The Sunday Vision
By Umar Nsubuga
Adolescence — the age when healthy foods are not ‘cool’ to eat. Teens spend most of their free time away from home, which means parents cannot control what they eat. And when they feel fat, they try to lose weight in the most unreasonable ways.
Teenagers spend a lot of time away from home. They are, therefore, prone to make food choices which may not be healthy. Crisps, doughnuts, sodas and artificial juice concentrates, chips and sausages are an example of such foods.
The requirements for energy and other nutrients increase to meet the demands of growth and development during teen age. Adolescent growth accounts for wide fluctuations in physical size, metabolic rate, food needs and even illness.
Sharon Naluwende, a nutritionist at Mulago Hospital, says although the period when teenagers experience rapid physical growth is relatively short — only two to three years — psychosocial development continues over a much longer period.
Naluwende says the pressure for peer group acceptance is strong and they give in to fads in dress and food habits. Also, teenagers tend to experience social tension and family conflicts, which may have nutritional consequences.
“Teenagers eat away from home more often and develop a snacking pattern of personal and peer group food choices,” she explains.
Naluwende emphasises that a teenager’s health and diet are directly related.
“A nutritious diet has short and long term benefits, while an unhealthy one can cause physical, mental and emotional problems, as well as chronic illnesses that last into adulthood.
“If you are active and eating a balanced diet, you should be able to maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, you should stick to a balanced diet, try to cut down on foods containing sugar and fat and get plenty of physical activity,” she says.
Haspha Nassolo, a nursing officer at Joint Clinic Research Centre, says a teenager’s body undergoes a lot of changes that he or she may find overwhelming and it has effects on the teenager’s eating.
What they need
Naluwende says with the rapid growth during adolescence, there is much demand for energy foods, proteins, vitamins and minerals.
“Although individual needs may vary, girls require fewer kilocalories than boys, based on their smaller body size and body composition.
Sometimes, the large appetite characteristic of this rapid growth leads adolescents to satisfy their hunger with fast foods that are high in sugar and fat, yet low in essential protein, vitamins and minerals,” she says.
Naluwende adds that adolescent growth demands an increase in protein foods to support the puberty changes in both sexes, and the developing muscle mass in boys.
Girls, she advises, require 46 grammes a day and boys require 52 grammes a day to sustain daily needs and to maintain nitrogen reserves. Nassolo says such foods include fish, eggs, beans, milk and groundnuts.
Minerals are also key to the development of teenagers.
“The calcium requirements for all adolescents rises to 1,300mg a day to meet the demands for bone growth,” Naluwende says, adding that poor bone mineralisation in adolescence increases vulnerability to bone fracture at a later age.
When it comes to vitamins, the B vitamins are needed in increased amounts in order to meet the extra demands of energy metabolism and tissue development. Vitamin D helps in absorption of calcium and sunlight is the best source.
Naluwende adds that intake of vitamins C and A may be low because of erratic eating habits among teenagers and a tendency of eating fewer vegetables and fruits. Parents need to emphasise these foods and also provide them.
Naluwende says if one is vegetarian, it is important that the diet is balanced and has all the necessary nutrients. A vegetarian diet needs to include alternative sources of protein.
Boys fare better than girls in benefiting from their nutrition because of their large appetites and the sheer volumes of food they consume.
But adolescent girls may be less fortunate.
Naluwende says because puberty in girls brings about increased fat deposits and many teenage girls are relatively inactive, it is easy for them to gain weight.
Social pressures dictating thinness sometimes cause the girls to follow unwise and self-imposed crash diets for weight loss.
Many teens also lead busy lives. They have school events, sports and other group activities.
They like foods that look good and choose the same foods over and over again, whether healthy or not.
Many teens also skip breakfast, while some do not want to spend time preparing healthy food.
Unfortunately, health is the least of their concerns at this stage.
“The need to be thin causes some adolescent girls to adopt nutritionally inadequate diets, thus they develop anorexia.
Adolescent boys trying to increase their muscle mass may resort to unproven and potentially dangerous supplements or eat high fat foods in an effort to obtain more kilocalories,” she says.
Nassolo says when working with teens who claim to be dieting, it is necessary to talk with them individually about what kind of diet they are following.
“For some teens, dieting means drastically reducing their food intake or choosing foods erroneously believed to have special effects on appearance.
For others, dieting refers to healthy practices like increasing their fruit intake and vegetables or cutting down on fats and sweets,” she says.
“Poor eating habits are detrimental to your child’s school performance, wellbeing and development. By spending quality time with your teenager and trying to understand his or her ideas about life and food, you can better guide them to make positive habits and healthy food choices,” advises Nassolo.
She advises parents to set positive, consistent examples of healthy food choices, eating habits and other lifestyle issues by spending more time with their children.
“Love and nurturing does not mean buying expensive foods and things. It means genuine concern, care, eating at least one meal a day with your child and sparing time to listen to his or her concerns, however trivial,” Nassolo says.
She also says physical education, health teachers, nutrition educators and parents, must work together to develop programmes that will reach teenagers at school and home.
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