Tuning Into Cycles: Meeting Changing Nutritional Needs in WomenApr 29, 2022 09:31AM ● By Alora Frederick
Whether adjusting for the phases of her menstrual cycle or the lifespan decade she is living in, changing nutritional needs should be the focus for every woman for maximal health.
Commonly, the vast scope of a woman’s nutritional needs is only given attention during particular milestones in her life: pregnancy, menopause, or perhaps a diagnosis. Unfortunately, this leaves gaps in her lifetime where nutritional needs are not met. This nutritional oversight typically begins as early as when a girl starts her menstrual cycle.
There are four distinct phases of the menstrual cycle, each of which requires different dietary changes for that moment in time. The complete menstrual cycle includes menstruation, the follicular phase, the ovulation phase and the luteal phase. Days one through seven of the cycle, when bleeding occurs, is the time to focus on adequate protein, fat and iron intake. Since hormones are at a low point, eating sufficient protein and fat will support healthy hormone production. Grass-fed protein sources (poultry, turkey, beef, etc.) and omega-3 rich fats (salmon, sardines, nuts, avocado, etc.) will also stave off inflammation (think cramps) during this time. The animal-based protein intake will also double as a bioavailable source of iron. Additionally, plant-based iron sources such as kidney beans and beets will also be a good choice at this time and should be paired with vitamin C-containing foods to aid in absorption.
During the follicular phase (the seven to 10 days after the period ends) hormone levels remain low, and metabolism is downregulated. Adequate protein and fat intake should continue to be the focus during this phase. Right in the middle of the menstrual cycle, there is the brief but imperative ovulation phase. Hormones including estrogen, testosterone and luteinizing hormones will surge at this time. Eating cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts will help to clear these hormones from the body.
Lastly, the luteal phase is the 10 to 14 days after ovulation and before menstruation. In the last phase leading up to menstruation, a woman’s basal metabolic rate (BMR)/metabolism will increase, which means the body requires more calories. At this time, it is crucial to consume more nutrient-dense calories and whole-food carbohydrates than usual to maintain stable blood sugar levels. Cravings like chocolate may signify a need for more magnesium. In addition to chocolate, some other magnesium-rich foods include pumpkin seeds, leafy greens and cashews. Cravings for sweets may indicate a need for more protein or more whole-food starchy carbs like potatoes, squash, beans and others.
Aside from varying needs within the monthly cycle, woman’s nutritional needs vary across her lifespan as well. Though many nutrients are critical throughout her lifespan, there are a few to emphasize during certain decades. During the 20s and 30s: iron and calcium. Consistent iron intake from animal or plant sources is needed to replenish levels lost during menstruation. Calcium from dairy or supplementation ensures peak bone mass density is reached. For middle-aged women, vitamin D levels should be optimal for maintaining skeletal health and bone density. During the 60s and older, it is essential that a woman consume adequate protein in order to maintain muscle mass. Sufficient fiber is also needed to support a healthy colon and regulate digestion.
Each woman will have unique nutritional needs depending on where she is in her monthly cycle and her lifetime. This is why cookie-cutter or standardized diet plans frequently fail and frustrate the women involved. It’s never too late for a woman to understand more deeply her body’s needs and make the necessary changes.
Alora Frederick, RDN, LDN, is an integrative and functional dietitian in Waltham, MA. She is currently accepting new patients at Johnson Compounding and Wellness for virtual nutrition appointments. Schedule a free, 15-minute introductory call at NaturalCompounder.com/Alora.
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