Are We Feeding Anger?

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Anger, hostility and violence have become a daily item on the news. This new reality is devastating to those immediately affected, is influencing all our lives, and implies a new order that is terrifying. While there are numerous factors contributing to this epidemic, including the media fueling the fire, what if there is a dietary component?

There is a wealth of research showing that diet affects mood, mind, and memory. Excess body fat is associated with an increased risk for mood disorders, including anxiety and anger. In turn, weight loss is associated with improvements in mood. For example, a study from the University of Adelaide in Australia found that as overweight people lost weight, their moods improved, including reductions in depression, fatigue, tension and anxiety, and anger and hostility. (Journal of Internal Medicine 2016; March 23rd). There also is research suggesting that certain fats fuel hostility, while others improve mood. For example, a study from the University of Vermont found that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats reduced anger in young adults. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2013;97:689-697) A wealth of research shows that the omega-3s in fatty fish (i.e., DHA and EPA) improve brain function, significantly improve mood, and could play a role in lowering hostility and violent behaviors, as well as having beneficial effects in substance abuse and alcoholism. (Molecular Neurobiology 2011;44:203-215)

What are we feeding our children, and is it building brains that are susceptible to anger and hostility? Unhealthy junk food commercials account for 80% of all televised food ads in the United States and Canada. Children see an average of five food ads an hour. All of those ads market food-like products high in refined grains, sugar, salt, and/or additives. They come with catchy tunes, star celebrities such as Justin Timberlake and Carrie Underwood (see last month’s article, “Shame on them!”), are brightly colored, and use funny voices. The food labels have super heros and cute logos.

Those ads work. Children describe junk food advertising as “tempting” and “addictive.” They even say they could “lick the screen,” according to a study from the Cancer Research UK. They whine, beg, and plead their parents to buy that junk. And, the parents typically give in. It’s no surprise, coupled with less time spent outdoors in vigorous activity and more time spent in sedentary and solitary activities in front of TV screens, computer monitors, and smart phones, that children today are the fattest they have ever been, with more becoming overweight every year and those already fat getting fatter.

It goes beyond the childhood obesity trend. Food companies allowed to market that junk are like drug dealers. Refined grains and sugar alter brain chemistry, down-regulating dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine is the “I liked that, let’s have more” neurotransmitter. The “high” a child gets initially from eating junk eventually dulls that “high” and it takes more and more junk to get the same good feeling. Now, the child needs the food not to feel good, but to avoid feeling bad. (See this month’s article, “The Yale Food Addiction Scale”). It is called food addiction. An addiction that alters brain chemistry and increases the risk for hostility. Why are we allowing this? It is time to demand that highly processed foods be banned from any form of promotion and advertising. Not only for the health of our children, but possibly to curb the violence.

Elizabeth Somer, M.A.,R.D.

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