A few weeks ago, a friend and I had a hearty laugh as he narrated how he met a father at the supermarket whose trolley had four large 1.5kg loaves of bread. It looked like he was hosting a sandwich party at his house.
The father, upon noticing the quizzical look on my friend’s face, felt obliged to explain himself.
He started by asking my friend if he had sons and went on to explain that he has four pre-teen and teenage sons who consume a full loaf of bread every day.
To prevent chaos in the house, each one gets his own loaf to consume as he pleases. Mark you, the loaves for the boys are not the entire kitchen budget for the day.
This got me thinking about a conversation I had with predominantly male friends concerning high school food. They unanimously agreed that they were starved for the four years they were in boarding school.
Dining hall jokes abound whenever men reminisce about high school. It was regarded as a privilege to be a dining hall prefect as one was deemed to have access to unlimited food.
The typical meals provided in the average Kenyan boarding school range from porridge or a cup of tea with just a dash of milk for breakfast, a plate of githeri for lunch and a routine dinner of ugali and vegetables accompanied with beans or two pieces of beef twice a week. The descriptions of the portions served left me in stitches.
One described how it was such torture to come from a poor family as they were expected to buy their own bread at breakfast.
If you did not have bread, the whole school would whistle with every sip of the hot tea you took. It was easier to avoid breakfast altogether.
Every parent will attest to the markedly increased kitchen budget during school holidays as teenagers seem to consume enormous amounts of food.
They eat as if they are stockpiling for the next school term, which begs the question: are we underfeeding teenagers in schools?
Adolescence is a period of a marked growth spurt. The hormones have come alive and the body is responding with drastic elongation of the bones and the accompanying tissue. Weight gain is rapid as muscles grow to keep up.
On average, a growing adolescent girl needs about 2,200 calories while her male counterpart requires 2,800 calories.
This is not a requirement that many adolescents meet on the lean diet they are forced to make do with in school.
To make matters worse, growth requires a lot of protein as the building block of tissue, yet most diets are carbohydrate-based.
HEALTH AND NUTRITION
When nutrition is discussed in Kenya, it is always viewed in the context of children under the age of five and this population’s nutrition is one of the key indicators of health in Kenya.
But this view is too limited. Are parents working hard to provide a good nutritional start for their children, only to let them fall into neglect once they get to adolescence?
What impact does this have on the children’s future? Are we raising a generation of stunted men and women who fail to achieve their full physical potential? Are we limiting our children from playing basketball in the NBA because they never achieved their full height?
Away from superficial considerations, research findings indicate that long-term effects of undernutrition are profound.
They include increased susceptibility to accumulation of fat in the central region of the body, resulting in truncal obesity in later life.
Undernutrition also leads to consistent lower capacity to burn body fat, hence resulting in lower energy expenditure. In the long run, these undernourished adolescents are prone to insulin resistance, leading to a higher risk of diabetes in adulthood.
They are also more likely to develop hypertension and elevated cholesterol, both of which put one at risk of heart attacks and strokes. The end result is an individual with a decreased capacity to handle manual work.
The situation is far worse for adolescents who experienced malnutrition in early life as they lose an important period where good nutrition has a huge impact on reversing the damage they sustained in cognitive development.
As we strive to prevent adolescent obesity, it is paramount that we do not ignore the other end of the spectrum where majority of adolescents in this country fall.
It is critical that policy makers involved in school health give this matter the attention it deserves.
It is important to recognise the role of fending off undernutrition in the prevention of metabolic diseases.
The Ministry of Education is responsible for the well-being of children in boarding schools. This means that it must engage all relevant stakeholders in ensuring adolescents are adequately fed despite budgetary constraints.
Schools need to know that nothing can replace a good diet and that protein and fruit in the diet is not a privilege.
Parents must also get involved in the nutrition of their children. Carting them off to boarding school does not absolve them of the responsibility of ensuring that those you entrust with their care are doing what needs to be done.
Remember, adolescence is not an explanation for why your child’s body mass index sits in the underweight category!