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Dietary Influences On Young People's Mood, Academic Performance, And Behavior

The old adage that "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" has been passed down from moms for generations. The current research has explored the implication that diet has an impact on mood, behavior, and academic performance in young people. Daily diet requirements are a necessity in every person's life and subsequently the government has taken a stand as to what is a properly balanced diet. The dietary requirements have been recently updated by the government to a more user friendly system.

Why would the government feel it necessary to overhaul the food pyramid? Is it because the old system was antiquated and substandard? No, it had to be changed because it no longer held any relevance to the modern-day young person. The new user friendly pyramid comes complete with a brand new website located at http://mypramid.gov.

Here health conscious individuals both young and old can find a wealth of health related information (MyPyramid website, n.d.). Visitors can look up dietary guidelines, steps to losing weight, tips and resources, and even a tracker that maps out your current physical activity and diet (MyPyramid website, n.d.).

The next question then beckons an explanation was why the food pyramid was no longer relevant? It is because today's youth are bombarded by a litany of fast food advertising and readily accessible unhealthy food sources that the old food pyramid had become defunct and pointless to today's young people. Sadly glaring examples of this new food choice decision making process can be seen by the explosion of youth obesity in American society that has currently taking place. As well, the rise in juvenile diabetes and adult diabetes is another example of the lack of interest in eating a balanced diet, eating a diet of convenience instead.

In Texas, which incidentally is the largest state in the union, for example, one researcher pointed out that 42% of fourth graders, 39% of eight graders, and 36% of eleventh grades were overweight (Combs, 2007). In the face of these results the future does not look bright for these children because research has also unmistakably shown that 70% of children who were presently overweight will grow into overweight, and inevitably in due course, to obese adults (2007). Subsequently new ways of making food choices had to be developed to incorporate and in some instances to combat today's fast paced on-the-go lifestyle that has become the norm of American society. The current American lifestyle has imposed a variety of forces that influence mood, behavior, and the academic performance of young people.

Some of these factors included everything from economic status, social status, parental influence, and mass media influence. So what roles have these and other factors played in the dietary choices of young adults?

For example, starting with a factor such as economic status, research has shown a direct impact on the food choices made by young persons. Research once again has demonstrated that even though economic status may not directly impact overall health in a particular class of individuals; it is, however, an excellent indicator to which direction, positive or negative, the overall health of that class will ultimately proceed (Wilkinson, 2006).

The enormous majority of research, of which approximately 78%, has shown statistical support for the effects of economic position on that examined population's health (2006). An example of this can be seen by looking at tight family budgets, which make the dollar menu at popular fast food chains a culinary favorite of young people. A popular dollar menu item includes the double cheeseburger found at many fast food establishments. How many calories are being consumed from this one dietary decision?

A double cheeseburger from McDonald's contains 440 calories, 23g of fat, and 1150mg of sodium (McDonald's USA website, 2008). An order of small French fries contains 13g of total fat, 140 mg of sodium, and 250 calories (2008). Now add a soft drink, such as a medium Coca-Cola, and another 15mg of sodium and an additional 210 calories are added to the meal (2008). In summary a meal containing one double cheeseburger, a small order of French fries, and a medium Coca-Cola totaled a staggering 900 calories, 1305mg of sodium, and 36g of fat. Sadly diets filled with fast-food choices and an absence of healthy food alternatives may have become the norm for young people. These diets are excessively high in sodium and saturated fats, and absent of any real vegetable or fruit content. These typical menu items make it hard to make good dietary decisions while making economical choices. Where does this lead the current investigation?

The current investigation proceeded along a line of scrutiny based on a specific question that arose from a review of the literature: how does a diet filled with fat and sodium effect the overall mental and physical well-being of young individuals? One recent study concluded that school-aged children were being deprived of nutrients, such as calcium for example, that were important to normal body functioning (Ballew et al., 2000; Harnack et al., 1999; as reported by Kassem and Lee, 2004).

This paper looks at three major areas of mental well-being: mood, behavior, and academic performance. Each topic has a dedicated section that reviewed the current available research from a variety of sources. Each section also pointed out key factors of dietary influence on the topic. A discussion section follows as well as a section dedicated to potential future research topics and potential uses for current research results.

This is an important issue because of the current state of affairs of the young people in American society. With obesity and diabetes rates increasing at an alarming pace in American youth; the future looks dim if our children cannot make it into adulthood healthy. It seems that the days of eating well balanced meals are fast becoming a thing of the past. The basic nutritional foundation that children and young adults need to be exposed to is being left up to fast food chains and an appealing array of spokespeople with much more influence than parents.

A group of researchers reported lifetime prevalence rates of 8.6% for major depressive episodes, 7.7% for major depressive episode with severity, 6.2% for dyshtymia, 3.4% for major depressive episodes with dysthymia, any bipolar disorders showed a rate of 1.6%, and finally a rate of 11.5% for any mood disorder (Jonas, Brody, Roper, and Narrow, 2003). As a result, this paper confronted some of the major dietary concerns facing young people and provided potential solutions to alleviate the problems that arise for constant poor dietary choices.

Human beings daily functionality is predicated on food consumption. The quality of food taken in impacts our daily activities, attitudes, and endeavors. Print, media, and visual advertisements are filled with food choices that "start your day" all the way to "comfort foods". Comfort foods have been broken down into four distinct categories: 1) nostalgic foods, 2) indulgence foods, 3) convenience foods, and 4) physical comfort foods (Locher, Yoels, Maurer, and Van Ells, 2005). "Comfort eating" has been investigated by researchers looking to determine if mood impact when and what to eat or vice versa. Christensen and Brooks (2006) hypothesized that particular events, distressing or non-distressing, would predict an individual's belief as to a food choice after experiencing the condition. To test their hypothesis, 34 men and 64 women with mean ages 21.44 and 20.56 respectively, were asked to review and rate either a happy or sad vignette on a scale of 1 to 10 (2006).

Next a food questionnaire was given to the participants after viewing the vignettes to determine how likely they were to consume something (2006). Also what they were likely to consume (for example ice cream, candy, sodas, bread, meat, milk, cheese) was asked as well (2006). The food category choices were broken into sweets, carbohydrate- and fat rich non sweet items, and carbohydrate-rich protein-rich items (2006). The investigation found supporting evidence that depicted that male and females respond differently to distressing events with females employing a food-craving strategy to deal with distressing events (2006). This is a key finding because it clearly shows that women more so than many respond to negative mood events by consuming ore empty calories. Negative mood states were considered to involve conditions such as depression.

The causes of depression are quite varied. One line of investigating has been exploring micronutrient deficiencies as a possible cause of depression. Cathy Levenson (2006) reported that the last several decades have seen a multitude of research studies implicating a zinc deficiency and depression. Unfortunately current research has been able to show a clear link between low levels of serum zinc and depression; however, have not been able to show a direct causal effect (2006). Many studies have shown a link between childhood obesity and anxiety and/or depression. One such study indicated that binge eating episodes could be positively linked to anxiety and depression levels (Isnard, Michel, Frelut, Vila, Falissard, Naja, Navarro, and Mouren-Simeoni, 2003). That is the higher the anxiety or depression level, the more sever the binge eating became (2003).

The Isnard et al. research project sampled 102 obese adolescent boys and girls ages 12 to 17 and assessed them with a variety of measures that included the Binge Eating Scale, the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Children, the Beck Depression Inventory, the Coopersmith's Self-Esteem Inventory, and the Body-Esteem portion of the Piers-Harris Children's Self-Concept Scale (2003). This study also confirmed evidence that supported previous findings which concluded that statistically speaking childhood obesity continued into adulthood (2003). The Keel et al. research study included a sample population of 672 female twins ranging in ages of 16 to 18 years old drawn from the Minnesota Twin Family Study (2005).

The researchers assessed the sample population for two specific eating disorders which were bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa (2005). The group also assessed the population for mood, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders (2005). Data for this particular study was gathered through face to face interviews by trained clinicians (2005). The researchers found that of the sample population, 3.9% or 26 twin pairs met the measures for anorexia nervosa and 1.8% or 12 twin pairs fulfilled the measures for bulimia nervosa (2005). Out of this possible relationship between mood and eating disorders, research naturally followed that investigated the mood (specifically depression and anxiety) portion of the link.

Taking a deeper look into the link between depression and anxiety disorders and eating disorders, it was concluded that there was a shared transmission of the disorders (Keel, Klump, Miller, McGue, and Iacono, 2005). This indicated not a causal effect but rather reversal effect, where an eating disorder can result in depression or anxiety as well as depression or anxiety leading to the development of an eating disorder. The question being investigated here is what is the science behind food's impact on mood in young adults, is it strictly a medical issue or are their other outside factors involved as well?

In one study with a medical focus, it was reported that a malfunctioning thyroid had been linked to depressive symptoms in both young men and women (Forman-Hoffman and Philibert, 2006). The researchers investigated a potential link between thyroid function and depression by reviewing data gathered through the third installment of the NHANES III or National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2006). The original study entailed investigating the link between hyperthyroidism and depression (2006). The current study concluded supporting evidence that pointed to a link between low TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels and acute depressive syndrome (2006). Other medically based research has delved into the role of other essential body nutrients.

Over the years there has been an overwhelming volume of evidence supporting the important role that the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids play in certain developmental and psychological disorders such as depression, autism, and bipolar disorder (Richardson, 2003). This particular study reported that omega-3 HUFA, which stands for highly unsaturated fatty acids, had provided results that showed a reduction in dyslexia learning difficulties (2003). It was also reported that 20% of school-aged children suffered from dyslexia, autism, and dyspraxia collectively (2003). Richardson (2003) concluded that the omega-3 EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) was important in arbitrating mood, behavior, and cognition improvements in dyslexia, and dyspraxia. The use of pure EPA was shown to greatly reduce the symptoms of depression and schizophrenia (2003). Another apparent characteristic of EPA was its positive support of brain functioning (2003). The fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 are important to brain function because they can only be obtained from digested food sources; meaning that the body does not synthesize these particular fatty acids (2003). Omega-3 and Omega-6 comprise 15 to 20% of the neuronal membranes and 30% of the retina (2003). Furthermore, omega-6 is essential to the growth of the brain and even minor deficiencies were linked to low birth weight and smaller circumferences of the head (2003).

As a result, many more health practitioners are looking into dietary support as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for several mood disorders including depression both major and mild. In fact one study pointed out that omega-3 fatty acids were successful in relieving depressive symptoms by being coupled with mainstream anti-depressant medication (Sutherland, Sutherland, and Hoehns, 2003). These findings are in addition to Richardson (2003) conclusions that EPA was effective in improving mood, behavior, and cognition. Dealing specifically with depression has become a major daily activity for health practitioners because 3% of the American population lives with chronic depression, approximately (Keller, McCullough, Klein et al, 2000; as reported by Sutherland, Sutherland, and Hoehns, 2003) 17% of the population has had a major depressive episode sometime during their lifetime (Cohen, 1997; as reported by Sutherland, Sutherland, and Hoehns, 2003), and twice as many women than men experience depression (Bhatia and Bhatia, 1999; as reported by Sutherland, Sutherland, and Hoehns, 2003). Being that depression is so wide spread and affects may aspects of an individual's life, naturally it follows that a disruption in academic performance would follow.

Millions of children and young persons across America spend the better part of their day at academic institutions and as a result must consume at least one meal while in school. Many students will consume two meals, breakfast and lunch, offered by the school. With the obesity rates in children tripling over the past few decades, schools have taken a hard look at the nutritional choices they were providing to their charges (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2005; as reported by Parsad, and Lewis, 2006). Breakfast has long been considered the most important meal of the day. Thousands of children across America sit down each morning and eat before heading off to school. However, does what young people eat impact their performance in school? A study investigating whether or not the habitual eating of breakfast had any effect on school performance found evidence that suggested that breakfast did in fact increase school performance in certain areas (Lopz-Sobaler, Ortega, Quintas, Navia, and Requejo, 2003). Lopz-Sobaler et al. accomplished this by coordinating a study population of 180 school-aged children 9 to 13 years old (2003). The use of the SAT-1 test was used to determine the scholastic effects of habitual breakfast (2003). The dietary choices were seemingly being made more often than not by children and not parents.

Kassem and Lee (2004) surveyed 564 male students ranging in ages from 13 to 18 years old and reported that nearly 97% of the participants admitted soda drinking with just over 60% responding that they drink two or more sodas per day. The energy needed to make it through the academic day was simply not available when an improperly balanced diet was consumed. Cullen, Watson, and Zakeri (2008) conducted a review of the Texas nutrition policy for public schools implemented in three middle schools during 2001 through 2006. Cullen and her colleagues reported an increase in the consumption of milk, vegetables, along with other healthy nutrient sources in addition to a decrease in the consumption of snacks and sodas (2008). In another study conducted with students from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), it was conclude that comprehensive nutrition policies implemented with the LAUSD did decrease the consumption of negative dietary choices such as sodas and candies; however, these choices resumed outside of school grounds (Vecchiarelli, Takayangi, and Neumann, 2006). Another interesting finding with respect to energy production in children, it was found that by constantly changing up dietary choices, energy intake in children increased (Temple, Giacomelli, Roemmich, and Epstein, 2008). In the classroom results are what counts and sound academic performance revolves around sound brain functioning.

Our knowledge of brain functioning has lead us to recognize the importance of such micronutrients like iron and vitamin B-12 (Malone, 2005). For the brain to function properly it needs energy and that energy comes in the form of glucose. David Benton and Samantha Nabb (2003) noted that there was a growing body of research evidence providing support to the idea that both mood and memory are affected by glucose, especially when more extreme metabolic burdens were placed on the brain, such as final exams in school. The researchers further concluded that different glycemic diets can influence brain functioning (2003). One key studied on the topic of school performance and nutrition cited that school-aged children that were deficient in iron experienced difficulties in academic performance; additionally a child's ability to learn effectively was compromised by food insufficiency (Taras, 2005). To this end, Oaten and Cheng offered interesting results after their research study.

The Oaten/Cheng study concluded that by instituting and practicing a self-control program, college-aged students could effectively reduce their consumption of caffeine, cigarettes, and alcohol while increasing healthy eating habits, performing household chores, emotional control, commitment attendance, and even improved study habits and spending control (2006). Forty-five undergraduate students with a mean age of 23 participated in the study (2006). The participants were then randomly assigned to one of two cohorts (2006). A variety of personal measures were considered including chemical consumption, dietary habits, physical activity, and general regulatory behavior (2006). Assessment techniques included study diaries, behavioral self-reports, and study registers (2006).

Even though food is plentiful in the United States, there are still millions of families that do not have access to a steady supply of nutritious meals. In recent years the number of families facing food hardships had steadily increased from 14.8 percent in 1999 to 16.5 percent in 2002 (Nord, Andrews, and Carlson, 2003). Numerous research studies have investigated the 1996 welfare reforms and their impact on food access and behavioral issues in young people. One such study concluded that food hardship, or instable access to food was positively linked to external and internal behavioral problems in children and also practitioners should look into the possibility of food hardship when diagnosing behavioral issues in children (Slack and Yoo, 2005). As reported by Slack and Yoo, a total of 2646 families were interviewed in 2 waves by the Illinois Family Study project (2005). For this study, the initial data selected came from families that were randomly selected from families that received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in Illinois during 1998 (2005).

The families that participated were interviewed within their home and compensated $30 for their participation (2005). The researchers of this study hypothesized that children experiencing food hardships would experience internal physiological responses such as anxiety and irritability as well affecting the parent-child relationship (2005). To accomplish this task, the researchers employed the use of the Social Skills Rating System Parent Form (SSRS) developed by Gresham and Elliott in 1990 (2005). Colleagues Slack and Yoo then interviewed 942 families that had children within the age range of 3 to 12 years old (2005). Interviews with the family consisted of the use of the externalized behaviors subscale that contained six items. The interview contained items such as: 1) "child has temper tantrums, 2) "child fights with others", 3) "child gets angry easily" (2005). Then the researchers asked questions of the families using an internalizing problem behavior subscale. Items on this subscale contained examples such as: 1) "child shows anxiety about being with a group of children", 2) "child acts sad or depressed", and 3) "child appears lonely" (2005).

The results of this study concluded that behavioral problems were associated with food hardship or instability (Slack and Yoo, 2005). Furthermore, as reported by Slack and Yoo (2005), fellow researcher Lori Reid reported in 2002 a positive link between the greater extent and length of food insufficiency and behavioral problems in children. Another serious behavioral issue that afflicts many school-aged children is Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that approximately 4.4 million school-aged children, 4 to 17 years old, were diagnosed with ADHD (CDC website, 2005). Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder has been defined as excessive motor activity, impulsive behavior, anxiety, distractibility, inattentiveness, and problems with delaying gratification (Barkley, 1981; Kanarek & Marks-Kaufam, 1991; as reported by Schnoll, Burshteyn, & Cea-Aravens, 2003). The past 30 years have seen a wealth of research conducted on ADHD with the consensus being that ADHD is a complex dilemma with a varied etiology and can be studied as a function of numerous relations (2003). Sinha and Efron (2005) concluded that many families that have children suffering from ADHD have turned to incorporating complementary and alternative treatment options along with traditional approaches to treating ADHD. Of the 75 participating families, 67.6% responded that they had used a CAM at some point (2005).

Twenty-three different types of therapies were reported to have been used by the families with the most tried being diet modification, followed by the introduction of vitamins and minerals, and dietary supplements (2005). With respect to ADHD many food sources have been linked to the disorder. Food sources such as fatty acid deficiencies, additives, food sensitivities and allergies, and refined sugars have all been linked to ADHD (Schnoll, Burshteyn, and Cea-Aravens, 2003). The most current research designs were looking into the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 (2003). These fatty acids are considered critical to the formation of certain hormones and ultimately body functioning (2003). This is important because research with children with ADHD has demonstrated that these children have trouble metabolizing fatty acids (2003). The newest research has found links between particular food components that may contribute to hyperactive behavior in children that are sensitive to those food components (2003). Here again it is evident that a child's diet may severely affect their behavior in a negative fashion. Schnoll and her research colleagues firmly supported the idea that nutritional modification does and should play a key role in the treatment of ADHD (2003). Yet, the effectiveness of complementary and/or alternative treatments to behavioral problems such as ADHD is not concrete.

An article written by Eileen Cormier and Jennifer Harrison Elder (2007) reviewed many of the current complementary and alternative treatments as well as dietary restrictions and treatments. After their review of the literature, the researchers concluded that there was little if any evidence to support the effectiveness of restricted diets on controlling disorders such as autism and ADHD (2007).

Moving on to another behavioral issue that confronts young individuals is binge eating and associated disorders.

Although there has been very little scientific evidence to support this theory, media examples and popular culture have accepted for years the idea that the risk of bulimia nervosa is increased by dieting (Stice, Presnell, Groesz, and Shaw, 2005). Stice et al. examined weight maintenance diet effects on bulimic symptoms on 188 adolescent girls that participated in the experiment (2005). Contrary to the dietary restraint theory, Stice and her colleagues found evidence that supported the theory that bulimic symptoms were restricted by dietary restrictions (2005).

The constant search for a stable and reliable food supply is as old as man is himself. Without a constant stream of nutrients human beings ultimately will die. However the recent explosion of obesity rates in all age cohorts suggests that a lack of nutrients is not a concern. As stated earlier, Texas, which is the largest state in the union, reported that 42 percent of fourth graders, 39 percent of eight graders, and 36 percent of eleventh grades within its borders were overweight (Combs, 2007). The future does not look much better for these children because supplemental research has unquestionably revealed that 70% of overweight children will develop into overweight, and in due course, obese adults (2007). Even on a smaller scale, a simple lacking of certain nutrients can cause unwanted imbalances in the human species.

A glaring example was reported after recent study, which concluded that school-aged children are being deprived of critical nutrients, such as calcium, important to normal body functioning (Ballew et al., 2000; Harnack et al., 1999; as reported by Kassem and Lee, 2004). These imbalances in nutritional requirements can cause a host of issues in the young person. Issues ranging from something as common as hunger pangs to even more serious conditions such as mood and behavioral disorders can affect the human condition when vital nutrients are lacking or absent in young persons; the daily functioning and condition of young people, especially, is affected profoundly when access to vital nutrients are unstable and unreliable. Unfortunately, many diagnosis and/or treatment options rarely take the impact that nutrition has on developmental and psychiatric disorders into consideration (Richardson, 2003).

Dietary factors impact three very important areas of a young person's daily life: mood, behavior, and academic performance. Isnard, Michel, Frelut, Vila, Falissard, Naja, Navarro, and Mouren-Simeoni (2003) indicated a link between depression and anxiety and eating disorders. Keel, Klump, Miller, McGue, and Iacono (2005) supported these conclusions with results from their own study which demonstrated a shared transmission between eating disorders and anxiety and depression. Other mood disruptions included bipolar disorders and autism (Richardson, 2003).

With respect to autism and bipolar disorders, Richardson concluded that the lack of certain fatty acids, specifically omega-3 and omega-6, may be a cause in the occurrence of these conditions in young people (2003). A deficiency in these to fatty acids has also been implicated in the development of dyslexia, dyspraxia, schizophrenia, and other cognitive disorders (2003). However, mood is not the only part of the human existence that is affected by dietary consumption. Behavior as well can be altered either positively or negatively by one's diet.

Colleagues and fellow researchers, Slack and Yoo, concluded that family food hardship, which is an unstable or unreliable access to food, was positively linked to external and internal behavioral problems (2005). Earlier researcher Lori Reid (2002) provided positive support for a link between food insufficiency and behavioral problems in children. Another serious behavioral issue that children are afflicted with is Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD.

It is currently estimated that nearly 4.4 million children living in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD (CDC website, 2005). A variety of food sources such as fatty acid deficiencies, additives, food sensitivities and allergies, and refined sugars have all been linked to ADHD (Schnoll, Burshteyn, and Cea-Aravens, 2003). Once again, the essential fatty acids of omega-3 and omega-6 have been under intense investigation for their ability to alleviate the symptoms of ADHD (2003). ADHD does not only affect a child's behavior but affects that child performance in school as well.

A link has been shown between dietary influences on academic performance.

Lopz-Sobaler, Ortega, Quintas, Navia, and Requejo found evidence that put forward that breakfast did in fact boost school performance in certain areas as tested by the SAT-1 (2003). With a more specific based research study along this same line, David Benton and Samantha Nabb (2003) noted that there was a growing body of research evidence that provided support that both mood and memory were affected by the molecule glucose. Another key mineral to body functioning, iron, has been investigated as well. It was deduced that a deficiency in iron cause children to experience difficulties in academic performance (Taras, 2005). Taras also reported that food insufficiencies were also linked to learning difficulties (2005).

In conclusion many factors contribute to the daily function of young people. Diet and dietary choices provide the foundation for all body functioning. Clearly the types of nutrients that one puts into their body have a profound effect on moods, behaviors, and even academic performance. A well balanced healthy diet will go a long way to improving body functioning on both the physiological and psychological front. Young people not only need to have healthy dietary options provided to them but the information and education on how to make healthy choices as well. Providing this information and education is key to turning around the alarming obesity trend facing young people today.

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By C.E. Brassel - I have a Master's and Bachelor's in psychology. I also have been a tennis instructor for 20 years. In addition, I currently hold a life and health insurance license. I enjoy reading, writing, and spending...  





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