Schools are there to educate. And while the learning of fractions is useful for some, and understanding the difference between igneous and metamorphic rocks might be interesting to others, certain subjects applicable to everyone are still grossly under taught.
Excusing the pun, but considering food affects us all, the knowledge of diet and its importance in relation to physical and mental wellbeing should also have a seat at that table.
With over ten years experience working in education, Lauren Morley has dedicated her time educating both schools and pupils on the impact of how a healthy diet could be hugely beneficial to both physical and mental health.
Writer Matt Russell spoke to Morley, founder of the company Food and Mood Education, about the complexities of helping young people change their diet regimes, the hidden elements in everyday foods, and the changes she hopes to see in the future.
In Lauren’s words: Our current education system is failing. And not just in the ways you think, but in relation to young people’s mental and physical health.
Lauren Morley educating the younger generation, on the impacts of Food on Mental health.
It is astonishing that the knowledge of the healthy, joyful, and successful life -and how to feed our bodies - is rarely taught in schools.
For example: It’s 8am and Jack has just walked into college. On the way he has already downed two cans of a popular energy drink – that is 27 teaspoons of sugar! He goes to his first lesson, and after half an hour the sugar crash hits. This causes him to feel extremely fatigued, affecting his brain’s ability to concentrate or process any information.
At breaktime he has a chocolate bar and a pizza slice, leading to another insulin spike. Due to the sugar and the white carbohydrate in the bread, it begins to drop again half an hour later, leaving him feeling exhausted once again.
With his concentration waning it makes it difficult to retain any information from his last few lessons.
The pizza slice and chocolate bar are ultra-processed foods, meaning they have likely been packed with manufactured ingredients rather than actual foods. These ingredients are combined in a way to make them edible, but the food loses nearly all its nutritional content and lots of harsh chemicals are added, thereby likely throwing Jack’s body and brain a nutritional curveball.
Jack, as all teenagers do, is going through a huge mental change, his brain is forming new pathways, it’s figuring out which ones to keep and which ones to get rid of ready for adulthood. This is a natural process and one that is often difficult for teenagers. Meanwhile, because of his food choices, he unfortunately is currently forming an addiction to dopamine, which is the hormone released when we eat these types of processed, high sugar foods. It is our reward system, which tells Jack that he feels good, so he keeps eating these foods.
However, the impact of dopamine can make us completely forget our basic needs in order to gain this high. On top of this, constant insulin spikes and drops begin to make Jack feel anxious as he struggles to cope: he can’t sleep, his anxiety leads to depression, and this begins to affect Jacks attendance, which in turn affects Jack’s grades.
Jack leaves college failing his A levels. He also leaves college addicted to sugar and ultra-processed food, and this addiction stays with him through adulthood, as does the depression. Jack is unaware of the huge impact the foods he is consuming are having on his brain.
Why would he? He was not taught about it. So, he continues to eat like this, Jack is overweight, and his body and brain are suffering, he develops diabetes and a few years later he develops heart disease and eventually dies prematurely, from heart disease, cancer, dementia, stroke, or a cardiovascular disease, take your pick. These all develop from chronic inflammation which is directly linked to diet.
Do you think that is quite a dramatic story?
Unfortunately, it is not. This is very real. Around 50 percent of deaths worldwide, are attributed to chronic inflammation.
Jack is just one of hundreds of thousands of pupils who go about their days like this.
We are not educating on this, and we are wilfully choosing to ignore this huge problem within our society and within our education system.
At school and college, we learn the square root of 68 and how many wives Henry VIII had, but we do not learn about something that is so fundamentally important that it affects our whole existence and wellbeing every single day.
As a Safeguarding and Wellbeing officer I spend my days talking to young people with anxiety and depression.
The number one thing all these young people have in common is their diet: high in sugar and ultra-processed foods. Students seem shocked when I explain to them how the food and drinks they are putting into their bodies could be causing serious negative impacts on their brain.
No other activity that we take part in everyday has more power to change your biology than what you eat.
Of course, they are shocked, because this is something that has never been taught to them, or to us.
One in six of our young people are overweight or obese and one in six young people also suffers with a mental health condition. This is not a coincidence.
We live in a society in which one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs is readily available and highly advertised to children… Sugar.
Supermarket shelves are lined with colourful boxes, fun pictures, and catchy slogans, to take away from the dangers that lurk inside. It’s all a trick, the food industry does not care about our health, or our children’s health, they care about sales.
We have a generation of children addicted to sugar; it is being consumed at three times the recommended amount. And the dangers do not just lie with sugar, 50% of our calories in the UK come from ultra processed food and teenagers’ consumption is even higher at a staggering 70 per cent.
Ultra-processed foods, as well as sugar, are the leading cause of obesity – they rewire our brains. Studies have even shown that ultra-processed foods contain such dangerous chemicals they lead to an increased risk of many types of cancer.
Many of the ingredients that go into ultra-processed foods are chemicals that our bodies are not designed to accept. So, what are all these harmful chemicals doing to us?
Our gut really is our second brain. Our gut produces more neurotransmitters – which affect mood and behaviour - than the brain.
Everything we put into our gut will directly affect how we feel: our mental health, how we sleep, memory, ability to learn, our means of processing information and our likelihood of developing serious illnesses. In short, what we choose to eat affects everything.
Every time we consume sugar it is absorbed into the bloodstream, which causes our insulin to spike, and this can be problematic for our bodies.
Constant insulin spikes can damage blood vessels within our brains and bodies. This can cause cognitive issues as well as serious diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. These insulin spikes can cause inflammation within the body, which in turn can make us more vulnerable to disease.
Through my research I have spoken to many GPs and nutritionists. One of the GPs I spoke to said that 90% of the patients she now sees are there for diseases caused by inflammation, such as depression, autoimmune diseases, lung and cardiovascular diseases and gastrointestinal disorders.
Inflammation in the body is directly linked to ultra-processed foods and sugar.
You may be eating more ultra-processed food than you realise. Lots of our food is highly processed, such as yoghurts, bread, and sandwich meat, it is important that we check our labels.
If you do not recognise several of the ingredients, such as gums and acids then this means it is probably highly processed.
The higher the health claim, the more processed the food. Surely if it says ‘low fat’ or ‘high in protein’ then that makes it healthier? This is unfortunately not the case, and another trick used by the food industry. A lot of the time, if ingredients have been taken out, such as fat, they are replaced with more sugar and other chemicals to ensure the product tastes the same as the original.
Small changes to diet can make an enormous difference. Damage caused to our bodies can be reversed, it is not too late. It is also possible to see the effects of healthy changes on our brains and bodies almost immediately.
Increasing fruits and vegetables, adding legumes, nuts, and fish to the diet, and reducing ultra-processed food and sugar is the key to changing your gut health and improving your mental and physical wellbeing.
Another slight change people can make is eating vegetables before you eat your carbohydrates or any sugars. This creates a barrier in your stomach, which stops the sugars from entering the bloodstream immediately, which dramatically flattens the insulin spike experienced by eating carbohydrates first, or sugars on an empty stomach. This not only stops a huge spike, but it helps to keep energy levels up and keeps you fuller longer. The order in which you eat your food can have a significant impact.
The effect on both mental and physical health can be dramatic. A study carried out in Australia for three months, was pioneering in really testing the link between food and mental health, and the results were astonishing. One third of the participants who suffered from severe clinical depression went into complete remission, and the others who were part of the focus group also improved dramatically. The more the participants stuck to the healthy eating plan, the more they improved.
These are minor changes but will have the biggest impact and is vital information that all of us should know, but why don’t we?
We need to be teaching our younger generation because they are the future of the world, and we don’t want their lives to be full of addiction, depression and disease. We want to give them the best chance for it to be full of happiness and health.
My aim is to help bring nutrition and dietary knowledge into our education system by working directly with schools, colleges and universities, to help improve the mental health of our young people, their grades, attendance, and ultimately their health.
Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.