The World Bank and its partners have been challenged anew to work with countries to tackle un-addressed health and development problems of vulnerable groups. Among these groups, adolescents have been identified as particularly important, and often neglected. There is increasing concern about the negative consequences of malnutrition in adolescent girls and young women for their offspring and themselves. Renewed action to address the nutritional problems and needs of adolescents is therefore a priority.
There are 1.2 billion adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 in developing nations, making up one fifth to one quarter of their populations. While adolescents have typically been considered a low risk group for poor health, this ignores the fact that many health problems later in life can be improved or avoided by adopting healthy lifestyle habits in adolescence. There is substantial evidence that inadequate diets affect adolescents’ ability to learn and work at maximum productivity. Undernutrition increases the risk of poor obstetric outcomes for teen mothers and jeopardizes the healthy development of their future children. Children born to short, thin women are more likely themselves to be stunted, underweight and less cognitively able than normal birthweight peers. In addition, the heightened obstetric risk caused by stunting in childhood and adolescence persists throughout a woman’s reproductive life.
Adolescence is also a unique intervention point in the life-cycle. It is a stage of receptivity to new ideas and a point at which lifestyle choices may determine an individual’s life course. It offers a chance to acquire knowledge about optimal nutrition during young adulthood that could prevent or delay adult-onset diet-related illnesses later on. Potentially, the inclusion of adolescent boys in nutrition and healthy lifestyle programs will contribute to the improved nutrition and health of women during childbearing and for infants and young children in the critical early years of life.
Attention needs to be directed at the link between adolescent nutrition and immediate and long-term health issues, including the cost effectiveness of addressing adolescent nutrition, so that the political commitment to support an action agenda can be secured.
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