Nutrition is important at all stages of life, but during adolescence it plays a particularly important role.
Any parent who has had to buy their child three different sizes of pants over the course of one school year will know that adolescents grow more during this time period than at any other time except infancy. So it goes without saying that adolescents have increased nutritional needs.
About half of a healthy body mass is gained during adolescence. Along with the obvious height and weight gains, bone mass and muscle mass increase, blood volume expands, and multiple organs increase in size, including the heart, brain, lungs, liver and kidneys. Good nutrition is essential to achieve full growth potential.
In their transition from childhood to adulthood, adolescents are often overlooked. They aren’t mini-adults, but they’re no longer children either. They have unique nutritional needs like increased calcium and vitamin D for bone growth, amino acids for lean muscle growth, zinc and iron. Adolescents are also establishing eating and exercise habits that will stick with them throughout life. At the same time, they are facing new challenges that have an impact on how and what they eat.
People between the ages of 10 and 24 make up about a quarter of the planet’s population. This group is growing thanks to global emphasis on early childhood survival rates. This group represents a country’s future stability – economic growth and productivity depends on a healthy working population. Furthermore, adolescents will someday be the parents of the next generation. To stop the intergenerational cycle of passing poor nutrition from one generation to the next, it’s important for adolescents to get the nutrition they need.
If an adolescent girl becomes pregnant her body and the body of the developing fetus are in competition for nutrients. Globally more than 16 million adolescents give birth each year, that’s about 10 percent of all births. Some research has shown that pregnant adolescents will prioritize their own growth over that of a fetus when the mother’s calorie consumption is high. Other research has shown that adolescent girls who give birth are more likely to stop growing. Regardless, adolescents are at a higher risk for pregnancy and birth complications like preterm birth, labor obstructed by a small pelvis, and anemia.
It’s probably not news that high-income countries have seen rising rates of adolescent obesity, but low and middle-income countries are seeing increasing obesity rates too, while rates of undernutrition remain high. Worldwide, one in three adolescents is overweight or obese. Adolescent obesity often leads to early onset of chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. When diseases like this show up early in life, they lead to increased disability rates and shorter lifespans.
Improving nutrition among adolescents is a unique window of opportunity. Good nutrition at this time of life can make up for less than ideal nutrition in childhood. It can set the stage for a lifetime of healthy eating habits and protect against long-term disability from chronic diseases. In addition, it sets adolescents up as a healthy generation able to lead their countries and become the parents of the next generation.
Akseer, N., Al-Gashm, S., Mehta, S., Mokdad, A. and Bhutta, Z. A. (2017), Global and regional trends in the nutritional status of young people: a critical and neglected age group. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1393: 3–20. doi:10.1111/nyas.13336
Das, J. K., Salam, R. A., Thornburg, K. L., Prentice, A. M., Campisi, S., Lassi, Z. S., Koletzko, B. and Bhutta, Z. A. (2017), Nutrition in adolescents: physiology, metabolism, and nutritional needs. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1393: 21–33. doi:10.1111/nyas.13330
Pay attention to food ads directed at teens and tweens
You might be in awe of the amount and kinds of food this group consumes. But why do they eat what they do? Watch for advertisements that are targeted toward this group. Turn on a TV program or TV station directed toward this group and look at what kinds of products are being advertised and how. Or have a conversation with an adolescent about what they eat.
Involve teens in food shopping and cooking
Involve adolescents in the food shopping and meal preparation process. Giving teens and tweens a say in what foods are stocked at home and learning how to prepare them can influence what they eat. It’s also a great opportunity to spend some time together and talk about the importance of eating nutritious foods in ensuring their long-term health.
Advocate for healthier snacks at school sporting events
Have you seen what is sold at sporting event concession stands lately? Chips, candy, nachos and soda. Go to an event at your local middle or high school and check out the selection for yourself. Then, join with parents, community members and the school board to advocate for some healthier options to be added that can still help the groups earn a profit.