Thursday, 2 April 2015

Malnutrition and shrinking brains

Crossed hamburger as expression of opinion about fast foods
image: Honza Groh
An online Scientific American item about a link between smaller brain sizes in lower income families' children comes with some reader's criticisms about how the experiment was designed and what it might indicate. A further critique was given as a link. It came as a bit of a surprise for me as I remember my wife telling me, nearly thirty years ago, that the effects of malnutrition in a pregnant mother can last for three generations and one of the main things to suffer was intelligence. I have no idea where she got that information.

For me, the whole study presents various classification and sampling problems. For example, we see world hunger maps drawn up by country, but malnutrition also occurs within countries that are very affluent. We think of malnutrition mainly as a lack of food and pictures come to mind of starving African children with swollen bellies. When we look at the traditional ethnic foods of poorer countries, we see combinations of foods that supplement each other: beans and rice being a well-known example. Some of these dishes can be time-consuming to prepare but time is always available when work or profit are not.

The situation in affluent countries is very different. For the working poor, malnutrition can follow a habit of getting three large meals a day at the drive-through window washed down with a bladder-testing amount of pop. Time is less available when low paying jobs are plentiful.  TV commercials tell us that their dishes take only five minutes to prepare. Perhaps the action of peeling back the plastic for the last minute in the microwave gives us the idea that we are cooking.

Some years ago, a local supermarket was selling baskets for donation to the Food Bank. It bothered me that the products were all the cheapest brands: the spaghetti sauce was thick because of the cornstarch and owed much of its flavour to refined sugar; bleached white flour dominated the grains in any ingredient list and the list of additives would need someone with a degree in chemistry to explain. I could only think that the purpose of the large and inexpensive baskets was to make their customers feel more generous than they really were. The last thing you should feed someone at a time of economic stress is empty calories. At a time when people have to be quick-thinking and creative in order to survive, bad nutrition can lead to mental dullness and its resulting apathy. Of course, apathetic people do not complain much...

Even if you are doing fine, economically, have lots of free time and enjoy cooking, what is available to you might be limited: the recipe does not say "Be sure to make sure the water is boiling before you pick the corn", or "always use basil within half an hour of harvesting". Fresh and barely processed foods can be a problem for city dwellers without their own vegetable and fruit gardens and we have developed a taste for things that are grown in very different climates. Someone living where mangoes grow often has their choice of several different varieties, for most everyone else it is only one or two. It is not just about the quality of the taste of very fresh food, but the fact that its nutritional value can often diminish after a very short time and can vary with different varieties.  Then there are GM foods lurking everywhere, and you know that the big packers are going to have their choice of the best of the crops...

With so many factors mentioned in the article and its comments and links, I don't think we can estimate the role of malnutrition in these shrinking brains, but as epigenetics is an interest of mine, I recommend A bomb is ticking: the genetic impact of malnutrition. What we eat can affect our grandchildren.


  1. Hi John:

    Er...I don't mean to be controversial, but surely this answers much about what Paul Barford, Nigel Swift, David Gill, and David 'Boy' Knell's, forbears were scoffing?


    John Howland

    1. That's rich, coming from a man who thinks 'lout' has five letters

    2. I know 'lout' has four letters. I also know you lack the guts to use your own name.

  2. Don't mean to be controversial, eh? ;-)