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‘Food desert’ linked to early signs of childhood mental illness

South L.A. among nation’s oldest

Merdies Hayes | 5/28/2015, midnight
The notorious “food desert” has been part of the American vernacular for about a decade. But only now have sociologists, ...
Cover Design by Andrew Nunez

The notorious “food desert” has been part of the American vernacular for about a decade. But only now have sociologists, pediatricians, nutritionists and mental health experts come to a general agreement that the lack of proper nutrition at an early age has a verifiable effect on mental health and stability during the important growth period extending from the toddler years through adolescence.

Food deserts are described by public health officials as geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options—particularly fresh fruit and vegetables—is at a minimum or non-existent because of the absence of grocery stores within a convenient traveling distance. The most defining characteristic of a food desert is socio-economic: these areas are most commonly found in communities of color and low-income areas. Because economic forces have driven many grocery store chains away from the inner city, residents must rely on small “mom-and-pop” bodegas or visit the near-by fast food restaurant for discounted junk food that does not supply an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals so important to growing brains. Like most societal options for poor people, the inner city offers few choices for families, and when it comes to good nutrition there is often little choice but to forgo fresh produce and opt for what the pocket book can afford.

Importance of healthy prenatal nutrition

Data collected during the past five years by the Institute of Medicine indicated that neighborhoods within the common food desert frequently have high rates of diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes. As well, a 2011 study conducted by researchers at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, revealed that children who are given a regular diet of junk food before birth and during early childhood are at a significantly increased risk for developing mental health problems—including anxiety and depression. Researchers found that the greater consumption of unhealthy food during pregnancy, as well as a lack of healthy food options for children during the first five years of life, was tied to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems once these children reach the latter years of grade school on through high school and young adulthood.

“This study comes from the largest cohort study in the world and is the first to suggest that poor diet in both pregnant women and their children is a risk factor for children’s mental health problems,” said Felice Jacka, Ph.D., and lead investigator in the study. Jacka and her team demonstrated a strong link between mood and food. A previous study conducted by her team found that a regular intake of nutritious food early in a child’s life may play a role in the prevention and treatment of common mental disorders such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in very young children, and depression and anxiety as they reach the teen years. Apparently, pregnant moms with a regular diet of junk and/or fast food were also significantly more likely to give birth to children who will develop behavioral problems such as tantrums, aggression and defiance.

Poor early diet and mental illness