Challenges in use of adolescent anthropometry for understanding the burden of malnutrition


Improving nutritional status during adolescence is an opportunity to improve the lives of this generation and the next. Estimating the burden of malnutrition at a population level is fundamental to targeting interventions and measuring progress over time, and for adolescents, we usually depend on survey data and the 2007 WHO Growth Reference to do so. There is substantial risk of misguided conclusions regarding adolescent prevalence estimates, however, when underlying methodological limitations of the indicators and reference are not adequately considered. We use national prevalence estimates among girls and young women 10–22 y of age from the 2014 State of Food Security and Nutrition in Bangladesh report as an example to demonstrate that determining the true prevalence of undernutrition, overweight, and obesity is complicated by racial/ethnic variation across populations in timing of the adolescent growth spurt, growth potential, and body build.

Further challenging the task are inherent limitations of the body mass index as an indicator of thinness and adiposity, and cutoffs that poorly distinguish a well-nourished population from a malnourished one. We provide recommendations for adolescent nutrition policy and program decision-making, emphasizing the importance of

  1. critically interpreting indicators and distributions by age when using the 2007 WHO Growth Reference;
  2. examining what is happening before and after adolescence, when interpretation of anthropometry is more straightforward, as well as trends over time; and
  3. complementing anthropometry with other information, particularly dietary intake.

Finally, we advocate that nutrition researchers prioritize exploration of better methods to predict peak height velocity, for development of standardized indicators to measure dietary quality among adolescents, and for studies that will illuminate causal paths so that we can effectively improve adolescent dietary intake and nutritional status.

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