Nutrition and crime? Sounds way too good to be true

Csaba Toth, a blog reader from Hungary, sent me the link to an article that claims that fresh fruits, whole-grain bread, and a salad bar are the real way to fight crime.

The most compelling part of the article reads as follows:

Bernard Gesch, physiologist at the University of Oxford, decided to test the anecdotal clues in the most thorough study so far in this field. In a prison for men between the ages of 18 and 21 in England’s Buckinghamshire, 231 volunteers were divided into two groups: One was given nutrition supplements along with their meals that contained our approximate daily needs for vitamins, minerals and fatty acids; the other group got placebos. Neither the prisoners, nor the guards, nor the researchers at the prison knew who took fake supplements and who got the real thing.

The researchers then tallied the number of times the participants violated prison rules, and compared it to the same data that had been collected in the months leading up to the nutrition study. The prisoners given supplements for four consecutive months committed an average of 26 percent fewer violations compared to the preceding period. Those given placebos showed no marked change in behaviour. For serious breaches of conduct, particularly the use of violence, the number of violations decreased 37 percent for the men given nutrition supplements, while the placebo group showed no change.

Far be it from me to dismiss out of hand subtle factors that have unexpected consequences on crime. Still, the link between vitamin pills and crime just doesn’t make much sense to me unless one has a reasonable theory about what it is in the supplements that could make a difference.

The article also makes references to how the rise of fast food and convenience food parallel the rise in crime, trying to link this controlled study back to broader social changes. I have two problems with that argument. First, it does not appear that people are more inherently criminal today than 40 years ago when fast food was rare. Second, I highly doubt if you look at the evidence that people today are getting less vitamins and minerals than in the past. They may be eating more fat and more calories (although the latter is a contentious issue among nutrition researchers), but that has nothing to do with the controlled study above.

I am skeptical of the whole thing. Still, if small changes in nutrition radically affect criminal behavior, it certainly would be a better solution than the ones we have, like incarcerating 2 million Americans. So perhaps it is worth further investigation.


michelle

This may be contraversial but after two quarters of radical food experimention. I.E. proto-vegan with almost every supplement under the sun, I'd almost agree.

Avoiding all the sugary stuff makes you calm and you're very stable. Using it makes you all jittery and sometimes very irritable. When a body has received all the nutrients it needs the message is "REST."

However, sometimes being jittery is a good thing, I find that I'm most creative when I eat a lot of junk food. I survived the summer on stuff like snickers bars and that allowed me to produce creative stuff.
So in short, it allowed me to advance as the person I am.

For criminals, if you accept that they're inveterate criminals, i.e. forever battling against the boundaries created by society, then they become better at that too. All of the crappy food really does allow you to kind of find your element. Whether or not that be explosive it often signals a release of some sort. Of something pent up inside that struggles to get out.

Schizophrenia sitings skyrocketed when sugar consumption in Britain skyrocketed. Consumed in the right qualities its probably like a lighter version of LSD. You see and hear, you're more aware.

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Derek Scruggs

Maybe it has something to do with so many people in prison having drug problems? Addicts are notoriously bad at taking care of themselves, so maybe even a little extra nutritional support is enough to make a difference?

Anna

That does not sound off the wall to me at all. A book I was reading last night made mention of the link between crime and triglyceride levels.

"A string of other evidence incriminates triglycerides in brain disturbances and behavior. British researchers found that men with abnormally high triglycerides tend to have denigratory attitudes toward women, are more apt to commit hostile acts and have a 'domineering' attitude. Brandeis University pshycholgists have linked high triglycerides to 'cognitive impairment'. including depression and memory problems among some diabetics. As triglycerides rose over a five-year period, so did hostility in a group of young men ages twenty-three to thirty-five, reported University of Alabama investigators in 1997." (quoted from "Your Miracle Brain" by Jean Carper)

Since reading that I've been wondering if crime rates could be affected by improving nutrition in schools with a high number of at risk youths, or by providing nutrition services through community centers based in high crime areas. Could investing more money into the nutrition of children pay off in lower jail populations?

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rini

There is no good data on this. My bet is that you would have to follow people for years in order to truly see the effect of a high calorie western diet. How would you get a control group to cooperate for years? Would it be ethical to mess with people's diets over a lifetime?

I do think that circumstantial evidence...(ok my gut feeling) is that we are eating more calories. Even people of normal weight probably get more calories that they did thirty years ago. It is known that there are many people who respond with metabolic and energy changes to a slightly higher calorie diet for years before they actually gain weight. I mentioned this before, but the incidence of women with increased androgens (ie testosterone and its analogues) has increased. My instinct tells me that this is probably related to diet and total calories (women with this condition do have insulin resistance... a marker of pre-diabetes that is associated with obesity.) While most men and women are not affected to this level, I am speculating that more subtle increases in androgens may be prevalent and not easily detected on lab tests with a wide range of normal values determined by testing a group of "normal" volunteers. Of course, increased androgens would be expected to affect behavior...ie violence, aggression etc.. You do the math..

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De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

Pode comer o hamburger que nada de mal vai acontecer

Quem come mais McDonald's comete mais crime? Não. Claudio...

e li

I would guess that prison food may be of poor nutritional value. This would then make the effect of the nutritional supplements to be more pronounced, and it would mean that we were looking at more than just a "small change in nutrition." I don't really see why a link between diet and behaviour would be controversial in any way. Though, I do believe that the bulk of the article is just journalistic fluff fortified with a dash of Google research... e.g. "Oh, we're all getting fatter.. we'll be fat criminals! We should eat better. Look! I googled a few anecdotes and studies."

Nutrition and Crime

[...] Is there a link between nutrition and violent behavior? Makes sense to me that eating healthy has an impact on behavior, but I’m irked when I read that this quack is 100% convinced that [...]

Nutrition and Crime

[...] Is there a link between nutrition and violent behavior? Makes sense to me that eating healthy has an impact on behavior, but I’m irked when I read that this quack is 100% convinced that supplements are the cure-all for society’s ills. Leave a Reply [...]

pasinpsycho

A couple of things:
First, this reminds me of an apropos observation in one of Scott Adams' plentiful Dilbert books: he noticed that sometimes when he feels tired, if he eats something, he's not tired anymore. It's definitely been my experience that the things that affect mood and temperment can be extremely nonobvious.
Second, it wouldn't surprise me at all to find that diet has all sorts of effects that we can measure if we're clever enough to figure out the experiments needed. Look at the many and varied vitamin-deficiency diseases, rickets, scurvy, etc. Is it so outrageous to think that the absence of or presence of certain substances might have a great effect on people's mental health--especially the phisiological side, something science is learning tons about currently.
Third, while I don't think good nutrition will cure all that ails us, personally or as a society, it should be something that we all take seriously and we should encourage investigation into the effects food and drink--which are, after all, the first mood-altering substances people are exposed to--have on people.
Finally, I hope its true, because it would gladden me to have been right in an argument I had with a Sheriff in Arkansas about how his feeding his prisoners bologna sandwiches probably increased recividism. I know I would be looking for a decent meal after any time in his pokey (no, I was never incarcerated there), and god help anyone who got in the way of that mission. ("You'll never take me alive, copper! There's only so much O-S-C-A-R M-E-Y-E-R a man can stand!" Sound of gunfire, fade out.)

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econopete

I think this discussion has been overcomplicated. Consider; medications for depression, schizophenia and ADD can have great effects on the mind and the way it behaves. Also, exercise has been shown to increase the number of endorphins. Why, then, would it be such a far fetch to believe that good nutrition would have an impact on the way criminals behave?

This is not to imply that this case alone is enough to support that hypothesis.

smili

The May 2005 issue of Discover has an article discussing vitamins and impacts mental illness. Gesch's study of inmates is mentioned, along with studies on bipolars and efforts to get funding for broader studies.

mike529

Perhaps this is a random sample. Also they took volunteers. This means you're taking the best behaved prisoners allowing for large variance with less real change.

slothman

You might find David Horrobin's The Madness of Adam and Eve: How Schizophrenia Shaped Humanity an interesting read, if you want to follow up on this. He examines the evolutionary biology of schizophrenia and notes some similar results involving omega-3 fatty acids (commonly found in fish).

wkwillis

When they started Alcatraz for the most difficult prisoners in California, the warden put a bigger chunk of the budget than usual into good food for the inmates, according to the guide there. The guide thought that was one reason that conditions on "The Rock" were usually pretty quiet.

Norman S

Here's a guess as to the link between vitamin pills and crime. Poor quality food signals low social status in the evolutionary ancestral environment. It is rational for men with low social status to be risk preferring to increase mating success. Prediction: the effect should be weaker in the female prison population, as reproductive success is not strongly correlated with social status for women. This guess explains why vitamins rather than caloric intake affects crime; low caloric intake indicates absolute poverty, which might be correlated with risk aversion (at least above starvation range). But I'm not sure that it's true that poor food quality signals low social status in the evolutionary past; I think it's probably true in traditional agricultural societies, but not in hunter-gatherer societies, and I'm not sure whether risk preferences could have evolved in the agricultural period.

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Gringo_Nordestino

I think it would be interesting if you could see what the inmates diets were BEFORE they were incarcerated. How accurate the data would be is anyones guess.

StCheryl

Anyone with small children knows about the relationship between nonnutritious food and antisocial behavior.

Dan White's lawyer tried to make this connection in using the Twinkie Defense in the murders of George Moscone, Harvey Milk (and others?) in San Francisco City Hall in 1978. It may have been specious in that case (it failed) but the basic argument has some merit.

www.acsh.org

November 21, 2005

Economics Could Reduce Criminally Irresponsible Nutrition Stories

By Jeff Stier, Esq.

The American Council on Science and Health's (www.acsh.org) board of scientific advisors contains experts in a broad range of disciplines. But we have only a few economists.

Yet if we were looking for an economist to add to our board, we'd certainly have to consider Steven D. Levitt, author of Freakonomics. You could even call Levitt the Dr. Whelan of economics, or perhaps statistics, as he attempts to separate out myth from reality in an entertaining yet fact-based manner.

And while we don't share his enthusiasm for the Shangri-La Diet, we did enjoy the critique on his blog over the weekend about the findings of a study that promotes the notion that good nutrition could reduce crime.

As Dr. Whelan said in a December 23, 1997 letter to the Wall Street Journal, "we need fewer toxicologists and more psychiatrists," as we try to replace fear with facts. Perhaps another economist or two wouldn't hurt either.

Jeff Stier, Esq., is an associate director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).

This information was found online at:
http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.662/news_detail.asp

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smili

One hypothesis is differing genetics may cause significantly different metabolic requirements in certain people for certain vitamins/minerals. This may explain why some benefits are seen only after large vitamin doses in some people, while others never experience problems due to getting everything they need out of normal diet.

username

I put "diet and crime" into Google and I got 2720 citations. With "crime and diet" I got 1200 citations.Maybe someone would want to review the literature and inform us.