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Unhealthy food goes to your head

More and more studies are connecting the quality of people’s diet in childhood with cognitive development and academic performance, even in countries which do not suffer widespread hunger problems.

Inequality in accessing food is not just a problem for developing countries, but also for developed nations and the world’s biggest economies. This is according to Mariana Chilton, Associate Professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health and Director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities – a research centre based in Philadelphia which studies the effects of malnutrition in the USA.
Malnutrition means more than just a lack of food; it can also mean having irregular access to food, or having access to food with poor nutritional quality”, explains Chilton.
For instance, in the USA, there are over 46 million families who benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – a social assistance programme which gives out food stamps with an average value of $261 per month to buy food. For many families, this is the only source of income available, so they can only afford low cost products which often means poor quality processed food.

Effects on the brain
Since 2014, the Philadelphia research centre has also been monitoring the health of children from families who receive this type of social benefit. The sample examined in the USA, as highlighted by previous studies, shows a direct correlation between the quality of food and the children’s general health. “What is worrying, however”, Chilton explains, “is the effect poor quality food has on children’s cognitive abilities, which are reduced and compromised. In practice, poor nutrition has an impact on the brain’s development, limiting its potential”. Consequently, in 2014, Chilton was invited to present her results at the convention of the International Neuroethics Society, and clearly defined the nutritional situation in her country as “a question of human rights, because it does not only affect their current circumstances, but the opportunity of these children to use their own abilities to lift themselves out of the social and economic situation their parents find themselves in”.

Limits of the studies
It is extremely difficult to carry out research in this area because there are so many factors which can influence cognitive performance and those families with poor diets are also those negotiating other socially complicated situations (from a lack of stable housing to drug dependency and physical and psychological abuse) which can all lead to poor cognitive performance. Nevertheless, the latest studies available on the issue, cleared of all the other complicating factors, seem to confirm the impact of nutrition on children’s memories and attention, especially regarding nutritional imbalances associated with being overweight and obese. A Canadian study published in 2008 in the Journal of School Health linked children’s academic performance at the end of primary school and the beginning of middle school with the quality of their diet using the Diet Quality Index – an index measuring the quality of their meals. Results showed that the lower the child’s index, the lower their academic results were.
Equally, reviews of studies have been carried out on how diets influence neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt to environmental stimulation.
We have suspected for a long time that the relative abundance of certain nutrients has an impact on the development of people’s mental abilities”, explained Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, who published a review of over 160 studies in 2009 in the Nature Review Neuroscience on the link between diet and cognitive functions. “The more research in molecular biology progresses, the better placed we are to ascertain how dietary factors affect the functioning of neurons. These studies also give us a solid theoretical basis to demonstrate that an imbalance, or worse, a lack of certain dietary components can compromise cognitive abilities”.
Backing up what teachers and epidemiologists have long suspected with scientific evidence may lead to a sharing and development of initiatives like the Milan Protocol, promoted by the BCFN, which features among its objectives providing continual access to good quality food and not just a given quantity of calories to all children around the world. This is because not all foods have the same nutritional value and food insecurity doesn’t just affect the brain on a psychological level, exposing children to hunger, but also on a biological level, compromising functioning and neuroplasticity, hindering growth, learning and socialisation.
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