Adolescence is the transitional stage from childhood to adulthood. According to World Health Organization (WHO) it is the period of life between 10 and 19 years. This is the vulnerable stage of life that is dominant by the physiological processes leading to puberty, which are accompanied by rapid growth and maturation. Alongside these biological processes, there are physiological changes as the child attains the capacity for cognitive processes and acquire the ability to take on adult responsibilities. The phenomenal growth that occurs in adolescence, second only to that in the first year of life, creates increased demands for energy and nutrients
Good nutrition during adolescence is critical to cover the deficits suffered during childhood and should include nutrients required to meet the demand of physical and cognitive growth and development, provide adequate stores of energy for illness or pregnancy, and to prevent adult onset of nutrition- related diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer and osteoporosis.
Eating healthy food and ensuring adequate intake of nutrients are important at any stage, but it’s especially important for teenagers. Total nutrition needs are higher during adolescence than any other time in the life cycle. Nutrition and physical and psychological growth are integrally related; Optimal nutrition is a requisite for achieving the full growth potential. Failure to consume an adequate nutrition through diet at this vulnerable period can result in delayed sexual maturation, can arrest or slow linear growth, and can lead to many nutrition related abnormalities.
Prior to puberty, nutritional requirements are similar for boys and girls. It is during puberty that body composition and biological changes such as menarche, emerge which affect gender- specific nutrition needs. Nutritional requirements for both male and females increase sharply during the peak velocity of growth. At the peak of adolescent growth spurt, the nutritional requirements maybe twice as high as those of the remaining period of adolescence.
Adolescence is considered as the nutritionally critical period of life, because the dramatic increase in physical growth and psychological development put greater pressure on the need for nutrients. During this period, adolescence will experience a weight gain equivalent to 65% of their weight at the beginning of the period and 40% of the final weight, and a high gain equivalent to 15% of their adult height. There is a potential for correcting nutritional inadequacies and also considered as the second opportunity to catch-up growth if environmental, especially in terms of nutrient intake are favourable. Improving adolescent nutrition behaviour is an investment in adult health.
The high rates of growth and development during adolescence increase the nutritional requirement compared to those seen in earlier childhood. Indeed, this stage of life has requirements of energy and nutrients that are greater than seen in adulthood. As it is an important time for gains in height as well as weight, both muscle and fat increases, girls gain relatively more fat, and boys gain more muscles. Thus, the requirement for energy and protein increases. The actual needs vary with physical activity. Adolescent females require approximately 2200 kcal/day, whereas male adolescents require 2500-3000 kcal/day. Adolescents often have higher level of physical activity than seen in adults, and these can contribute significantly to energy requirement. Protein needs of adolescents are influenced by the amount of protein required for the maintenance of existing lean mass and accrual of additional lean body mass during the adolescent growth spurt. The adolescent growth spurt is sensitive to energy and nutrient requirement. Chronically low energy intakes can lead to delayed puberty. Similarly when protein intakes become consistently inadequate, reduction in linear growth, delays in sexual maturation, and reduction in accumulation of body mass can occur. Carbohydrate is the body’s primary source of dietary energy. Dietary recommendations suggest that 50% or more of daily energy expenditure should come from carbohydrates. At the same time the human body requires dietary fat and essential fatty acids, for the normal growth and development and synthesis of steroid hormones.
Micronutrients are essential during the adolescence period in order to ensure physiological process and functions can be maintained during the period of maximal growth. Minerals play a crucial role in adolescence nutrition. Calcium, zinc and iron are of particular significance. The adolescent years are a window of opportunity for optimal bone development and future health. Thus calcium requirements are greater during adolescence. Consumption of calcium rich products with every meal goes a long way towards ensuring that requirements are met for Calcium and many other nutrients such as Phosphorous, Magnesium and Vitamin needed for bone health. Zinc is known to be essential for growth and sexual maturation. Plus Zinc is associated with more than 100 specific enzymes and is vital for protein formation. Adolescents see an increase in requirement of Iron, for the rapid growth and expansion of blood volume and muscle mass. Poor Iron status in adolescents especially in girls, is associated with Iron deficiency anaemia, reduced performance and impaired cognitive abilities.
The requirements for Vitamins are also increased during adolescence. Because of higher energy demands, more Thiamine, Riboflavin and Niacin are necessary for the release of energy from carbohydrates. The increased rate of growth and sexual maturation increases the demand for Folic acid and Vitamin B12. The rapid rate of skeletal growth demands more Vitamin D. Vitamin A, C, and E are needed in increased amounts for new cell growth. Adolescents also have increased requirement for folate.
In order to attain the nutritional status that helps in rapid growth and development in adolescence it is always important to incorporate all nutrients in appropriate amount in the diet. Hence, a balanced diet that contains all essential macro and micronutrients at proper proportions to fulfil the requirements of adolescents and is consumed at proper meal times will be helpful
With so many unhealthy meal choices, it is important to abstain from foods high in calories and fats and maintain a healthy, well- balanced nutritious diet. Adolescence has to meet their protein requirement essentially through diet by including fish, poultry, lean meat beans and nuts. Calcium can be obtained through dairy products and Iron can be obtained through fish, meat, cereals, poultry, eggs and fortified products. Good fat sources include nuts, seeds, olives, fatty fishes, vegetable and sunflower oils. Vitamins are readily available in fruits and vegetables. Consumption of whole grains and cereal based products are also important.
If adolescents are well-nourished, they can make optimal use of their skills, talents and energies today, and be healthy and responsible citizens and parents of healthy babies tomorrow. Hence, Nutrition plays a vital role in the life of adolescence.