In a cutting edge experiment, researchers in the Netherlands are preparing to start a major study in which prisoners with anger management problems will be given food supplements to determine whether improving nutritional status can reduce aggressive and antisocial behaviour. Building on previous work done in this area, inmates in five Dutch jails and two youth detention centres will be given vitamins, minerals and fish oil from early next year. If the approach proves successful, the country’s justice ministry plans to expand the program and offer the supplements to further prisoners with violent tendencies.
In recent years, research conducted independently in several countries has produced convincing evidence that a poor diet containing a low intake of micronutrients may be a causal factor in antisocial behaviour. Opening up the possibility of a fundamentally new approach to reducing violent and aggressive behaviour in our societies, it suggests that by correcting micronutrient deficiencies such conduct can be improved.
A UK study published in 2002 is one of the landmark pieces of research in this area, finding clear evidence of a link between dietary intake and violent behaviour in a well-designed trial that gave nutritional supplements to prisoners. During the study the subjects who received the micronutrients committed 37% fewer violent offences and 26% fewer offences overall, whereas the rates of disciplinary incidents remained substantially unchanged for those receiving placebos. A double blind, placebo-controlled, randomised trial, the research attracted an extremely favourable response from the academic community for the high standard of its methodology. As a result of this and subsequent work, the role food supplements can potentially play in shaping social behaviour – both in prisons and in the wider community – is becoming increasingly apparent.
The underlying idea behind this area of research is essentially a simple one; namely that the brain needs to be nourished, just like all other organs of the body, and that it is therefore vital to consider the brain’s nutritional needs as a key factor in governing behaviour. Interestingly, it is not even as if this hypothesis is a new one. When Archibald Sinclair, as Secretary of State for Air, persuaded the wartime British government in 1942 to supplement the diet of the country’s children with cod-liver oil and orange juice, he had speculated that, among other ills, poor diets could lead to antisocial behaviour.
Further support for this theory comes from work conducted in the United States, which has shown that school children given a daily supplement containing a mere 50 per cent of the RDA for a period of 4 months had lower rates of threats and fighting, vandalism, being disrespectful, disorderly conduct, defiance, obscenities, refusal to work or serve, endangering others, and other offences.
With aggression being a common feature of prison life in many countries, and the links between diet, nutrition and behaviour becoming increasingly understood, it may turn out that better nourishment – as opposed to simply harder punishment – can make a significant contribution towards creating a more peaceful and harmonious world.