Nutrition Mistakes All 20-Somethings Are Making

Your 20s are a time of self-discovery, freedom, and a period in which anything and everything seems possible. But they are also the decade in which you will make some your first life-changing decisions. Believe it or not, one of those big decisions is how you feed your body.

Now, before we get into the scariness that is everything you are currently doing wrong nutrition-wise, keep this in mind: Many women only find out later in life how they could have been eating better in their 20s. They wish someone had told them back then what the effects of their decisions would be on their bodies 15 years down the road.

So while you can’t turn back the clock, you can start making better choices now and have fewer regrets later. After all, “the more you know,” right?

1. You Think You're Too Cool For Metamucil

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According to the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine, women ages 50 and under (that means you) need 25 grams of fiber a day. If you didn't know that, it's not your fault: Fiber supplement marketing mainly targets an older demographic. But you do actually need fiber now, mainly to help prevent major illnesses later in life.

Fiber is kind of a multitasking supplement. It lowers cholesterol levels and helps to normalize blood glucose and insulin levels, which is important in preventing heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It's known for "keeping things moving," and in doing so, it lowers your risk of colorectal cancer. Fiber has another benefit specifically for women: Research suggests that it may help protect against breast cancer.

Because fiber is found in several foods, including raw fruits and vegetables, high-fiber cereals, and complex carbs like brown rice and whole-grain bread, you don't actually have to take Metamucil. But it does now come in a convenient pill form. So think about it, OK?

2. You Have No Idea How Much You Need Iron

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Iron Pills, $10, Amazon

You know that friend you met for the first time in middle school who has come back to visit you every single month since? Since she started coming to town, she has been taking some of your body's iron with her when she leaves.

Menstruating women need at least 18 mg of iron everyday (over twice as much as men their age) because they lose around 1 mg for every day of their period each month. And because not a lot of young women know this, iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in women. The biggest effect of an iron deficiency is the development of anemia, which you don’t want because it makes you tired and breathless.

Don't waste your time being mad that your male counterparts don’t have to worry about this (although it is entirely unfair). Enjoy eating more good sources of iron, including red meat, chicken, fish, fortified cereals, legumes and nuts, and leafy greens.

3. You're Not Preparing For That Maybe-Someday Baby

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OK, I know what you’re thinking, “Baby? What baby? My most recent five-year plan doesn’t have baby anywhere on it.” And I hear you. But the thing is, if and when that hypothetical baby becomes a reality, the nutrition decisions you make right now can have an effect on both your ability to conceive and the health of that currently imaginary bundle of joy.

You see, it's usually when a woman gets pregnant that she's informed about the importance of folic acid, a supplement that studies have shown can protect babies from several serious birth defects. But experts say that many women don't realize that folic acid is important even before conception, including Carol Bates, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Bates said that, since folic acid is important right from the start and "many women can be pregnant for six, or eight weeks before they know it, taking folic acid prior to conception is one important way to ensure your body has a good supply right form the very start of your pregnancy."

In fact, Bates believes it's so important that “every woman who is sexually active and not using a highly reliable method of birth control should be taking folic acid, just on the off chance that she does get pregnant."

And as far as fertility is concerned, being moderate in your alcohol consumption and consistently maintaining a healthy weight will increase your chances of conceiving in case "baby" makes an appearance on the next five-year plan.

4. You're Ignoring Your Last Chance to Save Your Skeleton

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Tums, $7, Amazon

This one is a bit frightening, so brace yourself for it: By the time you hit 30, your bones are as strong as they are going to get. Even scarier is the fact that unhealthy bones, combined with being a woman instead of a man, will put you at greater risk for developing osteoporosis and broken bones. Eight million of the 10 million Americans with osteoporosis are women.

On the bright side, you still have time to work on this, and the greater your bone density before you hit 30, the lower your chance of developing osteoporosis. So, now is the time to pack your bones full of calcium! The best way to do this is to drink two eight-ounce glasses of vitamin D-fortified, low-fat milk, every day, which is a great way to develop fracture-resistant bones. Broccoli is also a good source of calcium, if you're into that sort of thing.

5. You're Eating The Wrong Kind of Microwaveable Meals

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I will be the first to admit (if the rest of you don’t feel like copping to it) that I zap more meals than I would like. But in a 20-something's world, what with the hours you are trying to put in to prove yourself at work and the time you want to spend unwinding with friends, devoting time to cooking a proper meal every night doesn’t always rank high on the priority scale. You don’t have to feel ashamed about this. While many microwaveable meals are horrible for you (yes, including the diet ones), there are options that offer you actual nutritional content.

If you know microwavable is the way you wanna go, focus on choosing products that have a balance of protein, carbs, and veggies in one package. And, as a rule of thumb, look for meals that have 450 mg or less of sodium and no more than three grams of total and one gram of saturated fat per 100 calories, says Constance Brown-Riggs, R.D., and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

6. Your Attention to Skin Health Has Had A Negative Side Effect

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Vitamin D Pills, $14, Amazon

Apparently while we were all patting ourselves on the back for slathering on sunscreen, wearing giant-yet-fashionable hats to the beach, spending less time in the sun, and thus warding off skin cancer, we gave ourselves vitamin D deficiencies. Yes, as of 2009, not just women but three-quarters of U.S. teens and adults are deficient in vitamin D, which is most easily absorbed through rays of sunshine.

But don’t you dare put down that bottle of sunscreen! You can get Vitamin D in other ways. It's found in low-fat dairy products, eggs, oysters, salmon, tuna, and of course, vitamin D supplements. Women up to age 50 need at least 600 IU's of vitamin D per day.

Curious as to why vitamin D is so important? It plays a large role in calcium absorption (remember your bones!) and the regulation of blood sugar levels.

7. You're Too Focused On Calorie Counting

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Yes, calorie intake vs. calorie output is important to monitor if you're trying to maintain or lose weight. But focusing too much on calorie counting can make you lose sight of your overall nutrition, and it could undermine your weight goals, too.

Because different foods affect your hunger and hormones in different ways, only paying attention to the calorie content of a food won't give you the best idea of how that food will affect your body. If you ate your weight in pea pods, you'd consume approximately the same number of calories as you would if you ate three cupcakes, but your body processes these foods very differently.

Foods that are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, like the cupcake, cause a spike in insulin levels as your body tries to quickly get the sugar out of your blood and into your cells. This spike, with no fiber, fat, or protein to slow it down, can lead to fat conversion, lower energy levels, and increase cravings.

And while calorie counting and portion control help lots of people manage their weight, that approach doesn't work for everyone. More importantly, it ignores the bigger picture of what being "healthy" overall really means, which includes so many other significant factors.

If your goal is to make your body more inclined to weight loss, it's better to focus on eating the right foods and macronutrients. Just by eating less sugar and fewer simple carbohydrates and consuming more of the lean proteins, vegetables, and fruits that we all know are good for us, you can get to or maintain a healthy weight without a single calorie counting app.

8. You Think Taking Care of Your Ticker Can Wait

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Thanks to the American Heart Association's "Go Red for Women Campaign", you may be aware that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in America. And you probably think: "That's horrible, but I'm young. That number can’t be the same for me."

You're right. As of 2010, the Center for Disease Control reported that heart disease is the No. 4 cause of death among women ages 25-34 and the No. 5 cause of death among women ages 20-24. Yup.

The good news is that there are ways to mitigate your risk. The "Go Red For Women" campaign has specific heart disease prevention recommendations for women in every age group. The list of suggestions for women in their '20’s includes: set a goal to consume less than 200 mg of cholesterol daily, limit your alcohol consumption, minimize your sodium and saturated fat intake, avoid processed meats and sugary drinks, and try to exercise for at least 40 minutes three to four times a week.

9. You Were Trying to Speed Up Your Metabolism And Instead You're Killing It

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When you don’t eat as many calories as you burn, you lose weight. But when you do that to an extreme, you mess with your body’s natural metabolic rate.

There are two reasons for this. First, some of the weight you lose when you shed pounds is muscle, which naturally helps to burn calories. Second, your body has a weight that it wants to be at, "comfortable weight." It may be the weight you are currently at or the weight you were provided with thanks to genetics. When you start to try to lower that weight, your body tries to keep you from "starving" by slowing down your metabolism so it can hang on to calories.

If you want to lose weight in a healthy way without destroying your metabolism, accept that it will take time for your body to adjust and recognize that it is still getting enough calories, just not as many as before.

If you've cut back your intake and are going crazy at the gym and still seeing no change on the scale, it is probably because you are hurting your metabolism and your body. Better to go slowly and remind yourself that your body is just looking out for you. If you take in fewer calories than you burn, safely, your body will adjust over time. It's not stupid, just cautious.

10. You're Way Too Free: Sugar-Free, Carb-Free, Fat-Free, Gluten-Free

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There has been a spike in the “health food” market in the past few decades, with U.S. sales of organic food and beverages growing from $1 billion in 1990 to $24.8 billion in 2009. This is due in part to the fact that many consumers have become more health conscious in the last decade.

Unfortunately, this has resulted in a lot of products that aren't so good for you being sold as though they are. Pay attention to labels and know what they mean. An "organic" product has to meet certain regulations to earn that official government stamp, while the term "all-natural" is not regulated at all. Also know that while it's possible to purchase all-natural, gluten-free chocolate chip cookies and sugar-free pudding, junk food is junk food no matter whether it is organic, sugar-free, fat-free, or gluten-free. And even though these foods are valid options for people with specific dietary restrictions or needs (diabetes, gluten intolerance, etc.) and they are likely to save you a few calories too, they have little to no nutritional content.

So in general it is best to avoid processed, packaged foods. But you knew that one already, right? Of course you did.

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