Should Women Take Supplements? Sources and Dietary Needs

For example, teens have different nutrient needs than postmenopausal women, and pregnant and breastfeeding women require greater amounts of specific nutrients than non-pregnant women.

What’s more, nutrient needs may differ depending on your overall health and lifestyle.

Although vitamin supplementation isn’t necessary for all women, some may need to supplement to reach their recommended intake levels.

This article reviews vitamins for women, including vitamin sources, dietary needs, and why some women may benefit from supplementation.

Vitamin overview and recommended intakes

Vitamins are divided into 2 categories: water-soluble and fat-soluble.

The water-soluble vitamins consist of eight B vitamins: B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folate), and B12 (cobalamin), as well as vitamin C (2).

Vitamins A, D, E, and K are considered fat-soluble vitamins.

Water-soluble vitamins are not readily stored in your body and need to be supplied continuously through your diet. On the other hand, fat-soluble vitamins are stored in your body’s tissues and retained for longer periods (3).

Depending on their age and health status, women and teens have differing daily vitamin needs.

Here are the recommendations for water-soluble vitamin intake for women (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12):

Note that women who smoke need an extra 35 mg of vitamin C per day. Also, pregnant and breastfeeding women under the age of 19 need 5 mg less vitamin C per day than pregnant and breastfeeding women 19 years or older (12).

Here are the recommendations for fat-soluble vitamin intake for women (13, 14, 15, 16):

Notably, some argue that the daily vitamin D needs of pregnant and breastfeeding women are much higher than the current recommendations. This will be discussed later in this article (17, 18, 19, 20, 21).

Vitamin functions in women

Both water- and fat-soluble vitamins are needed for critical bodily processes, which is why a vitamin deficiency can lead to adverse health outcomes.

Water-soluble vitamin functions

Water-soluble vitamins play many important roles in your body. The B vitamins are perhaps best known for their roles in energy production, while vitamin C is best known for its role in immune function.

However, these nutrients are involved in many other critical processes as well.

  • B1. Thiamine helps convert nutrients into energy and is required for proper cellular function. Pregnant women, women on long-term diuretic medication, and women who have undergone bariatric surgery are at a greater risk of thiamine deficiency (22).
  • B2. Riboflavin is needed for energy production and growth and development. It also functions as an antioxidant. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, women with eating disorders, and older women are at a greater risk of developing a B2 deficiency (23).
  • B3. Niacin is essential to nervous system function, energy production, and enzymatic reactions. Niacin deficiency is rare in the United States, but women with a deficient intake of niacin-rich foods may be at risk (6).
  • B5. Pantothenic acid is a precursor to coenzyme A, which is needed for various essential processes, such as the production of hormones and neurotransmitters. A deficiency in B5 is extremely rare (7).
  • B6. Pyridoxine is important for macronutrient metabolism, immune function, and neurotransmitter production. Certain populations, such as women with obesity and autoimmune diseases, are more likely to have low B6 levels (24).
  • B7. Biotin plays a key role in energy production and the regulation of oxidative stress. Women who are pregnant, those who excessively use alcohol, and women on certain medications are more likely to have low biotin levels (25).
  • B9. Folate is needed to produce DNA, RNA, red blood cells, proteins, and neurotransmitters. A deficiency can result from inadequate dietary intake, malabsorption conditions, medication interactions, pregnancy, alcohol dependence, and more (26).
  • B12. B12 is essential for neurological functioning and red blood cell and DNA production. A deficiency can result from inadequate dietary intake or medical conditions, including autoimmune diseases and malabsorption (27).
  • Vitamin C. Vitamin C acts as a powerful antioxidant and plays a role in immune function and collagen and neurotransmitter production. Smoking and excessive drinking increase the risk of vitamin C deficiency (28).

Note that choline is a water-soluble nutrient often grouped with B vitamins due to its similar functions in the body. However, choline is not a vitamin and found in both fat- and water-soluble forms in the diet.

This nutrient plays an important role in brain development, metabolism, neurotransmitter synthesis, and more. Choline needs increase during pregnancy and breastfeeding (29).

Fat-soluble vitamin functions

Vitamins play many essential roles in the body. Depending on their age and health status, women have different needs for both fat- and water-soluble vitamins throughout their lifespan.

Vitamin needs throughout life

Nutrient needs differ throughout a woman’s life.

Deficiencies are also more common during certain life stages, such as pregnancy, and under certain circumstances, such as when a woman smokes or drinks excessively or is diagnosed with a medical condition.

Keep in mind that this article only focuses on vitamins, not all nutrients.

Children and teens

Girls ages 9 through 13 generally need smaller amounts of vitamins than older teens and women due to their smaller body size. However, teens over the age of 14 have vitamin needs similar to those of adults.

Research shows that teenage girls are more likely to become deficient in some nutrients than the general population. For example, teenage girls are at a greater risk of developing a deficiency in vitamin D and folate (33, 34, 35).

In less developed countries, vitamin A deficiency is also common among teenage girls (36).

Additionally, studies show that pregnant teens are more likely to not meet the intake recommendations for several nutrients, including vitamins E and D.

Many teens consume diets low in vitamins, putting them at risk of deficiency, including during pregnancy, a time during which most nutrient needs are elevated (37, 38).

This is why consumption of prenatal vitamins and consuming a nutritious diet whenever possible are recommended for all pregnant adolescents (37, 38).

Women ages 19–50

Women of child-bearing age are more likely to be deficient in several vitamins, including vitamin D and B6.

A study that included data on over 15,000 people found that nutrient deficiency risk, including deficiencies in B6 and vitamin D, was most common in women ages 19–50 (36).

Pregnant and breastfeeding women

During pregnancy and breastfeeding, nutrient needs increase to support fetal and maternal health. Needs for nearly all water- and fat-soluble vitamins are higher during pregnancy and lactation.

For this reason, pregnant and breastfeeding women are at a greater risk of developing vitamin deficiencies (39).

In fact, up to 30% of pregnant women worldwide experience vitamin deficiencies. For example, researchers estimate that 18–84 % of pregnant women worldwide are deficient in vitamin D (40, 41).

What’s more, evidence suggests that the current recommendations for certain vitamins, including vitamin D, for pregnant women are too low.

According to recent research, pregnant women may need about 4,000 IU per day to maintain optimal vitamin D levels, while breastfeeding women may need about 6,400 IU per day (17, 18, 19, 20, 21).

Choline is another important nutrient for fetal and maternal health. Studies show that most pregnant women in the United States aren’t getting the recommended 450 mg per day of choline. Unfortunately, many prenatal vitamins do not contain choline (42).

Older women

Postmenopausal and older women are more likely to become deficient in vitamins A, C, D, K, B12, folate, B6, B1, and B2 (43, 44, 45, 46, 47).

Older adults often have inadequate dietary intakes and take medications that may reduce vitamin levels in the body, increasing their risk of developing one or more vitamin deficiencies.

Special considerations

Women who smoke or drink excessively are at a greater risk of developing vitamin deficiencies due to inadequate dietary vitamin intakes and malabsorption of vitamins.

Women with certain medical conditions, including type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and gastrointestinal conditions, are more likely to develop a deficiency in one or more vitamins than the general population.

Studies also show that women with obesity are at greater risk of vitamin deficiencies, including B12 and vitamin D (48).

Additionally, women who undergo bariatric surgery are significantly more likely to develop vitamin deficiencies (49).

African American women are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D, in part because they have higher concentrations of melanin (a skin pigment), which blocks the UVB sunlight needed to produce vitamin D in the skin (50).

Lastly, vitamin deficiencies are common amongst women with eating disorders and those who follow restrictive diets (51, 52, 53).

Nutrient needs change throughout a woman’s life. Certain women are at greater risk of developing nutrient deficiencies due to factors like increased nutrient demands, inadequate dietary intake, malabsorption, and more.

Dietary sources of vitamins

Most vitamins are concentrated in a variety of foods. Some are more available in animal foods, while some are more concentrated in plant-based foods.

  • Vitamin B1: wheat germ, pork, seafood, beans, rice, sunflower seeds, enriched products like breakfast cereals
  • Vitamin B2: organ meats, fortified grain products, dairy products, eggs, mushrooms, seafood, almonds, chicken, quinoa
  • Vitamin B3: organ meats, chicken, turkey, seafood, beef, rice, fortified grain products, peanuts, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds
  • Vitamin B5: organ meats, mushrooms, sunflower seeds, chicken, avocados, seafood, potatoes, eggs, yogurt, beef, broccoli, chickpeas, fortified grain products
  • Vitamin B6: chickpeas, organ meats, seafood, chicken, potatoes, turkey, bananas, beef, marinara sauce, cottage cheese
  • Vitamin B7: organ meats, eggs, seafood, pork, beef, sunflower seeds, sweet potato, almonds, spinach
  • Vitamin B9: organ meats, spinach, beans, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, avocados, broccoli, mustard greens, wheat germ
  • Vitamin B12: seafood, organ meats, nutritional yeast, beef, dairy products, eggs, chicken
  • Vitamin C: peppers, citrus fruits, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, cantaloupe, cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes
  • Vitamin A: preformed vitamin A is found in animal foods like organ meats, cheese, and eggs; provitamin A carotenoids are found in plant foods like sweet potato, spinach, and carrots
  • Vitamin D: vitamin D is only found naturally in a few foods, including fatty fish like salmon and beef liver; certain foods like milk are fortified with it
  • Vitamin E: wheat germ, sunflower seeds, sunflower oil, almonds, peanut butter, spinach, broccoli
  • Vitamin K: K2 is concentrated in animal foods and fermented foods, including natto and pork; K1 is concentrated in vegetables like kale and collard greens

Vitamins can be found in a variety of foods, including animal and plant-based products.

When to supplement

Although a healthy and well-balanced diet should always be maintained to promote optimal vitamin intake, it’s not always possible for women to get all of the vitamins they need through their diet alone.

The following groups of women may need to supplement with one or more vitamins to reach and maintain optimal levels:

  • older women
  • African American women
  • women with certain medical conditions
  • those who follow diets that eliminate certain food groups
  • women with eating disorders
  • women who smoke or drink heavily
  • women with obesity
  • pregnant women
  • women using common prescription drugs, such as proton pump inhibitors and blood-sugar-reducing medications (54)

In addition to consuming a varied, nutrient-dense diet, pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to take a prenatal supplement before, during, and after pregnancy.

Doing so may help maintain healthy nutrient levels and support their body through pregnancy, breastfeeding, and postnatal recovery (55).

Even though health professionals focus on the importance of increasing vitamin intake during pregnancy and breastfeeding, studies show that the intake of certain nutrients is insufficient in many women during and after pregnancy (54).

For women over the age of 50, most experts recommend a B12 or B-complex vitamin due to the high prevalence of B12 malabsorption from food in aging populations (56, 57)

Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency are widespread. Women, especially those with obesity or certain medical conditions, as well as those who are pregnant or older, should have their vitamin D levels checked to determine an appropriate supplement dosage.

Women at risk of developing a vitamin deficiency should work with a healthcare provider to develop an appropriate and safe supplement regimen based on their specific needs.

When choosing a vitamin supplement, always purchase high quality products from trusted companies. If you have questions about vitamin brands, vitamin forms, or dosing, consult your healthcare provider for advice.

Some women aren’t able to meet their vitamin needs through diet alone and may require vitamin supplements. It’s important to work with a knowledgeable healthcare provider to develop a supplement regimen that’s right for you.

The bottom line

Vitamins are essential to women’s health and play numerous roles in the body.

Although most vitamins are concentrated in many foods and adequate intake can be reached by consuming a well-rounded diet, some women cannot reach their vitamin needs through diet alone.

Certain factors and circumstances, including age, pregnancy and breastfeeding, medical conditions, medication use, and lifestyle choices, increase a woman’s risk of vitamin deficiency.

Women who are either concerned they may be at risk of developing a vitamin deficiency or interested in optimizing their vitamin intake should work with a qualified healthcare provider to ensure optimal dosing, safety, and necessity.

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