WH&Y authors: Doctor Helen Cheng
- Puberty is the most intense period of growth a person will experience, aside from their first twelve months of life. Getting nutrition right during puberty is critical.
- Our latest national figures show that one in four Australian teenagers (12-17 years) suffer from being overweight or obese.
- Alarmingly, just 4 percent of Australian teenagers meet national dietary guidelines, especially when it comes to eating fruits and vegetables.
WHAT WE KNOW
Adolescence is a tough time to get nutrition right. Young people often have strong appetites, driven by the developmental need to fuel rapidly growing bodies. Girls naturally start laying down body fat in preparation for reproduction, putting them at particularly high risk of weight gain. Additionally, some research has found that teens may be especially attracted to fatty and sugary snack foods during adolescence, their brains hard-wired to be ultra-sensitive to foods that give a feeling of “pleasure” or “reward”.
Significantly, while young people are adjusting to changing bodies and brains, they are also learning to become independent adults. The eating habits and food choices they develop in adolescence are shaped more by peers than by parents, and tend to stick with them well into the adult years.
At a time when they really need to be setting up good eating habits, some of the fundamental physical and chemical changes of adolescence are driving teens to increase their food intake and make suboptimal food choices. Throw in societal factors like over-exposure to junk food advertising and unhealthy food outlets, and it’s no wonder young people struggle to follow a nutritionally balanced diet.
WHY IT MATTERS
- The dietary habits that young people establish in the teenage decade often carry through into adulthood. Young people have strong biological and social factors that work against their efforts to eat a healthy diet. We need to create environments that make it easier for them to develop and maintain good eating habits, such as providing easy access to inexpensive healthy foods, and limiting their exposure to junk food advertising.
- There are very few weight-management services dedicated to young people who are struggling with being overweight or obese. Those that do exist have long waitlists. If we are to ease the burden of chronic disease, we need to shift our focus from treating health issues after they have been established, to preventing those issues from emerging in the teenage decade in the first place. This should include changing the funding structures of health services and research, and introducing policies that can help improve young people’s diets, such as regulating or taxing unhealthy foods, and setting standards around how these are promoted.
- Young people face unique challenges with respect to healthy eating, and have unique ideas on how to tackle these issues. Historically, nutrition research and policy development has always been led by adults from an adult perspective. Instead of telling teens what they should be eating, we need to embrace their views and ideas, embedding their perspectives in research design and policy development to ensure the outcomes work for them.
WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
WH&Y research has helped us gain an appreciation of just how important it is to set up good eating habits in the teenage decade, but also how complex it can be to achieve this in reality.
Our work has also alerted us to how much more we need to know. Earlier studies have indicated that puberty is associated with a significant rise in energy needs and calorie intake, and that the timing and speed with which a young person goes through puberty is linked with excess weight. At the same time, investigations into the chemical changes associated with appetite have revealed that ghrelin, a hormone typically associated with hunger, shows a big drop during this period, despite the peak growth activity occurring. This has been a fascinating discovery and our research into body chemistry during puberty continues.
We are also asking questions around other nutritional issues, including whether diet quality might play a role in how blood pressure and heart disease risk develops during the teenage decade. We are looking closely into the types of foods young people eat, which will help us deliver more specific (and more practical) food-based recommendations for preventing chronic disease in this age group.
In collaboration with Dr Stephanie Partridge, we are also looking into what nutrition and health issues matter to young people, and the ways we can better engage them to participate in health research.
About The Authors
Helen is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Exercise Scientist by training, and currently holds ...