Have you ever wondered why adolescents have a seemingly insatiable appetite? Puberty is that age when the human body goes through a metamorphosis (biological term for change in structure), bringing on a plethora of changes, both physical and hormonal. It triggers a growth spurt, which increases the need for additional macro and micronutrients.
As the child grows into a teenager it is important to aid these changes with the right amount of nutrition. The lack of essential nutrients during these years can have long-term health effects including PCOD, hypothyroidism and obesity.
Research has shown how nutrition is an integral factor that affects pubertal development. It is important to consume an adequate, balanced, and healthy diet during all phases of growth for a healthy development. The same research also looks at how girls are stepping into puberty at an earlier age, as compared to past decades. This could be because of the excessive consumption of processed, high-fat foods. It further suggests that obesity can accelerate the onset of puberty in girls and may delay it for boys.
Importance of nutrition and exercise
The diet of an adolescent must have protein, iron, calcium, zinc, and folate. Secondary or primary malnutrition can delay the onset of puberty. Apart from nutrition, environmental endocrine disruptors (EDs), like chemicals or pesticides, have also been seen to have an adverse impact on the course of puberty.
Undernutrition is one of the major reasons for delayed growth. Data suggests that around nine per cent of the world’s population is undernourished, with 22 per cent of children below five years showing stunted growth. Those who have secondary malnutrition due to chronic conditions have a delayed onset of puberty, which affects their growth spurt.
Nutrition and exercise play significant roles in ensuring a healthy adolescence. Inna Toplier, nutritionist and owner of New Jersey-based Complete Nutrition and Wellness, says, “Balancing meals is important. Children must eat from different food groups, get adequate protein, vegetables, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Ensure that the food is nutrient dense and not calorie dense. I always recommend eating green leaves, healthy fats, vegetables of different colours, and whole grains.”
Toplier emphasises the importance of getting the right nutrients during puberty to avoid health complications in the future. “Puberty is a time where a condition like Hashimoto’s can actually be triggered causing hypothyroidism,” she adds.
Nutrition in childhood influences puberty
As per a 2014 study, the nutritional status during the years before adolescence (infancy, childhood and the peripubertal period) influences pubertal development. It is important to ensure that the child gets adequate nutrition during infancy and childhood. Pubertal and metabolic disorders can be prevented by avoiding high-fat and high-calorie foods.
What children eat can determine when they hit puberty
A 2016 population-based observational study has shown that childhood obesity has a correlation with the earlier onset of puberty in girls. The study analysed the role of diet in determining the timing of sexual maturation. Likewise, there is a link between the intake of animal foods with earlier sexual development, while vegetable protein has been related to delayed malnutrition.
Healthy habits for healthy future
“As our children step into puberty and start to experience the fluctuations of hormones for the first time, they need to be educated to adopt healthy habits from the beginning. This way they can avoid conditions like hypothyroidism, PCOD, obesity in the future,” says Jo Proctor, hormone nutritionist based in Dubai.
Healthy sleep habits, stress management techniques, avoiding blue light/devices before bed and eating healthy food over processed foods and sugary energy drinks should be the focus of education for adolescents, she adds.
Quick food guide for teenagers
The Eatwell Guide, a visual representation created on the basis of recommendations made by UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, suggests the portions that should be consumed daily from the five food groups – carbohydrates, proteins, fruits and vegetables, dairy products and oils.
Recommended diet on the basis of The Eatwell Guide:
If we divide the daily food consumption of a teenager into three equal parts:
- Fruits and vegetables should comprise at least one-third of the daily diet of a teenager
- Natural and unprocessed sources of carbohydrates like rice, bread, potatoes, and cereals should constitute roughly one-third of the daily diet
- More than half of the remaining third part of the plate should include proteins like beans, pulses, eggs or meat from plant or animal sources
- Dairy products that are low in fat and do not contain added sugar should be about 40 per cent of the last third
- The remaining allowance is for unsaturated oils and healthy fats
- Six to eight glasses of water or beverages (like fruit juice) that do not contain added sugar is essential for healthy growth
Burgers, fries, colas, snacks-on-the-go containing unhealthy fats, excessive salt and lots of sugar are what teenagers like to indulge in. But nutritionists, health advisory committees and parents are unanimous in their opinion that these should be consumed only in moderation, and that too in low frequency.