Food for thought

Ms Alysia Stark, Head of England House

There are many ways for Australians to achieve dietary patterns that promote health and wellbeing and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Diet is arguably the single most important behavioural risk factor that can be improved to have a significant impact on health (Australian Government, 2013).

Recently, I attended the Mental Health in Schools Conference (Sydney, 21–22 May 2015). Among the many exceptional speakers at the conference, Dr Dan Woodman provided insightful social commentary on significant trends faced by current generations, and Dr Felice Jacka addressed the audience with her latest research findings in adolescent mental health and how they correlate to nutritional intake in this population. Michelle Chevalley-Hedge explained why our students are ‘tired, but wired’. I hope to share some of their salient points and provoke informed discussion so that we may guide our current student cohort towards a healthier future.

In the past thirty years, researchers have noted an increased consumption of fast foods, pre-prepared meals and carbonated drinks across all populations (Dietz, 2001). The processed food market has generated an ‘obesogenic’ environment which specifically targets adolescents to develop lifelong associations with their products. Making healthy choices for our students has never been more difficult. Products labelled as ‘low-fat’ and ‘healthy’ can be misleading and contain high amounts of added sugars, sodium and saturated fats. Excessive consumption of these processed products leads to raised blood pressure, impaired glucose tolerance and dyslipidaemia (abnormal levels of cholesterol and/or fat in the blood), contributing to ever-increasing levels of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes among young women aged eighteen to thirty-five (Macdonald-Wicks, 2014; World Health Organisation, 2003). So while our students show few, if any, signs of these non-communicable diseases in our School community from the ages of twelve to seventeen, it raises the question: Are they perhaps developing poor habits which will haunt them into adulthood? And how are their food choices impacting on their mental health every day in our classrooms?

Dr Jacka’s research reveals that students with poor diets (those low in nutritional value, high in saturated fats and sugars) correlated with an increased incidence of mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety. She concluded that, given that the majority of common mental health problems arise in adolescence, her team’s research suggests that there is a consistent trend towards a relationship between good quality diet and better mental health outcomes early in life. A good quality diet in this instance incorporates fresh fruit, vegetables, lean meat (including lamb and beef), and complex carbohydrates, with a low intake of extra processed foods (O’Neil, 2014).

Could something as simple as what we eat/don’t eat throughout day have such a significant impact on our mental health both now and in the future? When did we become unconscious consumers of the food we are putting in our mouths? This idea struck a chord with me as I reflected on what I had eaten on the morning of the Conference and why I had made those choices. Much of my motivation in food choice lay in the uncertainty of the day ahead. I had to make my way to an unfamiliar venue, in a city that I had limited experience travelling through — in some ways the experience was probably not too dissimilar to that of our Year 7 and 8 students earlier this year when they began at Brisbane Girls Grammar.

Like them, I was distracted by getting to my new place of learning on time, negotiating crowded and unfriendly public transport with a heavy bag, and excited and nervous to be meeting new classmates and teachers. Breakfast that morning had been a means to an end; something that had to be done quickly and efficiently, so that I could start my day’s adventure. A bowl of sugary cereal, a cup of tea, a blueberry muffin, and a mandarin on the run ensured that this brief was met. Little did I realise that I had already met my maximum daily recommendation of nine teaspoons of added sugars within the space of one meal. How had this affected me mentally and physically? By lunchtime I was ravenous, as my blood sugar had crashed due to the high GI component of my food, and my concentration was waning.

Herein lies Dr Jacka’s concern with our national adolescent population. In our ever time-poor schedules, adolescents are grabbing what is fast and convenient, much of which is laden with sugar, salt, and preservative numbers you need a diploma to decipher. The World Health Organisation recommends that people consume between six and nine teaspoons of added sugar per day (World Health Organisation, 2003). Australian adolescents are averaging a staggering twenty-two teaspoons per day (Dunlevy, 2012; Somerset, 2003).

This means students are meeting thirteen per cent of their daily energy demands with sugary items that are high in caloric value and low in nutrients. This is two to four times over the recommended daily limits for extra foods (Rangan, 2008). The implications for this are far-reaching, and the predicted impacts on Gen Z or the ‘post-millennial’ generation is alarming. Social researchers have established that the generation before (the Gen Ys), are one of the unhealthiest generations to date, and it is predicted that their successors won’t fare much better. As Dr Woodman explained, Gen Y is ‘more anxious, more depressed, and unhealthier than any generation before them,’ with one in four having a mental health issue and one in six suffering from an anxiety disorder. Despite better standards of living and access to resources, particularly different types of fresh foods, diet related diseases are at an all-time high (Woodman, 2015). Globalisation has resulted in facilitating a competitive market of ‘quick’ and ‘easy’ processed foods which act as fillers for hungry stomachs, provide billions of dollars in profit for their producers, yet provide little nutritional value to growing teenage bodies and brains. But there is hope amidst what appear to be quite unhappy statistics and predictions, and it comes in the form of education and dietary intake.

Dr Jacka (2015) points out that many students eat reasonably well at home for breakfast and dinner, but are making poor choices once they are at school for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea because, unlike primary school, they suddenly have access to their own money. Based on anecdotal observations of our own girls’ habits at the tuckshop, I would certainly agree that some of our students consume far too many extras per day and often it is due to poor choices at School.

Cupcakes, chocolates, ice-blocks, and carbonated softdrinks are taking their toll on their adolescent bodies. Chevalley-Hedge (2015) describes it as being ‘tired, but wired’. This results in their sugar levels swinging wildly from highs to lows up to five times a day, leaving them lethargic, moody and unable to concentrate in the classroom. They may have a sufficient daily energy intake, but many are not consuming the nutrients they require for lifelong health, including positive mental health and a functional and effective immune system.

Chevalley-Hedge explained that seventy-five per cent of our immune system is supported by our gut health and that our neutrophil (white blood cell) activity is suppressed when people consume high amounts of sugar in one meal (approximately five teaspoons) — the equivalent of a blueberry muffin (Null, 2013). With this in mind, we know that girls who are studying like to make regular visits to the fridge and pantry to snack, and this is important to fuel working brains. But we need to consider what they are choosing to snack on as it could be decreasing their immune response during heightened levels of stressful exam periods. We also need to be aware of food’s impact on their mood.

The quality of food an individual consumes is an incredibly important factor in how much serotonin one’s body can produce. Serotonin is a vital neurotransmitter in the human nervous system and is thought to be responsible for the following functions: mood and social behaviour; appetite and digestion; sleep; and memory. Eating a poor diet and then taking vitamins will not deliver the same result as eating fresh, whole foods. A depletion of this important neurotransmitter within the body has been found to correlate with an increased incidence of depression. Seventy per cent of the body’s serotonin is produced in the human digestive tract, but this process can only occur when low GI and nutrient dense foods containing the precursors Vitamin B and Tryptophan are consumed (Jacka, 2015; Medical News Today, 2015; Gant, n.d.).  Foods such as eggs, milk, lean red and white meats, whole grains, as well as fruit and vegetables.  Processing these foods destroys, or significantly depletes, their Vitamin B and Tryptophan content, thus leading to a reduced intake of vital nutrients (Combs, 2008).

So how is this latest research informing what is are we doing from an educational perspective to reduce the risk of our students’ developing non-communicable diseases? At Girls Grammar, students are educated about food and nutrition through the Health and Physical Education curriculum. Our Year 8 students are currently completing this unit, and are investigating the role of food and nutrition in enhancing health and wellbeing. The content supports students to develop knowledge, understanding and skills to make healthy, informed food choices and to explore the contextual factors that influence eating habits and food choices. (Australian Curriculum, 2015). It is hoped that with this increased nutritional knowledge within our student cohort, supported by sound healthy-eating policies, our girls can develop into happier and healthier young women for life.


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