Adolescent nutrition

Investing in an age of opportunity to break cycles of poverty and inequity.

This girl child of Baghudih village of Purulia, West Bengal, India, is a beneficiary of SBCC programme supported by UNICEF.

India is home to 253 million adolescents (10 to 19 years) and we stand with them at a crossroad between losing out on the potential of a generation or nurturing them to transform society. As adolescents flourish, so do their communities, and all of us have a collective responsibility to ensure that adolescence is an age of opportunity.

Adolescence is a nutritionally vulnerable time when rapid physical growth increases nutrient demands. Dietary behaviours established in adolescence may contribute to nutrition-related problems that have consequences for long-term health.

In India, 40 per cent of girls and 18 per cent of boys are anaemic. Anaemia among adolescents adversely affects growth, resistance to infections, cognitive development and work productivity.

In response to the problem, the national Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) launched a nationwide Weekly Iron and Folic Acid Supplementation (WIFS) programme in January 2013. the programme builds on 13 years of evidence-generation through pilots and phased scale-ups by UNICEF on the use of weekly iron and folic acid supplementation to address anaemia in adolescent girls in different Indian states. Services delivered under the scheme include weekly iron and folic acid supplementation; bi-annual deworming; and nutrition counselling about how to improve diet, prevent anaemia and minimize the potential side-effects of IFA supplementation and deworming.

UNICEF India has been the partner of choice in supporting the universal roll-out of the Weekly Iron and Folic Acid Supplementation  Programme in 14 major states in India, which jointly are home to 88 per cent of India’s adolescent girls. The focus areas are convergent planning and development implementation protocols, development of training tools, capacity-building of field workers, developing external field monitoring and feedback loop review mechanisms and developing communication strategies and materials for mass awareness. 

In 2018 adolescent nutrition received renewed political and programme focus, owing to the national-wide launch of the POSHAN Abhiyaan 2018-20.             

In India adolescents and young people aged 10-19 years, account for nearly one quarter of the total population. They deserve much needed attention as they hold the key to breaking entrenched cycles of poverty, inequity and deprivation.                              

Adoloscent girls symbolically work on a farm breaking the taboo of not working in the forms during mesuration.
Adoloscent girls symbolically work on a farm breaking the taboo of not working in the forms during mesuration.

Poor nutrition is more common among rural areas and large families with uneducated or unskilled parents from lower-income households. With changing diets and physical activity levels, overweight and obesity are also emerging problems, particularly among urban residents and wealthier households. The consumption of processed foods high in fat and sugar is rising, and adolescents and adults are becoming increasingly sedentary. Overweight and obesity in adolescent girls is associated with obesity in adult women, which increases the risk of diabetes, hypertension and infant overweight and obesity.

Adolescence provides an opportunity to correct nutritional deficiencies that may have occurred in early life and to catch-up on growth, and to establish good dietary behaviours.

UNICEF works across India to establish and implement policies and programmes to improve the nutritional status of adolescents, both in and out of school. We advocate and support actions to help adolescents make healthy food and beverage choices, promote physical activity, and the prevention and treatment of anaemia. We also work with other sectors, such as education, social policy and water and sanitation to tackle the underlying causes of poor nutrition.

Food fortification plays an essential role in preventing vitamin and mineral deficiencies including iron, folic acid, vitamin A, and iodine.

UNICEF in India supports the development of state-specific communication strategies to improve the compliance of iron-folic acid tablets and reaching out to populations usually left out. There are two ongoing innovations in this area. The first is a positive deviance informed communication for improving compliance of WIFS in Khunti district, Jharkhand. The second is engaging girls’ collectives to address anaemia and social norms in self-contained, privately managed tea plantations in Assam. 

UNICEF supported MoHFW in conceptualizing and convening for the development of Anaemia Mukt Bharat (Anaemia Free India) operational guidelines and related materials such as the reporting dashboard and communication materials.

The initiative brings focus on denominator-based HMIS reporting, prepositioning iron and folic acid supplies, establishing national Programme Management Unit for anaemia and national and state centre of excellence and advanced research on anaemia.

The girls and women’s nutrition impact evaluation (Swabhimaan) across three states (Bihar, Odisha and Chhattisgarh) programme across five blocks affected by stark inequities and poverty in three states and was scaled-up across 14 blocks. The Initiative received a national award and now is being scaled-up country-wide in a phased manner as National Rural Livelihood Mission Contribution to Poshan Abhiyaan. For this, a national centre of women collectives has established in Lady Irwin College.