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Fighting Crime with Nutrition

Is a poor diet to blame for crime? Research shows it could
be.

Does a poor diet lead to crime? Some British researchers think
so.

They studied the behavior of 231 inmates at a maximum-security
prison in the U.K. Half of the group received daily capsules containing
vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, while the other half took
dummy pills. Antisocial behavior among inmates was recorded before and
during the trial.

The supplement group broke prison rules 25 percent less than those
on the placebo. The greatest reduction was for serious
offenses—instances of fighting, assaulting guards or taking hostages
dropped 37 percent. There was, however, no significant change in the
control group.

Lead scientist Bernard Gesch, a physiology researcher at Oxford
University, wasn't surprised by the findings, published in the British
Journal of Psychiatry
. A former probation officer, Gesch once gave
supplements to young delinquents under his watch and noticed an
improvement in their behavior. That experience helped shape his later
research.

"Nutrition as a causal factor in antisocial behavior is so simple
it's been overlooked," he says. "We think of behavior completely as a
matter of free will."

The researchers don't know how the British prison diet is deficient
or which aspects of the supplements were beneficial. Essential fatty
acids seem to be good candidates. Previous studies have linked low levels
of omega-3 fatty acids, found mainly in fish, to higher rates of
depression, bipolar disorder and suicide. Essential fatty acids are vital
for building and maintaining brain cells. Other nutrients such as B
vitamins and magnesium are crucial to the chemical processes that produce
the neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which affect
mood.

Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., a psychiatrist at the National Institutes of
Health, who studies diet and behavior, says the study could have large
public health implications, because it may identify nontoxic, low-cost
ways to prevent violence.

Gesch and his colleagues already have two studies in the works to
look at behavior outside prison walls. One will examine the relationship
between high crime in London and diet; the other will investigate a link
between behavior and nutrition in schoolchildren.

Meanwhile, Gesch and the research charity he heads, Natural
Justice, are urging British government officials to consider supplements
as a crime-fighting tool in prisons. "If it works, it will work
irrespective of social, legislative or racial boundaries," he says.
"Because human metabolism is common to all of us."