junk food

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Your Brain On Junk Food: ‘Making Us Crazy’ — But Might Fish Help?

By Suzanne E. Jacobs
CommonHealth intern

An urban planner and a biochemist walk into a seafood restaurant.

Okay, that joke’s going nowhere, but last week an urban planner and a biochemist did walk into a classroom at MIT. In a talk titled “Junk Food and the Modern Mind,” the unusual duo explained to a room full of people how seafood’s effects on the human brain could bridge their seemingly disparate fields.

The urban planner was Lynn Todman, a visiting scholar at MIT. Todman has spent the past nine years working to improve mental health and reduce violence among residents of some of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods.

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Last year, Todman held a focus group with adult men in Chicago. At one point, she recalled, one of the men said, “This food is making us crazy,” referring to the unhealthy options common in urban food deserts. Having read up on studies linking nutrition and aggression, Todman took what he said seriously.

“Now, I’ve been doing community based work for a long time, and I know that residents often understand social realities long before we do in the academy, and even though their understanding might be shaped by a series of anecdotes strung together to suggest a trend or pattern, I attribute very real meaning to what residents say about their communities and the observations about the world that they live in,” she said.

Enter Capt. Joe Hibbeln, the biochemist.

Hibbeln, who is also a psychiatrist, works at the National Institutes of Health as a nutritional neuroscientist and is one of the world’s leading experts on the role of fats in brain development.

His claim: a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and low in omega-6 fatty acids can make people happier and less aggressive. Continue reading

Dorchester Students Lead Prize-Winning War On Junk Food

Tayon Smith, a 9th-grader at the Codman Academy in Dochester, has just taken the pledge.

The junk-food-free pledge, that is. That means that at least through June, he’ll give up the candy that had sweetened his mornings. He’ll avoid soda and pass up chips and decline cookies. Why?

“I wanted to try something new; go for a better, healthier lifestyle,” he says.

Tayon’s healthy decision makes him part of a swelling trend — at least, here at Codman Academy Charter Public School, the only school in the country that is actually inside a health center, the renowned Codman Square Health Center in a gritty section of Dorchester.

The rising national chorus of concern about youth nutrition and epidemic obesity comes mainly from adults. But at Codman Academy, the kids are in the vanguard of the fight against junk food. And they’ve racked up enough victories that the school’s student-run “Nutrition Action Club” is about to receive a “gold-level” award for outstanding school wellness work from state health and education authorities. Club members are also scheduled to present their Junk Food Free Campaign to the Boston Public Health Commission tomorrow.

Not that the adults are out of the picture. Improving health is a natural priority for the academy, said its director, Meg Campbell. “The biggest public health issues we face in our community — AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, hypertension, family and community violence – there’s not a pill for any of those,” she said. About half of the school’s students are overweight or obese, which is typical for their socioeconomic status.

So the academy aims to help change the culture that contributes to those issues in a variety of ways, from counseling to diabetes screening to extensive sports programs. And when it comes to healthy eating, it has enlisted its students to lead the charge.

The Nutrition Action Club began its campaign against junk food last spring, asking students to take the pledge for April. Nearly everyone did. This year, the pledging begins in March and runs through June, and more than half the school’s 140 students have pledged so far, Meg said. The goal is full participation by next year.

The academy already serves no junk food in its breakfasts and lunches, and aims to persuade students not to bring it in either. It just fended off the latest offer from a vending machine company. Just as pharmacies eventually accepted that they should not be selling cigarettes, Meg said, schools are not the place for junk food.

What’s junk food? Here’s the school’s flyer:

But it’s not enough just to recognize junk food when you see it. You also need to know the alternatives. That explains why, this Monday afternoon, nearly a dozen 9th-grade Codman Academy boys were hard at work chopping and spreading and assembling in a classroom gloriously redolent of garlic. Their creations — bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and mozzarella — would be offered to their schoolmates at 4:30 snack-time. And maybe that would keep some of them from crossing the street to McDonald’s. Continue reading