• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 19th August, 2010

Prisoners put diet and mental health in the balance

Nobody doubts the value of a balanced diet in the proper quantities, but when it comes to the need to show a relationship between nutrition and particular aspects of children’s mental health, there is a marked lack of compelling evidence.So, a good diet may be said to consist of a combination of starchy carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables, and protein rich foods such as meats, pulses and dairy products, and researchers are also agreed that whole, unprocessed ingredients are likely to be better for mental health than processed ones. But there the consensus ends. Numerous studies indicate the damaging effect a mother’s impoverished diet during pregnancy can have on her child’s cognitive abilities, but there is little to demonstrate the consistency of such a link during a child’s journey into adulthood. Data assembled by a multidisciplinary group based at Cambridge University and elsewhere in East Anglia, UK, suggest that long-term malnutrition and short-term lack of food can make children tired and sap concentration. Making sure that children get timely food has been one solution, witness the introduction of school breakfast clubs in deprived areas and widespread improvements in school meal provision (See: Getting the facts straight about free lunch).Behavior problems are also a big issue in school but here the data is even less clear cut. Arguments about the possible effect of food additives on hyperactivity are well documented; current studies show an association with hyperactivity and bad behavior but the evidence is far from definitive. Flimsier still is the evidence on Omega 3 compounds. They are touted as improving behavior and alleviating depression but the claims are so far completely untested with children. In the search for a more convincing analysis of cause and effect, an Oxford University team led by nutritionist and criminologist Bernard Gesch has been investigating how the diet of young men in prison affects their propensity to violence. Funded to the tune of $2.3 million by the Wellcome Trust, the ambitious three-year research study is tracing the effect that nutritional supplements have on levels of violence for over 1,000 inmates, between the ages of 16-21 held at Polmont, Scotland, and two other British prisons. Gesch’s is the first large scale research project to attempt to unpick this relationship using experimental methods. It will also be a “double-blind” trial, meaning that neither the participating prisoners nor the prison staff will know if they are handling nutritional supplements or a harmless placebo. The team is picking up the thread of a smaller experiment in Aylesbury, England, the results of which were published in the British Medical Journal in 2002. It found that prisoners given nutritional supplements were involved in 35% fewer violent incidents. The new study goes further, using regular blood sampling to assess physiological processes that occur because of nutritional deficiency. The idea of a link between diet and anti-social behavior is not a new one, says Gesch. Back in the 19th century Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso reported that many bomb-wielding “anarchists” suffered from Pellagra – a condition linked to deficiency in vitamin B3.Gesch’s study is designed to settle the question of whether there is a link between poor diet and violence, at least among prison populations. The policy implications, though far reaching, would be fairly straightforward: feed prisoners a balanced diet, low in sugar and processed foods, with nutritional supplements. But why stop at prisoners? Whilst the setting - where what inmates eat is tightly controlled and where participants are more likely to demonstrate obviously violent behavior - provides fertile ground for an experimental study, the results may hold water beyond the prison walls. Other studies have shown that food can be a welcome addition to more traditional prevention programs (See: There is such a thing as a free lunch – incredible!). With proof to back up its contribution to mental health, boosting nutrition could become a core component. See: Tomlinson D, Wilkinson H and Wilkinson P (2009), “Diet and Mental Health in Children,” Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 14, 3, pp.148-155Bohannon J (2009), “The Theory? Diet Causes Violence. The Lab? Prison.” Science, 325, pp.1614-1616

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