By Stephanie Northen
You are what you eat, according to an Oxford University scientist who is spreading the message that diet is the key to behaviour, mood and learning.
Monty Python had a phrase for it: "And now for something completely different." "That's what it's like for me addressing an education conference," says Alex Richardson. The Oxford University scientist gets plenty of practice at public speaking. Recently she has given the keynote speech at the York festival of food and drink, talked about fish at London's Royal Institution, and briefed Scottish MPs on autism.
And what is she telling them? That what you eat affects how you learn, how you feel and how you behave. For Dr Richardson, who has spent the past decade studying the issue, the links between a healthy diet and a healthy brain are obvious. Yet many people still need persuading. "People ignore the brain," she says. "But isn't it obvious that, without the right nutrients, your brain, as well as your body, is not going to function properly?"
Initially concentrating on the role of fish oils in treating dyslexia (see below), her work has broadened to cover the influence of diet on learning, mood and behaviour. In 2003, she co-founded the Food and Behaviour Research Group to spread the word and share the work. Over those years she has learned to control a deep-seated impatience with the kind of muddled thinking that once assured her dyslexia didn't exist.
Judging by her list of speaking engagements, she is winning the argument.
It has not been easy. Money is often in short supply, as is open-mindedness. "My work bridges health and education and has huge implications for both. But when it comes to education, many people feel threatened by anything biological. They try to dismiss it as irrelevant."
Dr Richardson, the daughter of two teachers, is familiar with the workings of the education world. As a student, she reached what many would consider the top of the pile, graduating in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. Yet her success unsettled her. "I found it easy to play the exam game, yet I never got any satisfaction from it because I wasn't engaged with the subjects."
She remembers an end-of-year exam. "It was on French political history. I had done nothing, but a kind soul brought me his essays at 9am, for the exam starting at 9.30am. I read, read, read and absorbed, went into the exam, let it all out, and I did fine. But it was so unsatisfying, and so unfair."
This sense of unfairness has been a powerful influence on Dr Richardson, now a senior research fellow at Mansfield college. It affected her career choice, or lack of one. "I graduated during the first Thatcher government, the time of yuppies and everyone for themselves. Most people who did PPE at Oxford disappeared to the City to make lots of money. Their golden hellos made me think, 'Goodness! A salary like that for someone I've seen in the pub for the past three years'. Is that really the value society puts on first-class degrees? But I could never see myself in that kind of environment."
Instead, she slipped into the kind of teaching work that abounds in Oxford. She got a job at a tutorial college, otherwise known as a crammer. "If both your parents are teachers, the one thing you decide you are not going to be is a teacher. It was ironic that I found myself drifting that way, but I thoroughly enjoyed it."
Soon she added a PGCE to her degree, eventually ending up at a tutorial college in Stoke-on-Trent. There she met Michael. The boy was clearly affected by dyslexia, but Dr Richardson had been told by her teacher trainers that such conditions did not exist; they were merely middle-class excuses for failure. Dr Richardson taught Michael A-level economics, and one day asked him to come up with a plan for an essay on international trade, a kind of mind map showing how the issues related. The result, she says, was breathtaking. "If a finals student at Oxford had produced this it would have been impressive. Everything was there and how it related to everything else. It was stunning; he'd covered his entire sheet of A4. I was awestruck."
Michael got a D, while another student with little understanding of economics, but a talent for words, was awarded an A. "I thought this was outrageous; in terms of understanding, reasoning and ability to grapple with issues, the result should have been the other way round."
For Dr Richardson, the dyslexic boy's struggles exemplified what was wrong with the education system. "I've always been rewarded for being able to play the exam game and here I was coming across people who made me feel humble. They'd been dismissed as lazy, careless and stupid. But they were battling, trying to find some way to show their ability to get a passport to anything other than the lowest grade of job or future.
"This motivated me to do what I would never have thought possible, to go back to college and do a PhD. I recognised that anyone who understood dyslexia would understand the whole of the human mind and brain. It isn't just to do with reading and spelling, it permeates the whole of somebody's thinking and perceiving and learning style."
In 1987, she got a job in the dyslexia research clinic at Oxford's physiology laboratory. Her work focused on the links between physiology and psychology, studying the biological underpinnings of personality traits.
Then in 1995 she read a research paper in a medical magazine. A few dyslexic adults, treated with essential fatty acids found in fish oils, had been cured of their night blindness. It was a turning point.
While acknowledging the many factors that influence a child's development, she says it is just daft to deny the role of nutrition. She points out that huge numbers of youngsters have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. "ADHD is seen as a biochemical imbalance requiring a pharmaceutical approach, so the answer is to treat it with drugs. Yet dyslexia is regarded as an educational problem to do with reading and spelling, and nothing to do with the brain."
Her exasperation is palpable. She feels as strongly about junk food, the "nutritional nightmares", being peddled to children. "Headteachers say they would like to get rid of the vending machine, but the children know they can forget breakfast and buy a fizzy drink and a chocolate bar at school.
Teachers know how this can affect behaviour."
Dr Richardson is aware that vending machines pay teachers' salaries. "But if diet plays the role it appears to in shaping behaviour, learning and mood, it is a false economy. You can't let them eat junk and expect it not to backfire and cause more expense."
She is a forceful campaigner, driven by a sense of how unfair life can be.
A better diet seems little to ask for children, especially those with special needs. "There is nothing to compare with realising, from the moment you arrive at school, that you struggle with things other children find easy. How are you going to preserve your self esteem? What are you going to do to try to cope with this frank injustice?"
Dr Richardson is working hard to help. She says it's payback time for the ease with which she sailed through the education system.
[Food and Behaviour Research: www.fabresearch.org]
A fat lot of good for young brains
Those old grey cells are actually about two-thirds fat. And they need fat to ensure they develop properly and function effectively. But the brain is fussy. It is particularly partial to a polyunsaturate that comes mainly from oily fish. Unfortunately, this essential fatty acid, omega 3, is lacking in most modern diets, says Dr Richardson, who is currently studying the effects of fish-oil supplements on dyspraxic primary children in Durham.
Omega 3 can also be displaced from the brain by man-made "trans-fatty acids", by-products of the hydrogenation process that allows the food industry to use cheap, solidified vegetable oils instead of expensive animal or dairy fats. Animal studies reveal that trans-fats can become incorporated into the brain's structure and alter the profile of its neurotransmitters, its signalling system.
Youngsters are free to wander into any corner shop and buy snacks containing oils that have never been tested for their effects on the brain.
"Every time children eat crisps, biscuits or cakes they are filling themselves with what are, essentially, toxic fats," says Dr Richardson.
"This has been admitted by the United States Food and Drug Administration and the UK's Food Standards Agency. Both warn about it, but they are not shouting loudly.
"There are no health benefits and many health costs to these hydrogenated fats. Yet they are all the fats some children and adults are eating. They are replacing the essential fats that would make their brains and bodies work properly with ones that are clogging up the machinery."
There is another problem. The brain is suffering not only from junk fats, but from an excess of another essential fatty acid called omega 6, found in vegetable oils, meat and dairy products. "A burger and milkshake will give you plenty of omega 6," says Dr Richardson.
In hunter-gatherer times the ratio of omega 3 to 6 in the brain is believed to have been one to one. In the past 50 years or so the ratio has become one to 15 or 20 in favour of omega 6. This upsets the immune system. "That imbalance is going to tip everyone into this pro-inflammatory state most of the western world is walking around in. We are talking about problems of the immune system, which shapes the developing brain."