An increase in mental health care in UK school children, but no mention of the role of nutrition?
The Guardian newspaper published an article on 3 October 2016, reporting on the quarter of a million young people in the UK receiving mental health care. The story was as follows.
The NHS released data from 60% of England’s mental healthcare trusts confirming that as many as a quarter of a million children and young people are receiving mental-health services for conditions such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Around 11,850 were boys and girls aged 5 or under, while around 53,000 were aged between 6 and 10. Boys appeared to be the most vulnerable with around 130,000 enlisted in services compared to just over 100,000 girls. Experts listed academic burdens, a desire to be popular, poverty and family breakdown as potential causes.
There was, however, no mention of inadequate nutrition and its known impact on mental-health.
Scientists across fields such as biochemistry, molecular psychiatry and nutritional neuroscience are aware that what you eat directly impacts your brain and your child’s brain at a molecular level with the capability of altering both its structure and function.
The foods we eat can either positively influence our brain function, leading to health-promoting outcomes such as faster and more efficient cell-signalling, and improved mood or the opposite. They can promote inflammation, leaving the brain exposed to toxins and vulnerable to dysfunction, degeneration and disease.
Professor Michael Crawford, Imperial College London and consultant to the World Health Organization (WHO) and governments worldwide, predicted back in 1972 that following the rise in cardiovascular disease, disorders of the brain would be next. There is no doubt that his prediction is now our present reality. The Department of Health recently made public the fact that mental health disorders have overtaken all other burdens of ill-health including cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer combined, with estimated costs in 2013 at £113 billion.
Back in 2002 the WHO predicted an increase in child mental-ill health of 50% by 2020. They also advised that the increase in child obesity and Type 2 diabetes could be attributed to an increase in sedentary lifestyle, in addition to an excessive consumption of energy-dense refined foods rich in salt, sugar, and saturated fats. This led to a new type of malnutrition called Type B, which is the result of multiple micronutrient depletion and the globalisation of Western food systems. Furthermore, there is a significant association between diseases of the mind and diseases of the body.
Children are indeed the most vulnerable. In fact, one in five children in every classroom is now identified as having some type of leaning or behavioral difference. Compared with their non-diagnosed counterparts, children with learning or behavioral issues such as dyslexia or ADHD have an increased risk of developing anxiety, depression and stress. These symptoms coupled with an unhealthy diet increase the risk of further health complications, including eating disorders, obesity and metabolic syndrome, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes and more serious health complications and diseases later in life. Prescriptions for psycho-stimulant medications as a means of controlling hyperactive, impulsive and inattentive symptoms have increased almost threefold in the last decade.
Many children in England are living on a staple diet of chicken tenders, fries, pizza and soda. In the meantime, their brains are starved of essential omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Nowadays young people are over-exposed to processed and refined foods, saturated fats, elevated intakes of sodium, sugar, artificial additives, preservatives and chemicals during critical periods of brain development. Our nation has evolved whereby foods are fast and convenient, manufactured in favour of profit, mass food production and shelf-life. Somewhere along the way, the food industry has lost sight of the fact that nutritional content should be the focal point. In the meantime, many consumers don’t fully understand food labels containing terms such as “high-fructose corn syrup” (HFCS) and “hydrogenated soybean oil” and the damage that can be inflicted, from the habitual consumption of processed foods, on their child’s wellbeing, behaviour, mood and learning.
Healthy foods and exercise are arguably the nutritional game-changer, enhancing cognitive performance, switching on attention, improving mood and social skills, and ultimately increasing IQ.