The nutrition mission

We talk to Dr Rachel V Gow about the importance of good nutrition in children

We all know that overloading our kids with sugary processed foods is not good for their bodies or minds. Ahead of a workshop this weekend which looks at mental health, brain conditions and diet, we talk to nutritional neuroscience expert Rachel V. Gow, about how we really are what we eat…

Tell us more about your mission… We want to raise awareness of the transformative role that nutrition and fitness play in well-being, mood, behaviour and overall mental health. Notwithstanding the ability to significantly improve our physical health, promote longevity and protection against the development of a wide-range of premature disease such as stroke, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular and obesity. There is a wealth of scientific evidence supporting a combination of nutrition and exercise to slow ageing and mild cognitive decline, improve depression, reduce attention deficits and mood disorders. Nutrition and exercise work in synergy. Both release the chemicals in the brain, for example, the neurotransmitters serotonin, endorphins, norepinephrine, oxytocin and dopamine, all of which help regulate and improve mood and are considered the body’s natural anti-depressants.

A high-intensity cardio workout such as boxercise increases levels of two common neurotransmitters – glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (also known as GABA), which are responsible for chemical messages (communication) throughout the brain. GABA is also available as a supplement and found to be useful in people with anxiety. Making nutritional changes such as increasing your intake of omega-3 fats (which help regulate dopamine the chemical linked to our emotions and mood), micronutrients and vitamins can positively alter brain biochemistry and reduce inflammation.

The funds raised from this event this weekend (Nurture Your Mind, Nourish Your Body: Transform Your Life! ) are going towards a Community Music Project for children. The role of music is transformative and also activates parts of the brain associated with healing. We have around 30 incredible music artists signed up from Ibiza legend Brandon Block to drum and bass artists – Jumping Jack Frost and Fabio. Each artist will devote 90 minutes of their time to mentor a young person with a passion for music in a state-of-the-art London based studio. TV presenter, Lisa Nash will interview some of the artists and young people and the project is being filmed for a documentary. The main objective is to raise awareness of invisible mental-health conditions, some of the issues facing young people today and importantly to demonstrate what we can do at a grass-roots level to help inspire and empower the younger members of our community.

Do you think people are now aware of just how important good nutrition is?

I think attitudes are definitely changing but we still have a long way to go! There is a lack of understanding that what you eat directly affects your mood and behaviour! Nutrition is often addressed or thought of from the neck-down and its fundamental role in brain function is overlooked. Children are arguably the most vulnerable and are literally rewarded with sugar and junk processed foods for good behaviour! Let’s take sugar as an example, it has become such an integral part of children’s lives in the same way as the consumption of alcohol has to adults. But by allowing more than the occasional binge in sugar and other refined food substances we are increasing the risk of problem eating, the development of life-long addictions and immediate adverse behavioural reactions especially in children who are unknowingly intolerant to the ingredients. Sweets are often loaded with food additives (colours, preservatives, and dyes) which are purposefully added to food to preserve shelf life and to alter the appearance, flavour and/or texture. Some of these such as Yellow 6, Sodium benzoate (E211), Tartrazine and Allura red have been linked to ADHD-type symptoms including increases in hyperactivity in children. Sugar activates the same reward circuitry in the brain as many Class A drugs and so increases the risk of food addictions.

What do you think schools could do to support good nutrition?

I think schools could help by reducing sugar and refined, processed foods from the school menu. The problem is that school meals are provided for the masses and so quantity is often favoured over quality. It would be wonderful if schools could bring back home economics and cooking – and educate children as much as possible about the nutritional sciences. Children should be educated on inter-related issues such as animal welfare, the origin and production of foods they eat and the impact on the human brain. For example, most children are taught about the workings of the human body e.g., about the respiratory system and that our lungs help us breathe; that our heart pumps blood around the body which keeps us alive; that bones and muscles enable us to function physically but the average 11-year-old is unlikely to know anything about the function of the cerebellum! In fact, most people I meet are not really sure what the human brain is made of nor that there are specific and brain-essential nutrients needed for its function. Education in these areas are key because we need to eat mindfully, to thrive and not just survive and the solution really is in the kitchen – going back to basics and preparing meals from scratch with fresh, and ideally, organic produce.

Much of your research looks at the role of nutrition in child neurodevelopmental conditions. What are some of your findings?

During diagnostic evaluations for child neurodevelopmental conditions, unfortunately, food allergies and intolerances, and the presence of nutritional insufficiencies of key micronutrients known to impact neurotransmitter functions are not taken into consideration or assessed. A simple referral to a dietician or registered nutritionist would reveal if the presenting behaviours are truly attributable to ADHD or a direct cause of food-related issues. There is a close link between nutrition and behavioural disturbances and gut-health is of particular the importance given we now know that at least 80% of serotonin is made in the gut and transported via the vagus nerve directly into the brain. So if your gut is over-colonised by unhealthy gut microbiota then this is going to alter the amount of serotonin made which in turn is going to impact behaviour and mood. In a similar way, we know that the production of dopamine is reliant on dietary intake of omega-3 brain-essential fatty acids. In fact, studies have persistently shown that a lack of these omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acids reduces dopamine and furthermore that low omega-3 is clinically linked to symptoms of depression and ADHD.

What do you think some of the biggest misconceptions are in terms of childhood nutrition generally?

The problem we have is that so many parents live busy and often stressful lives trying to balance the demands of both home and work-life. Food can often take a backseat and meals are prepared in a hurry for convenience. Yet preventative health is a long-term investment which can protect and serve you very well right across the life-span especially when the right choices and habits are formed during childhood. The main struggle for people is their mindset – we can be our own best friend or worse enemy depending on our thought processes. Humans are also creatures of habits and always looking for short-cuts – however with nutrition and health – there really aren’t many.  There has to be a commitment to incorporating changes as part of a healthier lifestyle choice. Most parents won’t think about food when addressing their child’s behaviour and mood. Yet, 100% of the families and children I have worked with thus far have nutritional insufficiencies as well as food allergies and intolerances to foods such as dairy, gluten, wheat. Because effects can be subtle, parents had no idea until they took their children for a full nutritional evaluation. Making changes to a child’s diet and lifestyle increases happiness and well-being, reduce stress and can positively impact both learning and behaviour.

If there are five things parents should do tomorrow, what would that be?

✔️ Avoid all processed foods including refined white sugar – if you must, switch to raw organic honey or dark chocolate (over 70% cacao)

✔️ Switch white foods to brown and use unrefined where possible (e.g., spelt pasta)
✔️ Eat oily fish and seafood
✔️ Drink at least 6 glasses of filtered or mineral water every day
✔️ If you don’t understand the label – put it back on the shelf
✔️ Make all meals from scratch where possible and exercise for at least 30 minutes per day


Nurture Your Mind, Nourish Your Body: Transform Your Life!  

A 1-day transformative workshop focused on nutrition, brain-health, mental-wellness and fitness

The Westbank Art Gallery

Saturday 20 July 2019

11.30 – 5.30pm