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.