At the dinner table, your mother has probably told you to eat your fish to become smarter or to finish your spinach so that you, like Popeye, can defend yourself against those bullies who keep shoving you in lockers at school. In fact, maybe she still controls your diet and has told you to lay off the carbs with the hope that you'll finally move out of the house and get married. Regardless, the belief that diet or dieting can control and modify such behaviors as criminality, alcoholism, and performance in school, or can even enhance one's chances at marriage, has become part of the mantra of professional nutritionists. The use of dieting as a "correction tool" draws on scientific evidence, but within the scientific community, there are still serious doubts as to its effectiveness, with some dismissing it as "food faddism."
Some researchers believe that poor diet, or, more specifically, food allergies, malnutrition, and hypoglycemia, can provoke criminal behaviors. Food allergies and malnutrition in particular have been linked to mental imbalances, such as abnormal serotonin activity, which have been linked to violent behavior. Examples of this include a twelve-year-old who, after eating a banana, tried to hit another patient with a stick and a fifty-two-year-old woman who, after having wheat, said she wanted to punch someone (Schellhardt 1977: 1). Hypoglycemia, or having low blood sugar, has also been linked to irrational behavior that is controllable through diet.
The penal system has been one area of focus of such dietary interventions. In the i970s, new procedures were implemented in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, based on the link between hypoglycemia and criminal behavior. Probation Officer Barbara Reed tested the blood-sugar level of all criminals, and if the level was too low, lawbreakers were required to change to a more nutritious diet at the risk of losing probation. The link between diet and criminal behavior was supported by a study that provided vitamin supplements to half of a group of prisoners and gave a placebo to the other half. It was found that prisoners who took the vitamins reduced their "antisocial behavior," which included violence and rule-breaking (Gesch et al. 2002: 24). Commenting on his findings, Gesch says, "What would have happened to these young men had they been properly nourished all their lives? Would they have been in prison? We don't know but I think it's about time we started looking into it" (quoted in Anon. "Crime Diet").
Modification of young people's behavior has also been a subject of particular interest. Findings have suggested that binge-drinking, poor academic performance, and disobedience can be cured through an improved diet, but such claims are generally not the basis of today's school cafeteria reforms.
One study found that rats that were on a typical nutrient-deficient "teenage diet" of pastries, hot dogs, carbonated beverages, spaghetti, salad, and candy drank more 20-proof alcohol (as opposed to water) when compared with rats that ate fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole-wheat flour, and whole-milk powder. Switching to the healthier diet or taking vitamin supplements reduced alcohol intake while the addition of coffee or caffeine increased it. This suggests that the nutrient content of one's diet affects "the 'biological thirst' of animals to drink alcohol" (Register et al. 1972: 162).
Another study found that children who were put on an enrichment program for nutrition, education, and physical exercise had fewer cases of schizotypal personality and antisocial and criminal behavior than control subjects (Raine et al. 2003). Although the most dramatic change in behavior was found among children who were initially malnourished, Raine believes that the fatty acid supplements were responsible for this difference (Arehart-Treichel 2003: 43). However, another study reinforces the possibility that malnourishment versus proper nourishment is the key difference in behavior modification, suggesting that vitamin-mineral supplementation only increases the nonverbal intelligence of Western schoolchildren if they were inadequately nourished (Schoenthaler et al. 2000).
In 1998, Appleton Central Alternative High School of Wisconsin began a new food program based on this belief. The high school collaborated with Natural Ovens Bakery in an attempt to redress their students' antisocial and violent behaviors. The program replaced the junk food available at the school with healthier alternatives, like fruits, vegetables, and low-fat/low-salt/low-sugar foods without additives. In the period following this change, grades improved while incidences of misconduct, vandalism, and littering decreased. The idea for the program began with cofounder Barbara Stitt's experiences as a probation officer.
After this program was featured in Super Size Me and
24 benedict, francis gano on Good Morning America, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Natural Ovens Bakery, Inc. The company was charged with mislabeling ingredients and making misleading health claims without the approval of the Federal Drug Administration. The National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF) also believes that there is not enough evidence to support the link between improper diet and criminal behavior.
While ongoing research continues to suggest that diet can control behavior, many in the Government and scientific community are still skeptical of the validity of such claims. On the other hand, if these claims are true, then it looks like the solution to improving humanity is not found in rehab but in the kitchen.
See also Children; Spurlock
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