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The Dangers of Undernourishment in Adolescence

Let’s first begin with some background information. Adolescence is typically defined as the period of life between 11 and 21 years of age. During this time, individuals go through a multitude of physical, emotional, and social changes. They experience puberty, when they undergo sexual maturation and changes in body composition. Although males and females both gain weight throughout adolescence, females tend to gain more body fat to prepare their bodies for reproduction, while males gain muscle mass. In addition to this physical growth, significant psychological growth occurs. Adolescents become increasingly independent and continue to develop unique identities as they near adulthood.


In order to promote these important changes, adequate nutritional intake and healthy eating behaviors are critical during this life stage. Adolescents require consistent food intake throughout the day, and meals and snacks that provide sources of each food group, to meet their high nutritional needs. Consumption of foods rich in calcium and vitamin D is critical in optimizing peak bone mass during adolescence, preventing the risk of osteoporosis later in adulthood. Iron needs also increase during this time, because of the increase in blood volume and the onset of the menstrual cycle in females. Undernutrition can compromise an adolescent’s health and put them at risk for nutrient deficiencies and/or weight loss, leading to various medical consequences.



Unfortunately, adolescence is inherently difficult for many individuals, and growing up in today’s world can be particularly challenging. We live in a society where we’re constantly exposed to the thin ideal, whether it’s on social media, in magazine ads, or on TV shows. This messaging teaches that a thin waist and minimal body fat is the most desirable female body type, and that happiness and success as a woman are contingent upon achieving this figure. As a result, female adolescents often feel dissatisfied with their bodies and believe it is necessary to live up to the thin ideal, which is dangerous. The societal pressure to be thin, in combination with the physical changes that naturally occur during puberty, can cause adolescent girls to take extreme measures to control their weights: skipping meals, restricting food groups, dieting, vomiting, fasting, and over-exercising, to name a few. These are all harmful behaviors and can negatively impact an adolescent’s health and nutritional status.


Furthermore, adolescents who diet or practice disordered eating behaviors have an increased risk of developing a full-blown eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa is typically characterized by restriction of food intake that results in a significantly low body weight; preoccupation with food; and a strong fear of gaining weight. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by binge eating behaviors followed by compensatory behaviors (vomiting, laxative abuse, excessive exercise, fasting) to prevent weight gain. Lastly, binge eating disorder is characterized by recurrent binge eating episodes that are not followed by compensatory behaviors, but cause the individual significant distress.


If you or your loved ones are struggling with disordered eating behaviors or an eating disorder, don’t be afraid to reach out and seek help. Whatever it is you are going through, you are worthy of support. Here at Restore Family Therapy, we have dietitians and therapists who specialize in the treatment of eating disorders and can help you improve your relationships with food and your body. If you are interested in learning more about the services we provide, please reach out for a free consultation at restoreft.com.


Written, by Debbie Malakan, nutrition volunteer at Restore Family Therapy

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