One of the most important questions in the field of criminal justice is ‘what are the causes of crime?’ Many theories have been tossed around such as psychological and environmental factors, but one that has been given little consideration is diet. Although little conclusive research has been done (especially in the U.S.), some studies have shown that there may in fact be some correlation between food and criminal behavior. It is possible that diet (the intake or lack of certain nutrients) can make an individual already inclined to engage in criminal activity more likely to do so. If this is true, knowing this would have a major impact on the criminal justice system and society as a whole.
One of the most cited studies on the topic of food and criminal behavior was done by Bernard Gesch along with a few others. The study was a double-blind, placebo trial in a prison. 231 inmates were used, 116 were given nutrient supplements and 115 were given a placebo. The results were significant. Among those who were given nutrient supplements, offenses decreased 26.3% in comparison to the control group who showed relatively no change. In prisoners who took the supplements for 2 or more weeks, offenses decreased 35.1%. Gesch concluded that “Antisocial behaviour in prisons, including violence, are reduced by vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids with similar implications for those eating poor diets in the community.” (Gesch). He has conducted several studies of a similar nature since.
A common belief regarding diet and behavior is that sugar has a negative effect. One observational study was done with children, some of who had ADHD and some who did not. The children were given sugar and then observed playing; the observers (who did not know the purpose of the study) then rated the children on destructive-aggressive actions, restlessness, and movement overall. It was found that the children with ADHD showed an increase in destructive-aggressive actions, while the children without ADHD showed no difference (Kanarek). There are a couple problems with this study. First, having ADHD in no way makes someone a criminal. Secondly, the findings in this study have not been able to be reproduced. In fact, another study seems to show the opposite. In this study, participants were given either a sugary drink or a non-sugary drink and then played a game which measured levels of aggression. The participants who were given the sugary drink displayed lower levels of agression. This seemed to show that sugar was not the problem, but rather blood-sugar levels (Kanarek).
Omega-3, a fatty acid mostly found in fish oils, may also have an effect on a person’s likelihood to engage in criminal behavior. It is suspected to be very important to brain function, specifically in nerve endings which send messages to the brain. A lack of Omega-3 may prevent the brain from functioning properly (Lawrence).
In conclusion, there has been no definitive proof that diet has a direct and significant effect on criminal behavior. There is, however, enough evidence to warrant further investigation particularly in the U.S. Diet does not directly cause criminal behavior. There does seem to be, however, evidence to support that specific types of food or the lack of certain nutrients can increase the likelihood of someone to engage in criminal behavior who was predisposed, especially someone who tends to demonstrate aggressive behavior. In other words, those who exhibit anti-social tendencies are most likely to be effected by diet. Any effect, even a small one, that food has on behavior would have a huge impact on the criminal justice system. Correctional systems would have to implement new policies on what prisoners were being fed and the knowledge of what foods or nutrients (or lack thereof) promote antisocial or aggressive behavior could cut down on recidivism or even help prevent crime to begin with.
Gesch, C. Bernard, et al. “Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners. Randomised, placebo-controlled trial.” The British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 181, no. 1, July 2002, http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/181/1/22.
Kanarek, Robin. “Nutrition and Violent Behavior.” Understanding and Preventing Violence, Volume 2: Biobehavioral Influences, edited by Albert Reiss, Klaus Miczek, and Jeffrey Roth, National Academy Press, 1994. nap.edu, 2016, http://www.nap.edu/read/4420/chapter/7.
Lawrence, Felicity. “Omega-3, junk food and the link between violence and what we eat”. The Guardian. 17 Oct. 2006, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2006/oct/17/prisonsandprobation.ukcrime.