Message from the Director

Adolescent nutrition plays key role in global health

Dr. Thornburg

Summer 2017

Adolescence is an important time of life for both boys and girls when their biological maturation processes require an adequate consumption of nutrients. This fact has been known for most of the last 100 years. Even so, we now have new insights that nutrients consumed during adolescence not only affect the health of each individual, but also the health of his or her offspring. However, the situation for girls is unique because, if she decides to have children, her body will provide nutrients for her developing baby throughout gestation. In many low and middle income countries providing ample nutritious food for adolescent girls and young women is highly problematic.

Over the last decade, the concern for the health of young women and their offspring has gained worldwide attention. In 2015, the OHSU Moore Institute sponsored the International Summit on the Nutrition of Adolescent Girls and Young Women, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The summit was led by Fred Gregory, the Moore Institute Director of Global Development. Sixty-seven delegates from 17 countries attended to gain insight into the complexities of ensuring good nutrition for adolescent girls and women. The summit brought together two groups that rarely work together - nutrition scientists and individuals who implement nutrition programs in developing countries. The goal of the summit was for these groups to learn from each other and have that combined knowledge inform their own work as well as recommend changes to global bodies like the United Nations and World Health Organization. 

After a series of lectures and small group sessions, the delegates agreed on a consensus statement that was recently published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. In spite of the complexity of the challenges of providing good nutrition to girls and young women that are unique to every country, the delegates agreed that a series of urgent steps should be taken to improve the health of girls and women across the globe. The overarching recommendations included:

  •  Elevate the urgency of poor nutrition among adolescent girls and young women to a high international priority
  • Raise the visibility, social status, and health status of adolescent girls around the world
  • Address knowledge gaps in the biology of adolescence and define appropriate nutrition
  • Improve nutritional health of adolescent girls and young women, and their offspring

If these steps were taken immediately, we could expect improved health and reduced mortality among populations in countries where nutrition is the primary barrier to population health.

The problems facing adolescent girls and young women are not limited to low and middle income countries. Even today, most states in the U.S. allow adolescent marriage under certain circumstances. A recent article in The New York Times reported that 27 states do not have laws that specify an age below which a child cannot marry. Even those with such laws often have exceptions including parental permission. Childhood marriage substantially elevates risks for girls to acquire chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease and psychiatric disorders. Thus, even though the U.S. has officially declared childhood marriage a travesty in foreign countries, it does not ban such marriages within its own borders. The recommendations that were made by the delegates at the summit should also apply in our own country. If you would like to have someone come to visit your group to discuss these issues in more depth, let us know.

For additional information about the consensus statement, read this recent article on the OHSU News Hub.

Kent L. Thornburg, Ph.D.
Director, OHSU Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness