Adolescence marks the period between childhood and adulthood filled with physiological, psychological, and sociological changes. It begins with puberty, but its ending is hard to define because it does not depend on the end of physical growth only, but also on cultural changes such as getting a job and moving out of the parents’ home.
Adolescence is a period of intense physical growth. It is also a period of increased dietary needs – the consequence of which is a higher risk of insufficient food intake. This can lead to growth retardation (not growing to maximal height), delayed sexual maturity, and various diseases later in life (cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis…). Adolescents feel invulnerable, perceive themselves as healthy, and are less motivated to protect their health. Other members of the society see them in a same light, regardless of diet quality and level of physical activity. However, the consequences of a bad diet in your youth will be noticeable in your prime and in later life. But not only then. Low quality diets, obesity and lack of physical activity take its tall earlier and earlier. We should be worried about the fact that we see beginning stages of chronic diseases not only in adolescents but sometimes children as well.
Many throw this phrase around, but only a few explain it. There are a few basic rules you need to pay attention to:
1. Sufficient intake of:
- dietary fiber
- vitamins and minerals
- phyto- and zoo-chemicals
2. Reduced intake of
- Trans-fatty acids
3. Acceptable ratio of:
- energy input and output
- omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids
4. Palatability (good flavor)
A proper, healthy diet enables you to reach your full genetic potential in terms of growth and development, lowers the risk of chronic disease and osteoporosis, and assures the mental well-being. It also plays a significant role in reaching the full academic potential.
Up until recently, the biggest issue concerning diet was famine – insufficient intake of energy and nutrients. Today, the biggest problem is obesity – resulting from too high energy intake. The logical assumption would be that this solves the problem of insufficient nutrient intake, but it does not happen, due to low nutritive values of overly consumed, energy-filled food usually consumed.
Obesity in adults is defined as BMI higher than 30 kg/m2 (body mass index = body weight [kg]/height [m2]). Due to significant growth in adolescence, BMI is not a perfect obesity indicator. Fat to lean mass ratio is a better indicator, and in lack of a better method, it can be assessed visually as well. Calorie (energy) intake that is higher than energy spent, is the main (only) cause of obesity, and is drived by both psychological and sociological factors.
We often hear or read about sugar and fat causing obesity, but that is a misconception. It’s true that sweet and fatty foods are better-tasting and easier to go overboard with, but that does not mean they cause weight gain. Also, these types of foods are not inherently unhealthy, but their excessive consumption leads to lower intake of nutrient-rich foods, which can cause dietary deficits. It’s important to emphasize that obesity is not only the issue of aesthetics but a very serious health problem – directly linked to many chronic diseases.
Apart from obesity, there are other problems related with low quality diet, such as dietary deficits – an insufficient nutrient intake. Most common nutrient deficiencies in adolescents are iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium, folate, vitamins A and E, and fiber. These particular micronutrients can be found in red meat, different vegetables (especially green and leafy), and milk and dairy products.
Improving the quality of your diet
The main focus should be on education – the importance of a quality diet when it comes to maintaining and improving health – which should begin in primary school, in order to allow the adolescent to make a „smarter“ choice when picking out foods to eat when not at home.
Parents play a significant role as well. They should encourage shared family meals and preparing various and nutrient-rich meals, as well as meal-prep for school instead of just providing money to buy snacks.
However, not everything is in the hands of parents and adolescents. Marketing plays a great role in all this and has a strong influence promoting products with low nutritive values. Vending machines with candy and soda are strategically placed in school corridors and junk-food stands are placed in the vicinity of schools. These things should be regulated by law. One of the strategies could be introducing an organized diet into the high school system.
Examples of quality meals
These are some of the options for a good quality meal. The best option for you depends on your other meals as well as your personal preferences. Healthy eating can be done in many ways, all of which are based on variability and moderation.
- Cereal (oatmeal), milk, coconut flour, honey
- Sandwich (whole-wheat bread, low-fat deli, cheese, salad)
- Probiotic yoghurt
Lunch and dinner
- Source of protein (meat, fish, eggs, cheese)
- Source of carbohydrates (pasta, rice, potato…)
- Vegetables as a side dish (all types, as colorful as possible)
- Salad (all types, as colorful as possible, with seeds)
Healthy diet does not mean getting rid of „unhealthy“ foods, but including as many „healthy“ ones as possible. If adolescents maintain a balanced diet, there will be room for candy and snacks. During this period a person develops lifetime habits – the nutritive decisions you make now will stick for a long time. So make healthy choices!
- Rees, J. M., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Kohn, M., & Jacobson, M. (1999). Improving the nutritional health of adolescents—position statement—society for adolescent medicine. Journal of adolescent health, 24(6), 461-462.
- Schneider, D. (2000). International trends in adolescent nutrition. Social Science & Medicine, 51(6), 955-967.3.
- Nutrition, C. (2005). Nutrition in adolescence–Issues and Challenges for the Health Sector.
- Story, M., & Stang, J. (2005). Nutrition needs of adolescents. Guidelines for Adolescent Nutrition Services, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 21-34.
- Pilant, V. B. (2006). Position of the American Dietetic Association: local support for nutrition integrity in schools. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 106(1), 122.