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Adolescent Nutrition: Decoding Nutritional Requirements For Teens

I read a funny quote somewhere, a teenager is “someone who is ready for a zombie apocalypse but is not ready for the math test tomorrow”. Adolescents are the most misunderstood lot on the planet. Strange but true, they are treated like children and are expected to behave like adults which makes their lives complicated. They grow up puzzled with questions like, Who am I, What is my identity?

Image only for representational purposes.

Teenage girls in India have 4 times higher occurrence of Anemia than teenage boys.

WHO marks this age group (10-19 years) as a transitional phase of growth and development between childhood and adulthood. Characterized by a phase of rapid growth spurt accompanied by sexual maturation, it also brings about emotional conflict, psychological maturity, and identity crisis while the child undergoes mental development.

This piece will talk about why adolescence is an important phase in life and how to take care of the nutritional needs of your children so that they grow up into healthy adults and build a healthy society.

Physical Growth And Development

You will notice a rapid and dramatic physical growth spurt between 11.5 to 16 years. During their peak, girls grow 9cm (3.5 inches) tall every year.  There is an increase in the size of all the organs and systems of the body which are responsible for the accelerated growth and the changes in contours and sexual organs. Menarche (the beginning of menstrual periods) sets in around the age of 12years. Sweat, odor, and oil glands also become more active triggering skin problems like acne.

Nutritional Requirements During Adolescence

In this phase of rapid growth and development, the nutritional needs are equally high. Adolescents need more calories and nutrients than us adults. When these needs are not met, they may suffer from various nutritional deficiencies which in the long run can affect them during motherhood.

The below table gives the Estimated Average Requirements for Indian Adolescent girls compared to the requirements for an adult woman. (ICMR – NIN, 2020)

Energy (calories/day) Protein (gm/day) Iron (mg/day)
Girls (10-12yrs) 2060 27 16
Girls (13-15yrs) 2400 35 17
Girls (16-18yrs) 2500 37 18
Women (sedentary) 1660 36 15

Teenagers often complain of tiredness, fatigue, leg cramps, lack interest in studies, are unable to concentrate and focus in class, and have lowered resistance to infections. Well, these are all signs of Anemia (lower than normal levels of Hemoglobin). Anemia among adolescents adversely affects growth, resistance to infections, cognitive development, and work productivity. One can suffer from Anemia because of:

  • inadequate intake of Iron from foods
  • heavy or chronic menstrual bleeding
  • malaria or parasitic infections

India is home to 253 million adolescents (10 to 19 years). The latest CNNS 2019 report states that 40% of adolescent girls in India suffer from Anemia compared to only 18% of boys. The co-existence of Anemia and thinness (underweight) among girls are four times higher than boys in late adolescence (15-19 years).

Consumption of foods high in fat, sugar, and salt combined with no physical activity are the major causes of the rise in overweight and obesity in teens. Such teens are at higher risks of high blood pressure and diabetes. Some who are very conscious of their body image and weight gain also suffer from eating disorders like Anorexia nervosa (under eating) and Bulimia (binge eating and purging) which can pose serious health implications.

The Solution To All The Above Nutritional Problems Is Only One – “Balanced Diet”

A balanced diet includes all the food groups (cereals, pulses/meat, fruits and vegetables, milk and milk products, fats, and oils) in the right portions to provide all the poshan (carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, mineral, and fiber) required for the body for the day.

पालेओ डाइट
Representational Image

A healthy and balanced diet is the key for teens to grow strong.

Plan all the meals, breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner such that your teen gets all the nutrition for good health.

Below are the portions of food groups that your teen should eat through the day:

  • Cereals and grains (rice/chapati/paratha): 9 portions/servings
  • Pulses/dals/egg/meat/fish: 2-3 portions/servings/katoris
  • Vegetables and fruits: 5-6 portions/katoris
  • Milk and milk products (paneer, curd, buttermilk): 5 servings/2-3 glasses of milk
  • Fats and oils: 7servings/teaspoons (35ml)

Importance of nutrients obtained from the above food groups:

  1. Complex Carbohydrates like whole grains, roots, fruits, and pulses aid in the production of a happy hormone-Serotonin, sleep aids and helps curb food cravings.
  2. Proteins are essentials for muscle building, repair, growth, and building antibodies. Include milk, eggs, meat, soybean, dal, paneer, beans in their meals.
  3. Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals (iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium), and fiber. These nutrients are required for physical growth, brain development, building immunity and strength. Include Iron-rich foods like green leafy vegetables (amaranth, mint, radish leaves, colocasia, drumstick leaves, fenugreek leaves), nuts and seeds, eggs, meat liver to keep their iron stores normal. Add Vit C-rich foods (amla, guava, lemon, oranges, raw mango, papaya) to increase iron absorption from foods.
  4. Milk, curd, paneer are rich in proteins and calcium which help in the development of bones and teeth.
  5. handful of nuts and seeds between their meals when they crave chips and chocolates, will help in brain functioning as well as regulate mood. Nuts contain healthy fats, antioxidants, and vitamin E.


Some More Tips For Healthy Eating

  • Restrict caffeine intake (tea, coffee) as it triggers anxiety and deprives sleep. Instead serve smoothies, milkshakes, or juice.
  • Limit the use of fried/packaged foods as they are high in calories and low in nutrients.
  • Make them drink plenty of water, juices, coconut water. These help in cleansing their systems and keep their skin healthy and glowing.
  • Ask your teen to play outdoors. Being active keeps their muscles strong and builds immunity. Physical activity under the sun provides Vit D which is important for bone development and calcium absorption.

To every adolescent who feels life is a struggle, just remember this – “You will shine like a Rockstar only when you eat healthily and grow strong”.

The article is authored by Dr. Meghana Pasi, a nutrition expert with Arogya World, MyThali program

Feature Image Credit: Dan Gold/Unsplash

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