Adolescent Nutrition – Setting The Stage For Adult Health

Adolescent nutrition focuses on the age group from 13-19, which is commonly referred to as the teenage years. This is a group that is approaching adulthood and has nutritional needs that are peaking and that will begin to decline and stabilize as this group become adults. Nevertheless this group of youth is undergoing a maturation process involving both physical and emotional growth which seems to be at an accelerated pace before it tapers off in adulthood. If this group does not successfully complete the maturation process that comes with adolescence, adult health can be severely compromised.

The child now enters a phase of growth spurts which for boys occur between 12-14 years and for girls between 10-12 years. Some parents feel at this time that their child is going to eat them out of house and home because their appetites accelerate as well to fuel this rapid growth which is reaching its maximum during the adolescent years.

Adolescents enter a growth spurt achieving close to their adult height at this stage which after this rapid spurt will slow down and continue for a few more years but the maximum height is nearly reached at this time with boys growing 8 inches in height and girls growing 6 inches in height.

For girls the peak growth occurs about one year before the onset of menstruation termed menarche with the girl having achieved about 95% of her adult height by the time menstruation begins in another year and for the remainder of adolescence she will only grow about 2-4 inches.

These growth rates are tied to reproductive maturation which includes breast development for girls and voice changes for boys where the voice begins to deepen, reproductive organs begin to mature and body hair begins to form. All of these developments are setting the stage for adulthood and the rest of the adolescent’s life as an adult. Once the growth plates at the end of the long bones termed epiphyses close then skeletal growth is complete.

The next phase of growth is the putting on of weight by the adolescent. For a boy a weight gain of 45 pounds and for a girl a weight gain of 35 pounds is typical, and these gains are affected by the adolescent’s diet and participation in exercise.

Prior to adolescence boys and girls tend to look alike in terms of body composition which is basically flat, but during adolescence the differentiation between males and females begins to exert itself with boys putting on muscle mass and girls developing curves through putting on fat in certain areas such as the hips, buttocks, and breasts, upper arms and upper back. By adulthood a woman’s body composition is 23% body fat and a man’s body composition is 12% body fat.

During this time the adolescent is developing emotionally as well which affects the adolescent’s food choices, eating habits, and perceptions of body image. Many adolescents become interested in healthy nutrition and many others participate in making unhealthy food choices, often consuming more calories than they need and neglecting the nutrients that they do need. Many adolescents neglect to consume enough calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin E or fiber.

Adolescent Nutrition Needs - Energy and Protein

Energy needs in total kilocalories per day are greater in adolescence than for any other time of life except pregnancy and lactation. The adolescent needs more protein per unit of body weight than an adult, but less than a rapidly growing infant. By the age of 14-18 the RDA has declined for adolescents to nearly that of adult levels. In general adolescents rarely have a problem with protein intake during the teen years except for girls who may sharply curtail protein intake in an attempt to control their weight.

Adolescent Nutrition Needs-Vitamins and Minerals

Adolescents have a higher need for vitamins and minerals than at most other stages of life. Of the vitamins and minerals that adolescents don’t get enough of there is a particular concern regarding vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium and iron.

In order to improve their vitamin A intake adolescents can eat more fruits and vegetables. Since calcium and vitamin D at adequate levels are essential for bone formation and maximum bone density adolescents need to consume fortified milk and dairy products during adolescence, but instead many adolescents especially teen girls tend to replace milk with soda pop thus reducing their very necessary intake of calcium and vitamin D thus setting themselves up for osteoporosis later in life.

The recommended AI (adequate intake) for calcium in adolescence is 1,300 milligrams/day and the DRI (dietary reference intake) for vitamin D is 200 IU (international units) every day.

Iron is needed by both adolescent boys and girls in nutritionally adequate amounts, for boys iron is needed for growth of muscle and lean body mass and for girls iron is needed to replace that which is lost during menstruation. For boys 14-18 the recommended intake is 11 milligrams/day and for girls of the same age group 15 milligrams/day is the recommended intake.

If adolescents receive enough of the nutrients that are required at their age to meet adolescent nutrition needs then the road to adulthood and good health will be a smoother one.

For information on adolescent nutrition click on the link to

Adolescent Nutrition Choices - Becoming Independent Eaters
• Adult Nutrition

For other information on nutrition including adolescent nutrition needs some great references are:

• Nutrition – Fourth Edition by Paul Insel, Don Ross, Kimberley McMahon, and Melissa Bernstein

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