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Fighting the fizz

A school which banned cola and crisps reports better behaviour and exam results. So why do tuck shops and canteens still dish out junk food? Jerome Burne says it's a scandal

Guardian Tuesday June 8, 1999

The Wolsey junior school in New Addington, south London, has been transformed since the staff banned fizzy drinks and crisps from the tuck shop and brought in crates of fruit instead. Two years on, according to their head teacher, the children are able to concentrate much better, their behaviour has improved and they achieved three times the pass rate in the English exam. The turnaround hit the headlines last month, but what this admirable initiative highlights is a national scandal.

Why on earth are school tuck shops all over the country selling crisps and sweets and fizzy drinks in the first place? The fact that a school is regarded as unusual by encouraging healthy eating and seeing positive results in the pupils' work and general behaviour is appalling. The food we eat has a direct affect on health and behaviour, whatever our age.

Any parent knows that if you give small children a real junk-food meal, say crisps, fizzy drinks, sweets, pizza and chips, you'll get first a great increase in noise and excitement, followed by tears and tantrums.

The reasons for this are no mystery and not in dispute. "Eating lots of foods full of refined sugar and flour is going to make it harder for kids to function effectively in class to start with," says Dr Adam Carey of the Centre for Nutritional Medicine in Harley Street. "At first they get an immediate rush as the glucose level in the blood goes up, then they begin to feel drowsy as it begins falling. That's disruptive enough, but finally to stop it falling too far, the body starts producing adrenaline, which makes them edgy and irritable."

Fizzy drinks are full of sugar so they contribute to this emotional see-saw, but they also do something that affects the brain more directly. They also contain phosphorus, which reduces the amount of calcium that you can absorb from your diet. That in turn can upset the balance of calcium in the brain -- essential for nerve cells to communicate with one another.

This has been known for years. The teachers at Wolsey are simply following in the pioneering footsteps of Professor Stephen Schoenthaler, now at California State University, who nearly 20 years ago conducted large-scale trials involving children and diet in New York. Between 1980 and 1983, 803 low-achieving schools in the city simply reduced the amount of sugars, fats and additives in the children's meals. The exam pass rate overall rose from 11% below the national average to 5% above it.

In another study involving more than 8,000 delinquent youngsters in remand homes, Schoenthaler made similar changes in diet; that resulted in an astounding 47% drop in anti-social behaviour.

Since then other researchers have looked at the effect of boosting vitamins and minerals in the diet. Increasing the amount of the essential fatty acid omega 3--found in linseed oil and fatty fish-- reduces the amount of hyperactive behavior.Zinc, plentiful in whole-grain cereals and soybeans, reduces aggression as does iron and magnesium.

Two years ago, in the Journal of Paediatric Child Health, a review by Australian researchers of academic studies on the links between diet and behaviour concluded: "There is a clear relationship between the way children eat and how they act. Almost all studies have found a statistically significant change in behaviour with dietary intervention."

So has all this research been seized on by education and other authorities as a cost-effective way to reduce delinquency and improve school results? Absolutely not. It has either been ignored or side-tracked into a sterile debate about the value of taking food supplements. Schoenthaler and others, such as Dr David Benton of Swansea University, have run trials which, they claim, show that giving vitamin and mineral supplements to children can boost their IQ by several points.

But even those like Schoenthaler who advocate supplements, say that the first step in improving children's performance and behaviour is to ensure that children reduce junk food intake as much as possible; and to ensure they are getting "nutritionally optimum" meals. "A vitamin supplement is just an insurance policy that can make up for poor eating," he says.

What's more, many people working with children are concerned about diets that often seem inadequate. Certainly Eileen Ewin, the teacher who initiated the ban at Wolsey Juniors', was sufficiently worried to act. "We've got 40% of the pupils on free meals and I know they eat a lot of beefburgers, chips, crisps and sweets at home."


Lauren Ayers

James Curiel, PhD
Professor, Sociology

Don Glines
Educational Futures

Hasan Hanks

Jeanie Keltner, PhD
Editor, Because People Matter

Michael J. Kwiker, D.O.

William Mora, M.D.
Health Associates Medical Group

Susan Montoya

Cynthia Mulcaire

Carlina Nowrocki

Robert O’Brien, MA

Suiying Saechao
Member LEAF at Hiram Johnson HS

Charity Smith
President Youth Congress at Sac High