Food, Mood and the Cognitive Process

Unhealthy eating patterns are very common in Africa, despite the abundance of nutritious grains, tubers, fruits and vegetables. Illiteracy, coupled with poverty, makes many people on the continent to consume all sorts of unwholesome concoctions in the name of foods and soups, not minding the neurobiological and psychological implications of their actions.

Important food nutrients have been proven to affect brain chemistry, by impacting mood, memory and cognitive functions. Blood sugar fluctuations and nutritional imbalances also result from eating indiscretions.

In Nigeria, for instance, the term “swallow” refers to meals that are made from ground grains and eaten with assorted soup. The heaviness of this type of meal has an almost immediate effect on both the metabolic and cognitive processes, as more metabolic activities are directed to the stomach region, causing the cognitive process to slow down.
This explains why people sleep or feel drowsy after heavy meals like eba and egusi or fufu and vegetable. It is therefore a very fundamental rule to observe the culture of having light meals in the morning, especially for office people and students who deploy most of this time to highly intellectual activities during the productive hours of the day.

Having heavy meals in the morning can hamper concentration, thereby triggering confusion and a distorted cognition. Though scientists and medical researchers are not unanimous in accepting the link between food, mood and their impact on cognition, doctors and nutritionists seem to agree that there is indeed a significant link between them. The term postprandial stupor or somnolence best captures the scenario.

Distorted cognition, caused by heavy eating, may lead to life-threatening situations. One can hypothetically put forward the argument that people, like teachers who require a lot of brain work, cannot afford to eat anyhow, lest they suffer spontaneous mood swings that could result in total breakdown of pedagogical communication between them and their students. The same is applicable to students sitting for exams. Eating heavy is the worst thing that can happen to them. Any food that impairs their concentration or that induces the feeling of drowsiness is not ideal for them. There are generous experiential exemplifications of this reality from one’s association with school children.

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I have also had reasons to suspect that some of the accidents that happen along our expressways are caused by the habit of heavy eating amongst drivers, especially those driving trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles. I recently raised very serious concerns during the course of a journey I had undertaken from Lagos to Benin. As soon as we arrived in Ore, where drivers usually make a stopover for refreshment and refuelling, I was shocked by the volume of food on the table of our driver, who was obviously battling obesity. He had almost eight wraps of fufu right in front of him as he heaped them each upon the other to form a mountain. In a matter of minutes, that mountain was demolished in a stream of ogbono soup.

As a passenger, I was disturbed because I knew the remaining part of that journey would be a horror. Though we managed to get to Benin, our driver was slower and drove at an almost snail-paced speed, much to the consternation of the passengers. Our vigilance throughout this second half of the journey kept him going, although there were moments when he almost dozed off.

Unsurprisingly, even the driver’s words were fewer within this second part of the journey. For a man who, earlier in the journey, had been throwing verbal jibes at anyone who dared to criticise his driving, to suddenly simmer down, we knew that something had tampered with the flow of blood to his brain. The digestive process had taken a toll on him and like a python, which had swallowed a cow, he needed some metabolic reprieve to be able to gather himself together.

Wikipedia aptly provides a physiological explanation for our driver’s condition: “In response to the arrival of food in the stomach and small intestine, the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system increases and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system decreases. This shift in the balance of autonomic tone towards the parasympathetic system results in a subjective state of low energy and a desire to be at rest, the opposite of the fight-or-flight state induced by high sympathetic tone. The larger the meal, the greater the shift in autonomic tone towards the parasympathetic system, regardless of the composition of the meal.”
As controversial as this topic may be – even amongst scientists themselves – the intention is to show that there are still a few more things the Federal Road Safety Corps can do, through public enlightenment (in collaboration with other relevant agencies), to safeguard the lives of Nigerians who eat in motion.

 

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