Dinner ladies dish up results

6th August 2004 at 01:00
Two Glasgow colleges - one of them the College of Food Technology - officially merged this week to form a single institution. Though it won't be uppermost in the minds of those involved, the link between learning and what learners eat won't be unfamiliar to them.

Views on some of the less tangible barriers to learning - anxiety, lack of motivation, poor concentration and memory - tend to support the idea that what people chew on has direct effects on how they think and behave. Food for thought, you might say.

Currently, the physical depredations of obesity, especially among the young, hog media attention. But if what they swallow also has effects on how they learn, then nutrition might be worthy of a place in the curriculum. A pipedream? Perhaps. Yet a lot of serious science has been applied to food in the past couple of years, obscured often by the pop appeal of television chefs and celebrities following faddish diets.

The outcomes of the research, however, might be of longer-term interest to both educators and employers. Drop-out rates in education, like sick leave in companies, already have palpable effects on funding and financial viability. It is not outlandish to relate these issues to diet, and reflect more on how individual performance is affected by individual eating habits.

Some research into the way food alters our mood, memory and emotional stability challenges the belief that mind and body are separate entities. In many ways, this is a return to previous thinking - in ancient China, for example, they believed that illness including mental disorders "entered the body through the mouth".

Nevertheless, seeing mind and body as simply different aspects of a single reality enables nutritionists to work on the distortions to our eating habits that have grown exponentially since the end of the Second World War.

Today's junk food (often throwaway more than takeaway) evidences these distortions better than any lengthy dissertation.

Nutritional scientists say that if something is not right with the way the brain processes information, then that is an indicator of bio-chemical imbalances caused largely by what we eat and drink. It cannot be explained in purely psychological terms. Nutritional deficiency, they say, is a physical ailment which psychiatrists ignore and which can be diagnosed by objective testing.

Psychiatrists in the main eschew physical examination, preferring the analyst's couch to looking at what might be lurking in the freezer, or turning in the microwave. If it's only about psychology, nutritionists say, then why the increased prevalence of fatigue, sleeping problems, mood swings and depression. The alarming rate of suicide among the young is another sad statistic they point to.

Playing havoc with our neurotransmitters are the estimated 1.5 billion caffeinated drinks per week which are likely to be consumed in the UK this year, added to which will be weekly doses of 6 million kilos of sugar, 2 million kilos of chocolate, more than 1 million cigarettes and 120 million alcoholic drinks.

Furthermore, 10 million joints will be smoked, and 823 million anti-depressants will be prescribed by doctors. Whether you agree with the nutritionists or not, this doesn't make for comfortable reading.

Whether the "brain foods" recommended - essential fats, complex carbohydrates and the phospholipids found in fish, seeds and whole grains - prove the nutritionists right, only time and a lot of individual case histories will tell.

As far as universities and colleges are concerned, who knows . . . the dinner ladies may yet hold the key to success.

Gordon Wallace Strawberry Bank, Linlithgow

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