Judith Kiminywe is a currently a professor at Kenyatta University in the Department of Food Nutrition and Dietetics. Her vision is to bring about change in people’s livelihoods by using nutritional science to change how people view food. She has worked as a consultant for various international and UN agencies to formulate country policies for addressing nutrition of vulnerable populations. She has also published various works to do with nutrition. This year she was involved in the forum to discuss teen nutrition in the country. I sat down with her to get to know more.
about adolescent nutrition.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I have been an educator on Food, Nutrition and Dietetics for more than 30 years. I grew up a sickly child. And because I was sick, my mother was always being told what and how to feed me. So when I went into school, I was on special meals most of the time. From the moment I joined primary school right into the university, I was on a special diet. That instilled nutrition values in me.
How did you get into the nutrition industry?
I always thought nutrition is what people need to know and that is what I needed to get into. My parents really wanted me to be a doctor but I really wanted to do nutrition. And I have pursued it with great passion. I do a lot of research and I have focused mostly on what people eat. One of my areas of interest is reviving traditional food, bringing such food back to the table because I realized it they are nutrient rich and have a lot of health benefits.
What diet would you recommend for children going through puberty?
I have always said it does not matter where you are. The goal of nutrition has always been one, to keep healthy. This means eating a variety of foods. However, one of the things I will emphasize on that is almost always missing on the table for adolescents is fruits and vegetables. I have no problem with what people are eating these days.
I always advise parents not to tell their teenage children not to eat things like fries. Just tell them to add vegetables and fruits to those meals. At the end of the day, it is about eating a balanced meal. That way, we will take care of the issue of junk food. As a nutritionist, I do not believe in the idea of ‘junk food. I do not even want that word used. I just want people to say it is an unbalanced meal. This way, you can now focus on what constitutes a balanced meal.
What would you define as a balanced meal for adolescents?
In the morning, give them their porridge, bread or potatoes or whatever carbohydrate, then add a banana or an apple then a few sticks of carrot. Do the same for all their other meals and snacks. Ensure that all meals have energy giving foods, protein for muscle and fruits and vegetables for their vitamins. That is the message I feel is easier to communicate at any level of development. Especially with teenagers, do not tell them to eat this, or eat that. These foods we term as ‘unhealthy’ are what is available to them most of the time. Therefore we need to teach them to go around that what is available to them and make it a balanced meal. That way we solve our problem much faster than having a list of ‘dos and dont’s’.
Are there any differences between nutritional requirements for adolescent boys and girls?
Basically, they still need the same nutrients for development at that stage. They need calcium and phosphorus for bone growth, zinc for reproductive health and vitamins to protect them from diseases. They, however, need more energy giving foods and protein than other people because their physiological needs at that point and time require these foods more. The only difference is the focus on reproductive needs for girls. A pregnant teen would require iron folic supplements for a healthy pregnancy.
What supplements would you recommend for adolescents?
I would not advocate supplements for normal people. Supplements are usually recommended for someone who has the need for them for one reason or the other. For example, we advocate for Iron folic supplements for pregnant women because they need it to boost their haemoglobin levels, or vitamin A to babies because they are more likely to get sick compared to adults. Otherwise, if they eat all their 3 balanced meals in a day, and healthy snacks in between, then they do not need supplements.
During puberty, the body goes through changed that may cause excessive weight gain, is that something to be worried about?
The thing is when going through adolescence appetite is high due to physiological changes taking place. For some, they will put on more weight than others. This is a normal occurrence and should not worry parents. However, it can be checked to reduce chances of obesity. This should not involve cutting down their meals at the expense of their nutrient requirement. You can reduce fats from their diet so they take just what they need.
Portion control is another option. Because of their appetite, they tend to take more portions than their bodies require. They should have their meals spread out during the day. Breakfast, lunch and supper and with snack times in between. If they have small portions spread out during the day, then it is not very easy to put on weight. Do not also forget that adolescents are very active people and are growing so their bodies use up more energy. But should they need to have regulation, they should be taught what the right portions for their meals are. However, for adolescents the best way to lose weight is to become busy, exercise.
What kinds of exercises would you recommend for them?
Simple things such as taking the stairs instead of using a lift. They honestly do not require much. The adolescents who are involved in games are covered. Their bodies get ample exercise for people their age. But those who are not actively involved in games tend to get lost in activities that require them to be seated all day.
Exercise only becomes strenuous if they are involved in competitive sports. For such teens, I would advise that they have a nutritional plan so that their bodies can keep up with the levels of activity. Most adolescents in competitive games require a lot of energy and a lot of protein for their muscles. They require almost twice as much as a normal person. So in that area, parents need to be vigilant. They require specialized attention. That is why we have sports nutritionists who are trained to work with such people.
Apart from food, what else is important to an adolescent’s overall health?
Sleep is very important. I would recommend sleep time between 7-8 hours. Most parents do not monitor sleep after a child is past a certain age. However, sleep is as important to an adolescent as it is to a child. Puberty is a time for quick growth and the only way their bodies can recover from this rigorous growth process is rest. It is a significant part which some miss out on and that can have some serious repercussions on their general health.