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Beyond Food

Naina Qayyum

By Naina Qayyum

Adolescent Health and Nutrition: Critical Time for a Critical Time

The recent Lancet series on adolescent nutrition was eye-opening. Not only was it the first time there was a specialised series focusing on adolescent health and nutrition, but it also revealed how this topic is overlooked in research and donor spaces.

Adolescence is the period between the ages of 10 and 19 during which children experience physical, emotional, and mental development. Children gain 20% of their adult height, 50% of their adult weight and up to 40% of their bone mass during adolescence. This stage of development is fuelled by nutrition and a healthy diet, and it is critical to ensure that it is adequate and that food environments for adolescents are conducive to their needs.

graphic illustrating adolescent growth matrix
Adolescence brings drastic changes in humans. Source: Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)

The Lancet series highlighted some key and thought-provoking issues around adolescent health and nutrition.

There are 1.2 billion adolescents in the world, making up 16 percent of the global population. The needs and issues of adolescent nutrition have largely been overlooked in the policy frameworks and global targets, due to which there has been insufficient funding and nutrition-sensitive programs for them.

Adolescents, regardless of their sex, experience malnutrition burden in the form of stunting, wasting, obesity/overweight, micronutrient deficiencies such as iron, calcium and zinc. The lack of nutrients during growth can lead to long-term development issues in physical and mental well-being. 

Adolescents increasingly seek independence as they grow older and move away from relying on caregivers for basic decisions such as food. In some ways, as children reach their adolescent years, they can become gullible and easily influenced to form habits. When it comes to food choices that most adolescents make on their own, there is a growing trend of using influencers and popular social media platforms to bring nutrient-poor and energy-dense foods to young people. In the absence of regulation, such advertisements can lead to increased consumption of unhealthy foods and solidify poor dietary habits, both of which can lead to poor health outcomes.

Neglecting adolescents' diets can result in intergenerational nutritional issues. How can we help adolescents meet their nutritional needs?

It is critical to obtain an accurate picture of dietary patterns among adolescents in various contexts. One Lancet series research paper identified the issue of limited data that does not allow to paint an accurate picture of what young people eat. There is data missing for some regions, particularly Africa, or it is not disaggregated by sex, or it is not available for boys, or it focuses on specific food groups, providing an incomplete picture of adolescent diets.

illustration stating why adolescent nutrition must be given attention
Investing in adolescent nutrition translates into healthier future generations. Source: publichealthnotes.com

Aside from food environments—what is available, accessible, and desirable—adolescent food choices can be influenced by a variety of factors in various contexts. Returning to the Lancet series, evidence from several countries showed that adolescents living in food-insecure environments with insufficient food made links between climate issues such as drought and hunger. As coping strategies to combat hunger, adolescents in such environments reported trading sex, selling alcohol, and labour for food, putting their health at risk.

Adolescents are intelligent, and they understand the distinction between healthy and unhealthy food. Many of them see food as a commodity that brings communities and families together. They do, however, want to use their newly-acquired freedom of choice (where applicable) to select food while spending time with friends. Many of them revert to eating unhealthy food or dining out at restaurants that may not offer healthy options. When adolescents interact with food environments with their peers, it is critical to ensure that the food options made available to them are safe and healthy.

Way Forward

Neglecting adolescents’ diets can result in intergenerational nutritional issues. It is critical for today’s boys and girls to be well-fed and not worry about food, instead of focusing on their studies and learning activities. Adolescent nutrition must be prioritised in terms of funding, research, and programme interventions at the policy level.

Adolescent participation in policymaking is critical. It is critical to recognise that young people have opinions and agency that should be considered when developing policies for them. Many young people are already taking individual actions, such as making informed dietary choices or cultivating school/home gardens, through advocacy. Advocacy for healthier, more sustainable diets should include young people, and their voices should be heard.

Finally, we must harness the power of numbers and data to better understand adolescent diet issues and identify areas for intervention. Understanding how food environments are for young people today and how best we can shape them to nurture our future generations will be difficult without accurate data, particularly in low-middle-income settings.

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