Signature of healthy diet

Can dairy foods contribute to teens’ nutrient intakes?

Can dairy foods contribute to teens’ nutrient intakes? - YINI

Dietary strategies must be devised to target teenagers who are commonly falling short of their nutrient intake requirements, according to research from the Republic of Ireland.

Nutritionists have discovered a concerning trend that many teenagers in Western countries have shortfalls in their diet of micronutrients needed for this critical period of physical and cognitive growth and development (1). Eating dairy foods as part of a balanced and environmentally sustainable diet may help to provide a key source of micronutrients vital for teenage health and wellbeing, the research suggests.

Assessing the nutritional needs of teenagers

As they go through their teenage years, young folk have increasing independence over their food choices and eating behaviour. However, nutrient intakes are not always uppermost in teens’ minds when making their food choices, with potential consequences for health into adulthood (2).

To find out whether teens are getting enough nutrients from their diet, nutrition researchers from Cork, Ireland delved into the micronutrient intakes of teenagers and their implications for public health.

The researchers examined data from recent surveys on micronutrient intakes among teenagers in Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. They found that Western teenagers are consistently failing to meet recommended intake levels for vitamins A, C, D and E, along with folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and potassium. This could have far-reaching consequences for bone health, cognitive function, and immunity.

What are the nutritional needs of teenagers?

Micronutrients play vital roles in the health and development of teenagers by contributing to a wide range of critical functions in the body (3):

  • Vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus – essential for building bone mass and bone health
  • Vitamins A and C – necessary for the development of cells, cell integrity and tissue repair
  • Vitamin B and folate – important for growth, DNA synthesis and cell division
  • Iron – essential for the transport of oxygen, with increased requirements during teenage years
  • Zinc – a key contributor to gene expression and regulating intracellular signalling
  • Iodine – vital for the development of neurological and cognitive skills.

Dairy foods are a key component of bone health in teenagers

Study results showed that intakes of vitamin D, calcium and magnesium are low amongst Western teenagers, with inadequate levels of vitamin D among 70–95%, calcium among 45–73%, and magnesium among 33–88% of teens.

This is important because over half of a person’s bone mass is laid down during the teenage years, requiring sufficient intakes of vitamin D, calcium and magnesium (4). Teenage bone health may be affected by low intakes of these nutrients, resulting in an increased risk of fracture and osteoporosis in later life.

According to the researchers, key sources of calcium, magnesium and vitamin D in teenagers include dairy foods, meat products and fortified cereals. Such nutrient sources should be incorporated into a healthy teenage diet.

A healthy balanced diet can help boost teenage cognitive function

Results also showed that iron and folate intake tend to be low in Western teenagers compared with recommended levels, with inadequate levels of iron and folate in 7–44% and 14–57% of teens, respectively. Iron deficiency is generally more common amongst girls than boys.

This is important because the teenage years are a period of rapid cognitive growth and development, which may be negatively impacted by low intake of folate and iron (3). Iron requirements in particular escalate throughout adolescence due to increased total blood volume and lean body composition, as well as the onset of menstruation in girls.

The researchers highlighted that a combination of dairy, meat, and cereal products provide key sources of iron and folate in teenagers, while vegetables are also an important source of folate.

Teenage diet choices influence general health and immunity

The study found that intakes of nutrients important for general health – including vitamins A, C, E, zinc and potassium – are also generally below recommended levels among Western teenagers.

Low intakes of these vitamins and minerals may result in an increased risk of impaired immunity and susceptibility to infections (5,6).

The researchers pointed out that dairy and meat products are important sources of vitamin A and zinc in teenagers, while fruit and vegetables are key sources of vitamin C. Vegetables, cereals, meat and dairy are all key sources of potassium, while fats and oils are an important source of vitamin E.

So, what can be done to address this issue?

While this study highlights teenage deficiencies in nutrient intake, it also offers some reassurance. Based on current dietary patterns, there seems to be little risk of excessive micronutrient intake, said the researchers.

They concluded that strategies aimed at increasing micronutrient intake among teenagers should focus on boosting intake rather than worrying about overconsumption. Such strategies must be carefully designed and monitored to ensure that they effectively consider the importance of meat and dairy foods to the nutrient intake of teenagers, but are also environmentally sustainable.

“Sufficient micronutrient intakes are crucial during the teenage years to promote optimal health and growth during this life stage and into adulthood, with key dietary habits also forming which have been shown to track into later life.”– Walsh NM, et al., 2024

Source: (1) Walsh NM, Flynn A, Walton J, Kehoe L. Optimal growth and development: are teenagers getting enough micronutrients from their diet? Proc Nutr Soc. 2024 Mar 4:1-9. doi: 10.1017/S002966512400017X.
Additional references
  1. Daly AN, O’Sullivan EJ & Kearney JM (2022) Considerations for health and food choice in adolescents. Proc Nutr Soc 81, 75–86.
  2. EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products Nutrition and Allergies (2017) Dietary reference values for nutrients summary report. EFSA Support Publ 14, e15121E.
  3. Levine MA (2012) Assessing bone health in children and adolescents. na J Endocrinol Metab 16, S205–S212.
  4. Carr AC & Maggini S (2017) Vitamin C and immune function. Nutr 9, 1211.
  5. Zhao T, Liu S, Zhang R et al. (2022) Global burden of vitamin A deficiency in 204 countries and territories from 1990–2019. Nutrients 14, 950.

Pin It on Pinterest