There is a small but impressive body of evidence about the impact of nutrition on violence. It started with some simple observations concerning nutrient content and behavior in animals. In 1942 the wartime British government was persuaded to supplement the diet of all children with cod-liver oil and orange juice. It was speculated that among other ills, poor diets could lead to antisocial behavior. You humble reporter was still required to take this foul-tasting concoction when he was a child in England very many years after the War.
Over the years evidence has grown to support this link between nutrition and antisocial behavior and a longstanding debate developed about the possible role of nutrition and food additives on the ever-increasing rates of violence in society as a whole. Regular readers may remember the publication several months ago of a report entitled Feeding Minds that implicated nutritional changes in the burgeoning rates of mental illness in the United Kingdom.
Part of the problem with much of the work on nutrition and violence has been that there were vested interested involved. Some people have been trying to prove that all the world’s ills are the result of food additives and others have been trying just as hard to prove that their products are safe. The other problem has been the simplistic notion that it is possible to reduce human behavior to a single nutrient.
Humans are complex creatures. Coffee may make you irritable. If you happen to be a small coffee-drinking furry rodent, you may not be you may not have much choice in the matter. But one of the points about developing frontal lobes is that you should have the ability to override the coffee: you can choose whether or not you want to be irritable. A teenager may not be able to do that: he or she does not yet have fully formed frontal lobes. Alcohol can be such a big problem because not only does the alcohol stimulate some of the emotional regions of the brain but it also suppresses the frontal lobes. Whatever you may have done while under the influence probably seemed like a really good idea at the time!
There have now been a couple of very interesting studies that do suggest that nutritional supplementation may have a significant impact on violent behavior in prisoners.
The first modern experiment was reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2002. 231 young adult prisoners were enrolled in a double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial of nutritional supplements comparing disciplinary offences before and during supplementation. The prisoners were given a capsule of “Forceval” as well as a combination of essential fatty acids (A daily dosage of four capsules providing 1260 mg linoleic acid, 160 mg gamma linolenic acid, 80 mg eicosapentaenoic acid and 44 mg docosahexaenoic acid). Those receiving the supplements committed an average of 26.3% fewer offences, which improved yet further with longer supplementation. The conclusion of the study was that, “Antisocial behavior in prisons, including violence, are reduced by vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids with similar implications for those eating poor diets in the community.”
The British Guardian newspaper recently ran a well-balanced article about some of these research initiatives.
This research is being replicated at various sites because if it is true it has enormous implications for personal well-being and for the whole concept of legal responsibility.
Could it be that some of society’s ills are the result of a failed uncontrolled experiment in force-feeding the population?