Are criminals ‘bad’ or just malnourished?

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Just like overweight individuals are often seen as greedy or lazy (that’s not a view I hold myself, I should add), prison inmates and young delinquents are generally seen as ‘bad’. But are they? Could, for instance, their errant behaviour and criminal ways be related to something more physiological than social or psychological? Say if someone were to be given an hallucinogenic drug and became, as a result, paranoid and aggressive, maybe even violent. Does that make them a ‘bad’ person? Well, most people don’t spend their lives under the influence of psychoactive drugs. But many of us might be influenced by more subtle imbalances than can cause brain function to go awry.

Quite of lot of people may find their mood changes when blood sugar levels (and therefore brain sugar levels) take a dive. Some people will experience this at the end of the afternoon and find it induces a kind of apathy and listlessness that can really quash any zest for life. On the other hand, others find that if they don’t maintain fueling of the body through regular eating, they can find themselves feeling increasingly anxious, irritated and even ‘shaky’ as a result. Some find that if they don’t eat more or less ‘on time’, they can be prone to spectacular outbursts. Are these people ‘bad’ too? And what about women suffering from the anger and violence that can come with PMS? Or children who climb the walls after ingesting certain food additives?

I use these examples to demonstrate that behaviour is subject to a number of potential influences, some of which may be social and psychological, but some of which are most definitely physical in nature.

So, I was very pleased to read yesterday that a study is finally getting underway here in the UK which seeks to determine whether young offenders might be helped by improving their nutritional status. The trial, which will involve about 1000 young men aged 16-21 will run over three years, during which time the participants will be treated with either multivitamins and minerals along with some added omega-3 fats or placebo.

The idea that such a simple intervention may reduce criminal tendencies and help in the rehabilitation of young offenders may seem far-fetched, but the concept is supported in the form of a study published in 2002 [1]. In this research, nutritional supplementation in young offenders was found to reduce 37% fewer serious offenses involving violence, and 26% fewer offences overall. This news study will extend the scope of this research in terms of numbers and time.

The last time I wrote about this topic I made the point that some might view this sort of nutritional intervention as inappropriate: why not just feed offenders decent food? There is certainly merit in this position for me, but even if such food was made available to individuals, there is no assurance that they’ll eat it. So, while I don’t believe nutritional supplements are a replacement for a healthy diet, I do believe at the same time there’s an argument for taking a pragmatic approach. And one thing that’s worth bearing in mind here is that the therapy being tried here is likely to be, if nothing else, safe and non-toxic.

Bearing in mind the initial positive research and low risk of this intervention, not to mention the huge personal and social benefits it may bring, I reckon not undertaking further research into this area would be, well, criminal.


1. Gesch CB, et al. Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners. British Journal of Psychiatry 2002;181:22-28

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