Brains and food: why do we feed our children crap??

In my lab we spend a lot of time thinking about behavior and inevitably my thoughts will circle around to abnormal behavior. From there I find myself considering the devastation that is psychopathology. In all forms. Foremost in my thoughts is the struggle and the search of those affected (directly or indirectly) for viable treatment options, an issue that may be due in part or in whole to the general attitudes of our culture and the design of our medical system. Last time I checked, my brain was part of my physical body and yet my insurance only slightly covers mental health care. And mainly it’s reactive care, not prevention, dispensed by physicians with questionable expertise and experience with these conditions and their treatment options. Couple that with an alarming tendency of many physicians to administer pharmaceuticals for these things, these behavioral issues and you have yourself a pretty serious situation. And drugs are great, don’t get me wrong. But we have some pretty serious prescription drug problems in our country and there’s no doubt that giving people things that affect their brains without very much consideration of that brain and the resulting behavior is not a terrific idea.

Where am I going with this? For almost as long as I’ve been fascinated by behavior, I have had a love affair with nutrition. There was a fork in my road once (a metaphorical fork) and one tine pointed to nutrition. I picked the psychobiology path instead. And then I discovered that the two are utterly, completely, awesomely, excellently, and extravagantly intertwined. You really are what you eat! Brains depend on nutrients provided by your diet. And it turns out that the way our adult brains use nutrients has very much to do with our exposure to those nutrients during brain development. So you are what your mother ate! As brains continue to develop and change and are shaped by and for our environments, diet continues to exert unparalleled influences over our neural function, and, guess what: our behaviors too!

Here are some implications. What you eat, or don’t eat, early in life and as an adult, can make you vulnerable to things out in the world, or even internal messages, that could do you harm. On the other hand, what you eat, or don’t eat, early in life and as an adult, can protect you from harm. We should, therefore, pay attention to what we eat in the interest of healthy brain function and behavior! We freak out all the time about this food or that food being good or bad for our hearts or arteries or figures. I ask only that we extend the same courtesy to our brains.

Which brings me to my central question for today’s post: why do we feed our children crap?? Why are schools still providing salt and sugar drenched foods with a side of chocolate milk? I just don’t get it. Okay, I kind of get it. Money, politics, ignorance. The usual suspects. But still, my mind boggles. Alright, so this is America, you can feed your kid anything you want. Fine. Do that. But the schools should not. End of freaking story. Your child does not have to eat at school. If you insist that your child needs to have a sugary cereal for breakfast followed by the high carb snack and the chocolate milk salt lunch then pack it for them. Does it occur to anyone that the kids who are beholden to the school breakfast and lunch program might be the children who most need the advantage that healthy diet can provide?

And then for those of us trying desperately to instill good eating habits and healthy food choices on our children we are surrounded by crap. The crap is at school, the other kids are all eating up the crap, the stores are filled with crap. My daughter is 7 and she knows a lot about nutrition but she is 7. She cannot resist this. It’s a constant battle. I should at least be able to expect support at school, if nowhere else.

My two most painful examples: 1) when my daughter was in kindergarten I told her no chocolate milk at school. The directive was delivered with much, mostly age-appropriate, reasons. One day she came home from school and told us that the other kids laughed at her and made fun of her for picking white milk when chocolate was there.  2) just a few months ago she went into her daycare program that normally does a not too bad job of providing healthy options and usually has lots of fruit on hand. We walk in and it seems that all that had was white milk. All the children were lined up and one at a time held up their carton of low-fat white milk to have the staff member squirt chocolate syrup into it. My daughter saw this, turned to me, and cast me the saddest look.

Heart-wrenching. For the brains and the bodies of our children. Just stop it.

3 thoughts on “Brains and food: why do we feed our children crap??

  1. I go to a college that probably costs $60,000 a year now and I find it extremely difficult to eat a healthy meal and be satisfied at every meal. I can’t complain about breakfast because it has everything I need, fruit, oatmeal, eggs. Great. By the time dinner rolls around you have your pasta bar, pizza bar, and burger bar, EVERY dinner. Then they are serving some sort of fried stir fry and dried pork or cheesy potatoes and way overcooked vegetables. In my case my parents pay, but other students have loans on loans they will have to pay off throughout the rest of their like to pay for this absurdly expensive school where they can’t even give us a decent FRESH fruit section at every meal or vegetables and meat that are not mushy or dried out.

    Bottom line, you are what you eat and eating nutritiously without starving yourself or carb-loading should not be an issue at a school that is trying to educate the best of the best.


  2. Good nutrition habits should begin during elementary school. If children are exposed to good habits, it is much more likely that they will continue to make good choices into adolescence and adulthood. It is much harder to change eating habits of teenagers in high school. The American diet is filled with high calorie food that tastes good. In the case of flavored milks in schools, it seems like the government thinks that children will not consume white milk at all, so they must provide them with sugar milk so that they will drink it. If given the choice of flavored milk, of course, children will choose it because it’s filled with sugar and tastes good. If flavored milk was eradicated, I’m sure children would readily consume white milk. They would be much better off without the added sugar in their diets. The problem with fructose is that it is not used by every cell in the body; it is only used by the liver. Glucose, however, is used by every cell in the body. It is a requirement for life is transformed into glycogen that is used the first storage source used when you need to expend energy. Fructose is only used by the liver cells, and when there’s too much of it, it gets stored as fat. This causes the pancreas make more insulin. The excess insulin acts on the same pathways in the brain as leptin and blocks the hypothalamus from seeing the leptin. This makes you think that you are starving, so you eat more, creating a positive feedback effect. It turns out that fructose behaves in almost the same way as alcohol. Alcohol is broken down by the liver and has a disinhibiting effect on the brain, causing you to drink more and more. It saddens me that people don’t seem to worry about the over saturation of fructose in the American diet when it is so toxic to people, especially children. Fructose is added to food to make it more palatable, and it can have addictive qualities similar to alcohol. People agree that giving children alcohol is not good, but they are perfectly fine with giving them drinks filled with fructose.


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