Can food affect behaviour?

I’m a big believer in the idea that relatively small changes in our nutritional status and bring big benefits in the long term. So, I was very interested to read the recent British research showing that giving basic nutrients to young offenders significantly reduced their criminal tendencies. The idea that the answer to the youth crime epidemic in the UK may be found on the shelves of our local health food store might seem a little far-fetched, but there is good reason to believe there is indeed some truth in this. It is a plain and simple fact that our mood and behaviour are, to a degree, dependent on the nutrients the brain gets from the diet. No wonder then that more and more research is stacking up to suggest that tweaking this organ’s fuel supply has the power to take the edge off a tendency for delinquency and misdemeanour.

For more than 20 years scientists have exploring the idea that what we put in our mouths can have a profound influence on how we think and behave. Early research discovered that individuals eating an unhealthy diet were more likely to commit serious offences compared to those consuming relatively healthy fare. More than this, there is evidence that sprucing up the diet can help to quell a violent or aggressive streak. In one study, adding more fruit and veg to the diet of inmates at a juvenile detention centre, whilst at the same time cutting back on their intake of sugar and soft drinks, led to halving in the number of disciplinary incidents.

While healthy eating appears to offer significant benefits in terms of mood and behaviour control, this can be easier said than done. Getting a delinquent adolescent (or fully-grown adult for that matter) to eschew Mars bars and Coca Cola in preference for fresh fruit, crisp green salads and camomile tea is no mean feat. However, as the recent British research has shown, simply dosing up individuals with a handful of nutrients can bring considerable benefits.

The precise role of specific nutrients in brain function is not well understood, so though it makes sense to cover as many bases as possible. A decent multivitamin and mineral is a good start. In addition, 1 – 2 g of a fish oil supplement each day (the omega-3 fats present in oily fish seem are renowned for their brain regulating effects) is worth bunging into the mix. Just these two supplements taken in combination may do wonders to tame a child or adolescent who tends to be a bit on the wild side.

One other factor that seems to be critical to the brain’s normal functioning is that it gets an adequate supply of its most basic fuel – sugar. Several studies show that individuals who tend not to keep levels of sugar up in the bloodstream are more likely to be violent and aggressive. There is no doubt that if the brain does not get enough sugar, it can misfire spectacularly. I will always remember the day I witnessed a middle-aged lady knocking lumps out of a male doctor colleague of mine as a result of precipitously low blood sugar level. In practice, I have seen countless individuals whose problems with mood swings turn out to be related to episodes of low blood sugar. For many, just eating regular meals perhaps with healthy snacks such as fruit or nuts in between is often very effective in keeping needlessly aggressive and intolerant tendencies at bay.

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