Junk food is poisoning young minds

17th February 2006 at 00:00
I read the lead story in The TES Scotland two weeks ago with increasing relief. Finally, someone is openly acknowledging that learning difficulties are on the increase. Disturbingly, Michael Crawford, professor of brain chemistry and human nutrition at London Metropolitan University, recently said that brain disorders such as depression and the learning difficulties found in classrooms are now the largest cause of ill health in Britain, outstripping heart disease and cancer.

Well? Boo to the so-called experts who far too often allege that standards haven't fallen and that everything is hunky-dory despite the fact that levels of literacy and numeracy are pretty damned awful. And, before the pundits plant their feet firmly on my neck, let me say that I am not misinterpreting the facts and manipulating the professor's data.

It stands to reason that if up to 200,000 Scottish pupils may be suffering from demonstrable learning difficulties because of their own and indeed their parents' poor diets, then many more will inevitably be impaired, albeit to a lesser degree, in their brain function. What about hard evidence?

Let's take erratic behaviour. Some kids can't concentrate for more than five minutes, whatever the material. These pupils have an epidemic of behavioural problems and, while this is of no consolation to hard-pressed teachers, they don't seem able to help themselves. Such offenders act as jailers to the freedom to learn of the numerous pupils who do function normally, as Penny Ward so ably expressed in her column on this page, "The little voices that go unheard" (January 27).

The big voices drown out the little voices. Junk food rules. So, in addition to a youthful population addicted to computer games, utter drivel on television, a general breakdown in law and order in some communities, teenage girls in Scotland who apparently can imbibe more alcohol than 15-year-olds in any other country, mayhem in the young offenders'

institutions and God knows what else, we now have evidence that the brains of the young are being minced by poor nutrition.

Take a hike to the nearest supermarket and view the trolleys laden with ready meals, the ultimate accessory to this infinitely disposable modern life. Pick up any fast food and blanch with shock as you read the list of additives. Stalk the checkout areas for a few minutes and observe how some people buy nothing but processed foods. And it's not just kids who are being affected. You scarcely wish to contemplate what some unborn infants are receiving via the placenta.

Brains fed on valueless mush can't learn - hence the impact on standards.

Just as obese children can't achieve their potential from physical exercise, so kids deprived of proper nutrition can't realise their academic capability. So why don't we admit it? Confront it? Contemplate solutions? Could it be time to cast a critical eye over parental responsibilities?

This problem is not necessarily to do with poverty. Recently, a friend took a bunch of comfortably off senior pupils on a residential course (it cost them pound;250). Wholesome and home-cooked dishes were on the menu but, embarrassingly, the kids couldn't eat the food. It wasn't that it was wildly alternative, unless you include green vegetables, porridge and home-made fruit salad in that category. It turned out that the pupils had a stash of convenience foods in their bedrooms and, while out and about, they endlessly begged to go to the well-known fast food establishments.

Children can't be healthy if they are suffering from outrageous imbalances in brain chemistry. We have known for a long time that a lousy diet is bad for physical health. Now we know that the effects are even more devastating. The problem won't go away, however much we might want it to.

All the more intriguing therefore that we continue to ignore it.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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