Around the world, there are an estimated 1.2 billion adolescents between 10 and 19 years old. Although adolescence lies between childhood and adulthood, adolescents are neither big children, nor little adults. They have increased food requirements to support their rapid physical growth and maturation.
The steep increase in issues such as anemia, overweight and obesity in this age group puts nutritional issues among the greatest immediate threats to adolescent health. Exposure to healthy nutrition from adolescence — ranging from actual food consumption to the food environment — can set the stage for a healthy life ahead and good dietary habits.
The combined factors that shape diet can include personal factors, such as taste preferences and knowledge of healthy foods; social influences like friends, families and co-workers; and physical surroundings, including stores and advertising.
However, poverty and socio-economic inequalities remain important barriers to accessing diverse and nutritious foods. Supporting adolescents’ health and well-being is necessary to ensure their healthy development, but also offers lifelong and intergenerational benefits.
From a lifelong perspective, healthy eating behaviours adopted during adolescence, such as how much and what you eat, are more likely to continue into adulthood. Intergenerationally, things like adolescent pregnancy can negatively affect a girl’s growth, and can also impact fetal growth and development.
Forms of malnutrition in adolescents
Adolescents face forms of malnutrition on both ends of the spectrum, from being underweight and having micronutrient deficiencies, to being overweight and obesity.
On the undernutrition side, an estimated one in four adolescents experience anemia, a condition where someone does not have enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to their body’s tissues. Linked to limited intake of required vitamins and minerals or malabsorption from the gut, anemia can complicate growth and development.
Anemia can also decrease productivity, which is particularly important considering most adolescents go to school and/or work. The number of adolescents who experience undernutrition is disproportionately higher in low- and middle-income countries.
From an over-nutrition perspective, one in five adolescents is overweight or obese, and the proportion is increasing worldwide. These conditions are associated with a greater risk of developing a disease such as diabetes or cancer later in life, as well as chronic health issues such as hypertension.