While the beauty and diet world would like everyone to believe the secret to healthful aging is about our appearance, science knows better: The inside-out approach is what counts. But there are specific requirements for women’s nutrition that are worth highlighting—and they’re different at every age.
About 41 percent of cis women ages 19-50 have at least one nutritional deficiency, according to a 2017 review published in Nutrients. To avoid risk of deficiency, it is important to fulfill recommended nutrient intakes of vitamins and minerals, like calcium and iron to maintain health as your body changes with each passing decade.
One of the best ways to get these nutrients is by eating a plant-based diet, or incorporating more plant foods into your existing diet, and reducing meat intake. Plant foods are packed with essential nutrients that are not found in other foods. The healthy fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals found in plants keep cells healthy and strengthen the immune system to ward off disease.
A 2020 study conducted by researchers at Harvard found that eating whole-food, plant-based sources of protein compared to meat lowered people’s risk of premature death by five percent. While there is not enough research in the field to establish an association with plant-based diets and an increased lifespan, studies have found that it helps boost immunity, improves heart health, and strengthens the brain––all signs of healthy—and prolonged—aging.
To maximize the potential healing powers of plant-based foods, nutritionists suggest following a diet that best aligns with your age and specific health needs. Whether you’re looking for increased energy, immunity boosters, or plant-based cell-plumpers, here’s how to use plants to power healthy aging at any age.
Plant-Based Nutrition for Women in Their Teens
The teenage years can be challenging—and busy––,according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of School Health. Life is mostly on-the-go for you, so finding time to eat healthy can be quite a challenge. Not to mention that you’re undergoing puberty and making the transition to adulthood.
According to the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adolescent females (ages 14-18) have low dietary intakes of protein, iron, folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12.
“Puberty triggers a growth spurt, which increases nutritional needs for both macro and micronutrients,” Alex Caspero, MA, RD, registered dietitian and co-author of The Plant-Based Baby and Toddler tells LIVEKINDLY. Menstruating teens especially need iron as it gets lost via blood during monthly periods, says Harvard Health.
Since teens are always on-the-go, it’s no surprise that this age group is less likely to eat breakfast, according to a 2019 study published in Nutrients. In order to avoid missing out on the most important meal of the day, teens should try to have a quick grab-and-go breakfast before leaving the house. (Try overnight oats soaked in plant-based milk or a banana and peanut butter smoothie).
Fast food can be really appealing when you’re a teen–especially when the newest Starbucks drink is all over TikTok. But it’s worth noting that convenience food will never really contain enough nutrients that you need. For healthier quick and easy meals, bean tacos, salads, fruit slices, veggie sticks, and soups are good options. And they all are mostly available at school cafeterias and restaurants.
During this period of rapid physical growth, it’s important for teens to eat a variety of foods to ensure they get all the nutrients they need. Fans of avocado toast are in luck as it boasts vitamins like folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin C. It’s also important for teens to remember to get some of the vitamins and minerals that are not readily available in whole foods through fortified plant-based milk or cereal, says Caspero. Many soy and almond milks on the market are filled with the recommended daily amounts of iron and vitamin B12.
Plant-Based Nutrition for Women in Their 20s
Life is adventurous when you’re in your 20s. Young adults are probably working a job, living on their own for the first time, dating, making new friends, traveling, and perhaps even starting a family. Bodies are also going through many physical changes. Women in their 20s have reached maximum bone mass, started a predictable menstrual cycle, and developed a fluctuating metabolism.
Cis women at this age are still menstruating, which means it’s important to watch iron intake. “Due to natural losses during menstruation, young women are at increased risk of iron deficiency and anemia. Iron-rich foods include legumes, whole grains, certain leafy greens, dark molasses, and fortified foods like cereals and plant-based meats,” Anja Grommons, MA, RD, a registered dietitian tells LIVEKINDLY.
Bone growth is crucial during this time as women reach peak bone mass in their late 20s.
“The side effects of inadequate vitamin D and calcium intake may not show up until later in life as weakened bones, so ensuring adequate intake in your twenties is key,” says Grommons. Luckily, there are quite a few fortified food options packed with both nutrients, such as plant-based milk, orange juice, and cereal. Fiber intake is important, too. According to the DGA, women in their 20s may be at risk for constipation due to low fiber consumption. So, it’s important to consume fibrous foods like beans, avocados, carrots, apples, and oats. Not only are these good for stool, but they’re also for improved gut and overall health.
Plant-Based Nutrition for Women in Their 30s
In addition to important milestones like family and career advancement, cis women in their 30s may be experiencing changes with their monthly cycle, a decline in the production of collagen, and a slowed metabolism, which can lead to weight gain.
“In your 30s, it’s time to really get into the kitchen and focus on balanced, healthy meals that rely on mostly whole food ingredients,” Meredith Price, MS, RD, a plant-based registered dietitian tells LIVEKINDLY. She suggests eating plenty of fibrous foods rich in antioxidants for heart health, blood sugar control, healthy gut, normal digestion, and weight management. Foods high in fiber include oats, lentils, seeds, peas, and berries.
Another key nutrient for women’s nutrition in their 30s is iodine, which may reverse the impacts of a slow metabolism, as it can help your body produce more thyroid hormones, according to Price. Lack of sufficient iodine may lead to hypothyroidism, which will further slow down metabolism. The best iodine-rich foods to eat on a plant-based diet include seaweed, nori, fortified plant milk, and iodized salt.
Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression, especially from their mid-30s to mid-40s, according to Harvard Health. You may want to fuel up on omega-3 fatty acids, which may boost serotonin levels that research shows may be linked to depression when transmitted in low levels.
“Omega-3 fatty acids come in numerous forms. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in plant-based foods such as flaxseed or flax oil, walnuts, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are not readily available in plant-based foods, so I recommend taking an algae oil supplement with those to benefit cardiovascular health, including reducing inflammation,” says Price.
Plant-Based Nutrition for Women in Their 40s
Women in their 40s may be facing estrogen withdrawal, hair loss, unpredictable menstrual patterns, and perhaps some urinary issues. During this phase of perimenopause, women who menstruate have mostly likely not changed their diet and may be missing out on some nutrients their bodies desperately need.
One of the primary functions of estrogen is to keep bones strong. As estrogen levels start to decline, bodies absorb less calcium, increasing the risk of bone diseases like osteoporosis.
“Try calcium-rich foods like fortified cereal, leafy greens, and legumes,” Supriya Lal, RD, a registered dietitian tells LIVEKINDLY. Vitamin D is also important, as it helps increase calcium absorption. Foods high in vitamin D include mushrooms, fortified plant-based milk, and fortified orange juice.
Women who experience perimenopause may experience irregular periods and sleep issues. Watching iron intake and getting 18 milligrams per day is important.
“Plant-based sources of iron like leafy greens, legumes, and fortified cereals are more easily absorbed by your body when eaten with vitamin C-rich foods,” says Lal. It’s advised to avoid caffeine-filled drinks such as coffee and tea when eating the above foods as it blocks iron absorption. OJ or a smoothie is a good swap.
Plant-Based Nutrition for Women in Their 50s & Beyond
Women in their 50s may be experiencing signs of healthful aging, such as the gradual loss of muscle, bone, and fat, a decline in vision, and a decrease in metabolism. While undergoing these health changes, women may have more time to cook and eat healthy foods to increase nutrient intake.
Muscle loss with aging, known as sarcopenia, is responsible for loss of independence and strength.
“It is so important to eat adequate protein throughout the day to preserve muscle mass with aging,” Katie Dodd, MS, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist tells LIVEKINDLY. Plant-based protein foods include beans, lentils, soy, seeds, peanuts, nut butters, and a variety of vegetables. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables also decreases your risk of diabetes and heart disease, which older people have an increased risk of, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Bone loss and osteoporosis is commonly seen in aging women, which is why calcium recommendations increase when you’re 51 and older from 1,000 milligrams to 1,200 milligrams.
“Getting adequate calcium throughout the day is important to keep the bones healthy, prevent fractures, and minimize bone loss,” says Dodd. Plant-based sources of calcium include turnip greens, almonds, edamame, kale, bok choi, and broccoli and fortified foods––like cereals, plant-based milk alternatives, and juices.