Food and human behaviour: Oxford University guest speaker explores the connection
Food is a major part of all of our lives. Not only is it necessary for life but it is involved in ceremonies, celebrations and is tied in with memories and emotions. But the food we eat has changed in the modern world, with all the advertising, packaging, and over-processing. It is important that we know the effect food can have on our minds and bodies, but not much is known about the mental effect of diet and nutrition.
A seminar was held on Tuesday afternoon in the psychology department exploring the effect that food has on behaviour. Dr Bernard Gesch of the University of Oxford visited UoL with an interesting insight on food habits in society, how this has changed through human history, and whether this is something that needs to be more carefully considered by the criminal justice system.
Dr Gesch believes that what fundamentally influences the brain is the nutrition it receives, and his reasoning is that the brain is only powered by what we ingest. The brain consumes 20% of a humans total energy intake, despite being only 2% of the body’s mass, and all of this energy has to come directly from our food.
Dr Gesch stated that there have been many drastic changes in food consumption since early humans as well as within the last 100 years, and explained that little is known about what effect this can have on the brain. Consumption of meat and fish are very much down while consumption of fats, especially vegetable fats, and consumption of sugar are up. How can we know what is a normal diet when nutrition advice often changes, and our general intake is so different from the hunter-gatherer style intake on which we evolved?
It is a well-known fact that nutrition is extremely important to health. The World Health Organisation says that 30% of people are currently suffering from malnutrition, and it is not known to what degree this is affecting their physical and mental health. For example, the World War II famine in the Netherlands known as the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944 has been well documented and therefore is able to show the effects of malnutrition years on. Studies have shown that children who were affected by this event have increased risks of diabetes, depression and schizophrenia showing both the physical and mental health effects of malnutrition.
Dr Gesch also went into detail about a study where nutrient supplements were given to a group of prisoners, and a placebo given to another group. The results showed that in the group given the supplements there was a drop in violent behaviour while the group given the placebo showed no change in behaviour. He presented similar results from studies in the USA and the Netherlands. One study in America additionally showed that prisoners given triple doses of nutrients showed an increase in violent behaviour, implying that there is a narrow ‘sweet spot’ for the optimum amounts of nutrients humans receive.
Dr Gesch suggests that this is something that desperately needs to be considered by the criminal justice system. With the social issues surrounding overpopulation of prisons, and with around 60% of prisoners re-offending after their release, it seems more important than ever to find causes of these people’s behaviour. Furthermore the connection between diet and mental health is an area of research yet to be explored in the full. With 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health problem in a given year, it is something which could strongly influence all of our lives.