a time of the greatest brain development where the needed for omega-3s is the greatest,” Sherry says, noting that one particular type, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain.
You can find DHA in fatty fish as well as fortified milks and eggs. Flax seed, chia seeds, walnuts and canola oil contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), another type of omega-3 fatty acid that can be converted to DHA in the body, but its conversion to DHA can be limited in some people, Sherry says.
During your 40s and 50s…
5. Befriend B12: Vitamin B12, which supports the health of both your red blood cells and nervous system, is vital to keeping you energized to make school lunches before work and drive kids to soccer practice. However, throughout the years, your body’s ability to absorb and use the B12 you eat may wane, Alish says. That’s because your gut gradually produces less Intrinsic Factor, a protein necessary for the intestines to effectively absorb B12. Severe fatigue and anemia can result.
To make sure your levels are where they were in your younger years, a simple blood test at your doctor’s office can assess your levels. If you are low, talk to your doctor about supplementing and/or adding more meat, eggs and milk to your diet.
6. Consume more calcium: While calcium can help strengthen your bones in every stage of life, after age 50, your daily recommended intake increases from 1,000 to 1,200 mg per day. It’s important to talk to your doctor to evaluate your bone density, family history and calcium intake to prevent osteoporosis or to help slow the loss of bone density as you age, Alish says.
To increase your calcium intake, focus on incorporating whole foods including dairy, sardines, soy and salmon into your diet.
7. Eat more fiber: In women, the risk of coronary heart disease increases after age 55, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. That’s where fiber comes in, helping to lower cholesterol levels and improve heart health, Alish says.
To increase your levels of soluble, cholesterol-lowering fiber, reach for oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, fruits and vegetables. Increase intake gradually to prevent stomach upset.
During your 60s and beyond…
8. Preserve muscle with protein: To walk your children down the aisle or run around the backyard with your grandchildren, it’s so important to maintain muscle mass. We naturally start losing muscle mass at 40 years old – roughly 8 percent per decade and this number can nearly double to 15 percent at age 70.
But to do so, you should pair regular physical activity and strength-building exercise with additional protein. According to research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, as you age, the body becomes less efficient at processing protein and incorporating it into your muscles. Incorporate protein-rich foods into every meal and snack. Fish, lean meats, eggs, quinoa, beans and protein shakes are all great options. Another muscle-preserving ingredient to add to your diet is HMB, also known as beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate. It’s a natural compound that’s important for your muscle health, however HMB levels decline as you age according to an Abbott supported study published in Experimental Gerontology.
9. Get more of the sunshine vitamin: While you can get vitamin D in limited quantities from foods such as fortified milk, salmon and mushrooms, the vast majority of people’s intake comes through sun exposure. Unfortunately, many people don’t get enough of the important vitamin—and deficiency is increasingly common in old age. In one study of 824 elderly people, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 47 percent of women were deficient in vitamin D throughout the winter, when vitamin D levels are generally at their lowest. During old age, apart from spending less time outside, people can experience reduced skin thickness, impaired intestinal absorption, poor food intake of vitamin D and reduced liver and kidney function, further increasing the risk of deficiency, Alish says.
For that reason, after age 70, the recommended daily intake of vitamin D increases from 600 to 800 IU per day. Talk to your primary care physician to have your levels checked.