Seemingly healthy teenagers are secretly battling severe vitamin and protein deficiencies. The enemy is the food they eat, say experts!
When in the last one year, 15-year-old Unnati Gada began putting on weight despite no change in food intake, and complained of constant fatigue, her mother realised, in addition to the best tutorial teachers, she’d also have to invest in a nutritionist. “She’s at school from 7 am to noon. Then it’s tuitions, time at the gym and finally, self-study. Unnati changed schools recently, and gave up sports to make time for board preparation. I wasn’t sure if she was equipped to handle the pressure,” says Hemal.
Tardeo-based nutritionist Suman Agarwal, who the Gadas consulted, says it’s common for teens, often from privileged homes, to consult her because they are not “growing as rapidly as their peers”.
Skipping breakfast when rushing to school and snacking on chips and Maggi, both reservoirs of dead calories, were identified as Unnati’s nutritional goof-ups. Instead, Agarwal suggested she include nuts and fruit in her snack, and include proteinrich paneer and curd in her meals. “Her protein and vitamin B12 levels were low, leading to the tiredness and inability to retain what she was studying,” says Agarwal.
Unnati is hardly an exception. According to the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau of India, over 50 per cent of healthy looking children suffer from deficiencies of vitamin A, C, B2, B6 and folate, and over 2/3rd are oblivious to the iron deficiency they live with.
The body grows faster during puberty than at any other time in life (except when you are a baby), and if your nutritional needs aren’t met to facilitate this growth, physical and mental well being is bound to be stunted. Which is why, for pre-teen girls who are yet to get their period, Agarwal throws in a prolactin test (tests levels of hormone prolactin which can affect regularity of menses and thyroid condition).
Agarwal says stunted height and muscle mass, pale or patchy skin, constipation, disturbed sleep and slow grasping while learning can all be symptoms of an imbalanced diet.
Ryan Fernando, founder of Qua Nutrition, conducts genetic evaluation tests for teenagers before customising their diet. This helps him determine how well programmed they are to receive nutrition. “Of the 23,000 genes in our body, around 20 deal with receptors of vitamins. This means even if a child’s diet includes vitamins, if his ability to absorb and use them is low, it’s no good.” In such cases, Fernando recommends upping vitamin intake to the point where the deficit can be met.
Lack of information is a key concern. Most parents who approach Fernando come because they want their kids to be Olympic athletes. “Only 15 per cent consult me out of general concern,” he says.
Agarwal uses facts to convince parents who go easy on fussy eaters. Children aged nine to 11 need 800 mg of calcium (that’s 600 ml of milk or milk products a day), while those aged 11-15 need 1,400 mg (800 ml).
For those alienated by calorie counts and fat percentages, she offers recipes to “unjunk” snacks. Pav bhaji with less potato and more moong and peas, oil instead of butter, tastes and feels good too. Swap an aloo tikki for one made with mushroom and spinach, or make a patty out of tofu. How about one with carrots, zucchini and wheat flour, instead?
“Caffeine in the form of tea, coffee and cola retards growth,” says Agarwal. It is best not to introduce your child to cola until s/he is seven, explains Fernando. Its high sugar levels entice their pleasure senses, making them crave it.
Leading by example works better than blackmail. When your child hits eight, it’s best to sit with them and decide a diet. With a child who refused to eat her greens and pointed out that her dad did the same, Fernando designed a dinner-time game where father and daughter could compete to up their quota of vegetables consumed.
For the parents
New-age parents informed by online health reports introduce healthy options but sporadically in the form of whole wheat cornflakes, muesli and probiotics. But this quick-fix option is inadequate in the face of sugar-loaded colas and fat-packed snacks. It’s best to feed your kids traditional wholesome breakfast dishes like upma or poha.