Should prison inmates be taking nutritional supplements?

It was announced this week that a study is about to get underway in which some UK prison inmates are to be given nutritional supplements to see what effect this has on mood and behaviour. This research has been masterminded by Professor John Stein of Oxford University, and comes on the back of a smaller study in 2002 in which nutritional supplementation in young offenders was found to reduce 37% fewer serious offences involving violence, and 26% fewer offences overall. So impressive and relevant were these results, I thought, that they sparked me into writing a about them along with other nutritional approaches to mood and behaviour disorders (the piece is reproduced below).

If nutritional supplementation is found to help improve mood and behaviour in inmates then that may not only make life easier for the prison services, but also the prisoners themselves of course. Heck, it might even help some to get out of a criminal mentality and perhaps reduce re-offending rates too. Personally, I am delighted that nutritional supplementation is to be trialled in the prison population.

However, not everyone is enthusiastic about this plan. For instance, I read this morning that Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform described this move as counter-productive, demeaning and dangerous. Ms Crook’s point appears to be that if prisoners were fed properly they would not need supplements.

I agree with this, but I also think that we need to be pragmatic and realistic. The British Government seems to be reluctant to devote appropriate funds for meals served to school children and hospital patients, what is the chance that it will dig deeper for convicted criminals? And even if better food were to be dished up, there’s no guarantee that it would be eaten with gusto.

Nutritional supplementation may turn out to be a relatively cheap way to make a real difference to the lives of the individuals who take them. As I’ve said, it may even help reduce whatever tendency there may be to break the law and end up back in prison. In the light of this, I’m not sure quite what it is about this practice that is ‘counter-productive, demeaning and dangerous’.

I am quite often asked where I stand on nutritional supplementation generally. I tell them that, broadly speaking, I am pro-supplements. My rationale is based to a degree on some science (only this week a study came to light which showed that folic acid supplementation was found to reduce the symptoms of dementia), and the fact that the nutrient content of our diet is in genuine decline. While I believe in doing what we can with regard to eating a healthy diet, I do see taking supplements as a reasonable adjunct and insurance policy.

However, not all nutritional supplements are created equal. Just today I read a report which highlighted the poor quality of some products in this area. This review, published by the subscription site found problems with more than half of multivitamin and mineral preparations that were tested. One product was adulterated with lead, while others contained significantly more of less of declared nutrients.

Now, remember, I am a fan of supplements generally. But I also think that it’s simply not good enough for supplements manufacturers to produce substandard products. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but taking such products may have important consequences for health. It seems that some manufacturers need to get their houses (well, factories, actually) in order.

If you are a supplement taker, or perhaps contemplating starting, then perhaps you might be keen to get some guidance on the best brands. One way to get to know who you can trust in this area is to subscribe to a site like and read their product reports. Unfortunately, the site concentrates on products found on the American market, and is therefore of more limited benefit for those living elsewhere.

One piece of broad advice I have about supplement buying is this: you get what you pay for. While there are exceptions to this maxim in the area of nutritional supplementation, I have found over the years that more expensive supplements are usually that way for a reason. Compared to ‘bargain basement’ varieties, top-end supplements usually contain more useful levels and forms of nutrients, and are less likely to contain substances it’s probably better not to ingest. I’m crossing my fingers that Professor Stein and his team are planning to source some of the better supplements money can buy.

Observer Column – 14th July 2002

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.

4 Responses to Should prison inmates be taking nutritional supplements?

  1. Neil 24 January 2007 at 7:50 pm #

    I’d also like to see many of the elderly using a good multivitamin and multimineral (minus iron unless anaemic).Ostensibly no reason for this to be on FP10, (personal responsibility etc) but the potential for cost savings in avoiding poor health is worth taking into the equation.

    A diet of Rich Tea and tea may be a bit of an urban myth, but as a District nurse I do see people whose diets have no chance of supplying what the body needs

  2. Dr John Briffa 25 January 2007 at 11:50 am #

    Thank you Neil for reminding me that this section of the population is all too often forgotten when it comes to health and nutrition. By the way, have you ever thought about developing your work in a dietary direction? I get the sense you’ve got a real feel for it. Just a thought.

  3. Neil 26 January 2007 at 12:07 am #

    Thank you for your comment John, were I starting my working life again, nutrition would be something I’d consider. But at the age of 50, with 29 years in the NHS, I’m looking to maintain my sanity and the means to support my kids (bottomless pit) and pay the mortgage.
    I do let my views be known at work, but nobody seems particularly interested even if the appear to agree with me.

    I can’t claim any ideas of my own, apart from blogs such as yours, sites such as and I have read and enjoyed books by Drs Uffe Ravnskov, Malcolm Kendrick and James Le Fanu, and Barry Groves and Anthony Colpo. Plus articles by Gary Taubes. There’s lots more, but these above are my main ‘sources’.

    A you say about prisons, feeding prisoners properly would potentially save far more in terms of less anti social behaviour and crime than the cost of food. But that would contradict mainstream dietary advice and ruin many reputations!

  4. Dr. Bob Simpson 26 January 2007 at 3:10 pm #

    Interesting concept…using nutrition to change moods and behavior. Back a few years ago a study in US in Appleton WI proved this theory to be true and accurate. Study was done at a high school for “behavorially challenged kids….bad kids to some”. The school cafeteria dietary regiment was completely changed from “junk food” to “whole food” and the kids responded not only with much better behavior and grades… but actually liked their new found whole food concept.

    As far as supplementation…most studies are in same vein as your statin drug comments. The body can use the nutrients from food…which work in very small amounts synergistically to provide the cellular nutrition needed. Indeed if we eat a “whole food diet” of fresh, raw fruitsl, veges, and legumes…we achieve this desired status. However the products put into the majority of the PPL’s (pills, potions and lotions) are no more than man-made fillers and other concoctions that have never been tested in human based studies. Yes…we need vitamins and minerals…nutrients as found in nature…but until the companies producing these supplements submit them for actual live human studies…they are nothing more than hyped sterotypical commercialism..

    There are a few products on the market, produced both in the US and EU that are plant based..whole food nutrition..with published, peer reviewed (Gold standard) research accompanying..some even done in UK..but like the pharma industry…the medical community is not quite sure what to do or say..because there is now documented proof/results about “whole food supplementation”… not a substitute for eating right..but as you stated ” a reasonable adjunct and an insurance policy”…

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