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3 Most Important Nutrients for Women: Iron, Calcium And Protein

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Lets start with: IRON

Do you know that 53.2% of non-pregnant women and 50.4% of pregnant women in India are anemic according to a 2016 survey conducted by the NFHS. India carries the highest burden of the disease even after having an anemia control program for 50 years!

According to WHO Anemia is estimated to cause 20% of maternal deaths.

A child born due to an Iron deficient mother can have impaired growth and cognitive development and poor immunity.

What is the function of Iron? 

Iron is needed for growth and development. It is required to make 2 components in your blood called Hemoglobin and Myoglobin. These two components that carry and deliver oxygen from your lungs to different parts of the body. They make sure every part of your body gets oxygen. 

It is needed for maintaining your DNA, for the brain to function properly and immunity. 

How much Iron should I consume daily?

Women who are sedentary, doing moderate and heavy work need 21 mg/day

Pregnant women – 35 mg/day

Lactating mothers (0-6 months and 6-12 months)- 21 mg/day

Post-menopausal women 8 mg/day

Iron is not manufactured in the body. It has to be provided through the food or supplemented. 

How can vegetarians and vegans take care of Iron intake?

The Iron present in vegetarian/ plant sources is called Heme Iron. It cannot be digested and absorbed by the body easily. But the Iron present in meats, fish and poultry contains Heme iron which can be easily taken up by the body. 

But, you can combine your Iron rich plant foods like spinach, fortified grains and cereals, lentils with Vitamin C foods! Adding lime which is rich in Vitamin C to your spinach dish/ daal helps your body digest and absorb Iron in it easily.

Keep your tea and coffee intake to a minimum. Too much caffeine can also prevent the body from taking up iron.  

On an average, adult men have iron reserves for 3 years(1000mg) and women have only 300 mg which is reserved only for 6 months. 

What If I don’t consume enough Iron and When do I need to consume most?

Iron deficiency leads to Anemia – tiredness and breathlessness because less hemoglobin is made in the body. Hence less oxygen carrying component in your body. Deficiency of Iron can disrupt the hormone system in the body and immunity. 

Women and young adolescent girls who exercise regularly are also prone to iron deficiency because they can lose iron through sweat.  

Pregnancy: Iron is required to make the placenta which is the part of the baby while it is growing in the womb. It is needed for the growth of the baby. Adequate Iron intake during pregnancy is required to build the Iron reserves for a baby’s first 6 months outside the womb. 

Maternal Iron deficiency is associated with low birth weight, premature delivery and a host of prenatal complications like hemorrhage/ mother can bleed to death. Having anemia can reduce a woman’s ability to tolerate blood loss


Statistics from the International Osteoporosis Foundation, worldwide, 1 in 3 women over the age of 50 years suffer from osteoporotic fractures in a year. 

Indians have lower average peak bone mass because of poor awareness levels of the importance and intake of calcium and vitamin D, particularly during childhood where the maximum bone mass formation happens.

Osteoporosis is a silent thief and it robs your skeleton of its calcium.  You know only after it happens. It makes women prone to fractures and can be life threatening in some cases.

What is the basic role of Calcium in our body?

Calcium is needed to build strong bones and teeth, for the brain to function properly, to stop bleeding, for the muscles to contract. For women Calcium is needed by the uterine muscle to stay strong and contract. 

How much Calcium should I consume daily?

Infant: Calcium RDA- 500 mg/day

Pre-teen, Adolescence and early adulthood: Calcium RDA- 800 mg/day

This is when the foundation for strong bones in later life is made Up to 90 percent of peak bone mass is acquired by age 18

Adulthood: Calcium RDI- 600mg/day

The skeleton takes up calcium from the diet only till the age of 30. After that it doesn’t increase as much no matter how much calcium you eat. This is peak bone mass.

If a woman does not get enough calcium through her diet the calcium from her bones is removed to meet the needs and functions in the body. 

This can make her bones thin and weak if this continues for a long time. 

Onset of menstruation: Calcium is needed for the uterine muscles to contract. Good muscle tone = strong muscles = less menstrual pain/ cramping. Calcium deficiency = painful cramps

1200mg/day of Ca during Pregnancy: Her calcium requirement doubles at this stage in her life. Needed for bone formation in a growing fetus.  

1200 mg/day for lactating women because she has to meet her nursing baby’s needs and her own needs of Calcium. 

Menopause is when women notice a rapid decline in calcium levels/ withdrawal from the bone because the estrogen levels drop in the body. If not taken care of can lead to osteoporosis. 

The demand for calcium fluctuates. If one says that 100gm of milk contains 125 gm of calcium, not all of it is taken up by the body. The calcium you get depends on genetics, and the environment that you don’t have control over. We don’t know if the body’s calcium needs are met. So, it has to be supplemented to meet the gap in calcium need.

Finally – PROTEIN

80% of Indians have protein deficient diets. Consume carbohydrate rich diets. 

90% of pregnant women in India are protein deficient.

What is protein needed for?

We need to eat protein to maintain the structure of cells, hair and skin, for enzymes that digest food, for antibodies that protect us from diseases, for muscle strength and mass, and for energy. 

Each gram of protein you eat provides four calories of energy.

How much Protein should I consume daily?

Normal woman -sedentary, moderate to heavy work -55 g/d

Pregnant women -78 g/d

Lactating women 0-6 months – 74 g/d

6-12 months – 68 g/d

The above recommendations are made for pregnant women- Required for the growth and development of babies. 

It is required to build lean muscle mass and reduce fat mass. 

To reduce and manage weight

Support the immune system

Growth of healthy hair and nails

What can a woman do to prevent deficiency?

A protein deficient mother will have an under nourished underweight baby.

Slow degradation of muscles begins post 30. Muscles will lose firmness and strength.

Not taking in adequate protein and doing exercise will lead to sarcopenia/atrophy/ loss of muscle mass and firmness. This can reduce the quality of life in old age. 

What are the sources of Protein? How much to meet protein requirements?

Chickpeas – 7.3 gm per ½ cup

Tofu – 15 g per ½ cup

Peanuts – 20.5 g per ½ cup

Pea protein – 8g per cup, contains 9 essential amino acids (protein components not made in the body and are needed by the body to function well)

Chicken – 38 g in 1 cup

Seafood like fish – 29 g per cup

Consume protein from a variety of sources to get all essential amino acids. 

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