• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 21st February, 2008

UK nutrition research gets Wellcome break

The neglected possibility that there is a meaningful link between nutrition, mental health and behavior and that adjustments to diet can reduce antisocial behavior is receiving renewed political and scientific scrutiny. First, there is the prospect of a UK House of Lords debate on the subject, following a report from the Associate Parliamentary Food and Health Forum published at the end of January. Probably more important, Oxford University researchers have been awarded a ?1.4 million grant by The Wellcome Trust to replicate a pioneering study undertaken by Bernard Gesch in 2002. Gesch and his team’s results indicated that better nutrition (the intake of adequate levels of micro-nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids) could significantly improve the behavior of maximum-security prisoners. In their study, prisoners were either assigned to an experimental group (who received active supplements) or to a placebo group (who unknowingly received inactive supplements). For the prisoners in the experimental group the number of disciplinary incidents decreased by 35% compared to 7% for the placebo group (before taking the experiment each group had equivalent rates). Similar findings have been reported by other researchers over the past two decades. In 1983, Stephen Schoenthaler, a sociology professor at California State University, replaced snack foods with healthier options for 3,000 imprisoned juveniles and found that over the course of a year antisocial behavior decreased by 21% and assaults by 25%. Schoenthaler reported the same effect in 1997 as a 28% reduction in rule violations among 62 incarcerated juveniles who had been given a nutritional supplement. [See: The effect of vitamin-mineral supplementation on juvenile delinquency among American schoolchildren]The new Oxford study, supported by the UK Ministry of Justice, will be conducted over three years with 1,000 male young offenders in England and Scotland aged between 16 and 21. It will be a replication of the original, with participants being randomly assigned either to an experimental group or a placebo control group. In the original Gesch study, a small, statistically non-significant reduction (but a reduction nevertheless) of disciplinary incidents was reported among members of the placebo control group. If this phenomenon is observed in the new study, there will be mounting evidence to suggest that a psychological process such as social modeling, imitation or self-belief can also account for some changes in behavior. The nutritional value of the supplement may not be the sole mediator of change. There are many other influences on mental health and behavior – media, family life, age, pollutants, for example. Advocates of nutritional interventions argue that if it could be established that at least one factor could be adjusted easily and acutely at the level of the individual, far from leading to a wave of pill-popping, it would enhance the social value of personal choice inside or outside the prison system.

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