Nutrition is Key for Healthy Adolescent Development


Adolescence is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be between the ages of 10–19 years. This decade of life is a period of substantial neurological development, second only to early childhood.

Nutritional Needs

Significant and rapid neural and physiological changes occur during adolescence, and billions of neural networks that affect emotional skills and physical and mental abilities are reorganized. Adolescence encompasses fast physical growth and sexual maturation combined with emotional, social and cognitive development. Adolescents have high nutrient needs to support their growth and development spurts.

Consequences of Deficiencies

Failure to meet nutritional needs impairs physical growth and development and potentially causes nutritional anemia. Girls typically start their menstrual cycles during adolescence, making them more at risk of iron deficiency. For instance while males ages 15 to 17 years old need at least 12.5 milligrams of iron per day, females of the same age need at least 20.7 milligrams of iron per day. Regardless of gender, iron deficiency anemia reduces physical capacity and work performance. In addition, iron deficiency anemia limits cognitive development. For example, students in Iran with anemia had much lower achievement scores than healthy students.

On the other hand, the WHO notes that "a sustainable healthy diet and healthy eating practices during adolescence have the potential to limit any nutritional deficits and linear-growth faltering generated during the first decade of life. Healthy practices may limit harmful behaviors contributing to the epidemic of non-communicable diseases in adulthood."

Extent of Problem

Iron deficiency anemia reduces physical capacity and work performance. It was the leading cause of years lived with disability among children and adolescents in 2013, affecting an estimated 619 million young people. Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia among adolescent girls contribute to more than 3,000,000 Disability Adjusted Life Years lost globally. One DALY can be thought of as one lost year of "healthy" life.

How Fortification Helps

Adding vitamins and minerals to staple foods such as wheat flour, maize flour, and rice — a process known as fortification — provides adolescents with additional nutrients in foods they are already eating. Fortifying commonly consumed food can help prevent iron deficiency, nutritional anemia, and brain and spine birth defects. Similarly, fortifying food with other key vitamins and mineral will decrease deficiencies that lead to widespread diseases.

Meeting adolescents' nutritional needs is an investment in their development that contributes to the full participation of young people in a nation’s life. A competitive labor force, sustained economic growth, improved governance and vibrant civil societies help accelerate a nation’s progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Specifically, improved nutrition for adolescents would help meet Goal 2 which aims to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and prevention and control of iodine deficiency disorders."

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