Perhaps more than any other decade, your 20s are a period of transformation — from teenager to adulthood, from college to the working world, from being a child to thinking about having children of your own. A lot will happen before you turn the big 3-0.
While you're hustling, it's easy to forget to eat a balanced diet, but keeping up with your nutrition is key to reaching your adulting potential. The best vitamins for women in their 20s include vitamins D, B12 and folate.
Get Your Vitamin D
Known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that your skin produces when exposed to ultraviolet rays from the sun. It's also found naturally in some foods and added to others.
Vitamin D plays a critical role in maintaining strong, healthy bones because it helps the body absorb the mineral calcium. Although you might not think about it now, bone strength becomes more important as you age, because women have an increased risk of osteoporosis — a condition in which the bones become weak and brittle.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, even young women in their 20s can have low bone-density and osteoporosis — although this is rare and typically due to an underlying health condition. The best thing you can do for your bones now and in the future is to get enough vitamin D and calcium, eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
Vitamin D has other important functions, too. It supports your immune system, helps your muscles move and transmits signals between your brain and the rest of your body. According to the National Institutes of Health, vitamin D may play a role in preventing breast cancer and in the prevention and treatment of type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Getting enough vitamin D may also be important for preventing depression, for which women have a higher risk than men, according to the Vitamin D Council. Stress is a primary cause of depression, as are major life changes and isolation, all of which you may experience at one time or another in your 20s.
Read more: The 10 Best Supplements
Stock up on B12
Whether you're cramming for exams, pulling late nights at work or training for your first half-marathon, having adequate levels of B12 is crucial for sustained energy levels. As one of the eight B vitamins, B12 helps make red blood cells which carry oxygen throughout your body. Low B12, called vitamin B12 deficiency anemia, can result in fatigue, shortness of breath, reduced exercise tolerance, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, weight loss, muscle weakness, memory loss and confusion, according to the Mayo Clinic.
B12 also plays a role in the formation of genetic material. If you're thinking about starting a family soon, or are already pregnant, consuming sufficient B12 will ensure your baby's healthy growth and development. According to the Office on Women's Health, deficiency in pregnant women can result in your baby having a low birth weight or other health problems.
NIH reports that B12 deficiency may be more prevalent than previously assumed in young people in their late 20s. Vegetarians are especially at risk because B12 is only very rarely found in plant foods. Some plant foods, such as cereals, are fortified with B12, but depending on your diet, you may not be able to rely solely on fortified foods to get everything you need.
You may have seen some pretty good marketing promoting high-dose B12 to increase energy and improve sports performance, NIH says there is no scientific evidence to support these claims. Only people with a B12 deficiency will experience more energy once the deficiency is corrected.
Stay Up to Date on Folate
If you are thinking about starting a family in your 20s, get to know folate. One of the B vitamins, folate's main job is helping to make DNA and other genetic material. Low folate levels in preconceptional and pregnant women have been linked to an increased risk of having babies with neural tube defects, which affect a baby's brain and spinal cord development. Since about 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, NIH warns that it is crucial for all childbearing women to ensure adequate folate intake.
Low folate intake in pregnant women has also been associated with an increased risk of autism. A meta-analysis published in Paedeatric and Perinatal Epidemiology in January 2018 reviewed 1,257 mother-child pairs that had been followed from birth through childhood at Boston Medical Center. The results indicated that low plasma folate levels did, in fact, increase the risk.
However, the researchers also found that high blood levels from supplementation increased the risk of autism. Women who took a multivitamin with folic acid — the form of folate found in supplements and fortified foods — two or fewer times or five or more times per week week had an increased risk of having a baby with autism, while those who took supplements three to five times per week had a lower risk.
Getting What You Need
If you're confused about how much of each vitamin you need and how to get enough, speak with your doctor. As a general guide, the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies of Medicine sets guidelines for daily intakes estimated to meet the needs of 97 to 98 percent of the population.
Vitamin D: All women in their 20s, including those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, need 600 IU, each day. You can get vitamin D from sun exposure, although the importance of wearing sunscreen makes this a less favorable choice. Foods rich in vitamin D include:
- Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna and mackerel
- Beef liver, cheese and eggs
- Fortified milk, orange juice and cereal
Many Americans are deficient in vitamin D — 42 percent, according to Stephanie Wheeler, director of wellness at Mercy Medical Center (although some current studies have disputed this, but until the jury is out, it's best to stick with current recommendations). If you do not spend time outdoors without sunscreen and do not eat foods rich in vitamin D, you may need to take a daily supplement if your doctor recommends it.
Vitamin B12: If you aren't pregnant, you should be getting 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 each day. If you are pregnant, you need 2.6 micrograms; and if you're breastfeeding, you need 2.8 micrograms. B12 is widely available in animal foods, and it is often added to fortified foods.
NIH reports that vitamin B12 deficiency is common due to problems absorbing the nutrient from food and supplements, the cause of which is often unknown. If you're a vegan or vegetarian, you are also more likely to be deficient, and your doctor may advise you to take a supplement.
Folate: If you aren't pregnant or breastfeeding right now, you need 400 micrograms of folate each day. When you become pregnant, your needs increase to 600 micrograms daily, and when you are breastfeeding, you need 500 micrograms a day.
Certain plant foods are high in folate. The best sources include:
- Brussels sprouts
- Kidney beans
You can also get folate from fortified foods, such as milk, cereal and orange juice. According to NIH, most people can get enough folate from a balanced diet. However, certain conditions that affect folate absorption may require supplementation.
- NIH: "Vitamin D"
- Vitamin D Council: "Depression"
- Mayo Clinic: "Vitamin Deficiency Anemia"
- Office on Women's Health: "Vitamins and Minerals for Women"
- NIH: "Vitamin B12"
- NIH: "Folate"
- Paedeatric and Perinatal Epidemiology: "Maternal Multivitamin Intake, Plasma Folate and Vitamin B12 Levels and Autism Spectrum Disorder Risk in Offspring"
- Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies of Medicine:
- Mercy Medical Center: "42% Percent of Americans Are Vitamin D Deficient. Are You Among Them?"
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Controversies Surrounding Vitamin D: Focus on Supplementation and Cancer"
- WomensHealth.gov: Vitamins