Book review – Unprocessed: how the food we eat is fuelling our mental health crisis
Author: Kimberley Wilson
I rather like food, as I imagine many of you do too. As a result, the bold title of Kimberley Wilson’s book, ‘Unprocessed: How the food we eat is fuelling our mental health crisis’ caught my attention. Kimberley Wilson is a British psychologist (and Great British Bake Off contestant) with an expertise in nutrition who has written a fascinating book about the influence of food on our mental and physical health. However, Wilson doesn’t limit herself to the issue of health. The pursuit of social justice is also a significant motivation as the relationship between diet and socio-economic disadvantage frequently feature within her book. Wilson is unafraid to display her political views, with damning polemics accompanying her well researched and constructed arguments.
Appetiser: What should we be eating?
Wilson begins by exploring our nutritional needs. Her evidence-based arguments indicate that many of us in the UK are unwittingly inflicting a nutritional deficit upon ourselves. Two specific nutritional needs are considered at length: Omega-3 and choline. Wilson explores the importance of omega-3 and choline on our neurological and psychological health and reveals that due to the lack of foods such as oily fish in a regular diet, many of us are deficient in these key nutrients. She contends that such dietary deficiencies come at a cost for our mental and physical health.
Starter: We are what we eat.
One of the more challenging yet important aspects of Wilson’s book is her long-term perspective around health. This is challenging due to our tendency to default to short-term perspectives around behaviours that can affect our health (such as “go on, then, just one more…” when offered another biscuit) which can distract us from and obscure the long-term implications of such behaviours. She speculates that this short-term approach is particularly relevant to diet since food is so ordinary and every day for many of us.
One way that she deconstructs this behavioural tension between short and long term decisions is by adopting a lifespan perspective. This perspective extends from the prenatal phase of life by exploring the need for (and the barriers to achieving) good pre-natal nutrition to old age, where she considers the relationship between diet and the increasing prevalence of dementia.
Wilson’s message is simple at its core: improve short-term dietary behaviours and change (read “improve”) our long-term future health and well-being. However, for all the simplicity of this message, Wilson recognises that there are a range of systemic barriers which interfere with the ability of many people to make more positive healthy nutritional choices.
Main course: What’s that in my food?!
There are two organisational groups targeted for special criticism in ‘Unprocessed’. The first group are large food manufacturers who have prioritised their commercial interests over the production of healthy food. This prioritisation of profit has occurred despite of the growing body of evidence about the harmful effects on health of ultra-processed foods that are promoted and sold in large quantities to the public, a topic that has recently featured in national news outlets (see The Guardian, 27th August 2023, for example).
The second villain is the UK government, who Wilson excoriates for failing to regulate the content of produced food and thereby protect public health. Wilson has very clear and critical opinions regarding the legacy of the austerity policy initiated in 2011 and the conduct of the government throughout the Covid-19 crisis. Although this political polemicising may not be to everyone’s taste, readers are left in no doubt to Wilson’s views about potential shortcomings of government over the last decade.
However, Wilson avoids the critic’s mistake of only highlighting the problem, and she offers some solutions in the form of steps she believes present and future governments should take to promote healthier eating and protect public health and well-being. Even if readers disagree with Wilson’s views, it’s hard not to be moved.
Dessert: Diet meets educational psychology.
The chapter exploring the influence of alcohol caught my attention. Apart from making me reconsider my weekend bottle of wine, the focus of this chapter was around Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Wilson walks a difficult line between outlining healthy alcohol consumption choices for women whilst not shaming them for decisions that may unwittingly have implications for the future health of their child.
These health implications include neurological development and cognitive difficulties, highlighting FAS as an area of interest for educational psychologists. Unfortunately, it is a condition that is poorly defined (as illustrated by the use of similar terms such as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders – FASD), poorly understood and is likely under identified by clinicians (see Burleigh et al., 2023, for example). Wilson’s inclusion of this sensitive topic flags and directs educational psychologists to find out more about FAS since it is likely that they will encounter it in their work.
Elsewhere, Wilson considers whether there is a relationship between poor nutrition and school exclusion and then lays out the evidence for this hypothesis. The topic of behaviour in schools has featured quite prominently in both the news and social media of late. Regrettably, the topic has become polarised within the latter online environment. However, Wilson’s arguments around the correlation between diet and behaviour are compelling and present a challenge to those with ‘behaviourist’ views of discipline to consider a more complex and nuanced perspective of behaviour in schools.
Coffee: Take action.
In conclusion, ‘Unprocessed’ is a thought provoking book with both personal and professional implications. I’ve certainly found myself thinking more about what I eat as a result of reading it, and it has helped expand the horizons of my psychology practice too.
For readers who may be more politically engaged, ‘Unprocessed’ also throws down a challenge to hold those in power accountable for their role in safeguarding public health in an area of life that is frequently overlooked. Wilson clearly wants her readers to take action in response to her arguments. The question is: will you?
6am Book Club discussion questions:
- What part of the book challenged you the most?
- Were there any parts that you disagreed with? Why?
- What role do educational psychologists play in supporting children, young people and their families around the issue of diet? Should this be within our remit?
- What changes (if any) will you make either personally or professionally as a result of reading ‘Unprocessed’? How will you maintain these?
Burleigh, C. R., Lynn, R., Verity, C., Winstone, A. M., White, S. R., & Johnson, K. (2023). Fetal alcohol syndrom in the UK. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 108(10), 852-856. https://doi.org/10.1136/archdischild-2023-325571
Gregory, A. (2023, 27 August 2023). Ulta-processed food raises risk of heart attack and stroke, two studies show. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2023/aug/27/ultra-processed-food-raises-risk-of-heart-attack-and-stroke-two-studies-show