Nutrition Adolescent Women

During puberty, young women and men experience a rapid growth in height and weight, changes in body composition and the development of primary and secondary sexual characteristics. Nutritional needs increase in accordance with this accelerated growth, but more so for adolescent girls than boys.

The sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone begin to produce chances in body composition and increase fat deposits in young women, which has nutritional implications for energy, iron and protein requirements. Young women also undergo menarche, the beginning of their monthly period cycle. This increases their need for iron, calcium and a host of other minerals as their bodies become accustomed to this important developmental change.

For young adolescent women, it is important to:

Get plenty of calcium
Calcium is particularly important for adolescents, particularly so for its role in forming bones and teeth. Bone density peaks usually just after adolescence, at which time it starts to gradually decline. Therefore, achieving a good bone mass during their teenage years is important for young women in order to help lower the risk of developing osteoporosis in later life.

The best sources of calcium include dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, fish with edible bones, such as sardines and salmon, tofu, or alternatively taking calcium supplements.

Get plenty of iron in your diet
Adolescent girls in particular need larger quantities of dietary iron to replace that which is lost during their menstruation, as well as for general growth. It is estimated that young adolescent women require approximately double the amount of iron as girls prior to menstruation (from ~0.9mg Fe/day to ≥ 2.2mg Fe/day). [1] Without adequate iron levels, energy levels can fall dramatically, resulting in fatigue and lethargy.

There are two different types of iron contained in food: haem-iron and non-haem-iron. Both are essential dietary requirements, although they must be obtained from different food sources. Haem-iron is found in lean red meat, fish and chicken, and is easily absorbed by the body. Non-haem iron is found in eggs and plant foods, but is not as readily absorbed by the body.
The diets of adolescent girls should therefore include foods that contain both forms of iron, such as red meats, green vegetables legumes and cereals. Non-haem iron absorption can also be boosted by taking vitamin C (or including dietary sources of vitamin C) in the same meal. The diets of adolescent girls should include foods that are rich in iron such as lean red meat, leafy green vegetables, iron-enriched breakfast cereals, legumes and dried fruit. The body’s absorption of non-haem iron can be boosted by including ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), meat, fish or chicken in the same meal. Coffee, tea and unprocessed bran can all interfere with iron absorption and so should be limited.

More zinc, starch, dietary fibre and potassium
Many adolescent girls also fail to consume adequate amounts of zinc, starch and dietary fibre. The mean intake of potassium for teenage girls is also at the lower end of the desirable range. [2] Fat intake is also of concern for adolescents, given that the true amount of fat consumed is always likely to be higher than that reported. Breads, cereals, and more high starch foods would be preferable in place of foods with high fat contents. [2]

Achieving a balanced diet
At any age, it is always important to try and achieve a balance between the foods you eat. Healthy eating does not mean that less nutritious foods have to be entirely eliminated from our diet. However, better nutrition necessitates that they be restricted to certain occasions, and not become part of our everyday staple meals. [2]

For adolescent girls, the following substances should be enjoyed on a daily basis in order to maximise nutrition:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Breads and cereals (wholegrain where available)
  • Low fat dairy products
  • Lean meats such as beef and poultry
  • Fish

Conversely, these dietary elements should be limited to small amounts where possible in order to achieve a balanced diet:

  • Fats
  • Salts
  • Sugars
  • Fast Foods

1. Beard JL: Iron requirements in adolescent females. J Nutr 2000, 130(2S Suppl):440S-442S.
2. Stanton R: Adolescents, Nutrition and Eating Disorders. New South Wales Public Health Bulletin 1999, 10(4):33-34.


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