Adolescence is often associated with exploring boundaries, rapid growth, hormones and pimples. A stable feature of this turbulent age is that these young people are highly over-represented in the criminal justice system.
Adolescents account for disproportionate proportion of police-recorded crimes, and this seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon. Furthermore, disaffected young people often have limited routine access to healthy foods and make poor food choices. These people form a large proportion of the prison population and there are concerns that insufficient attention is paid to their health. Hence their diet tends to be poor compared with international standards of dietary adequacy, which typically are set to protect the heart but not for optimal brain function. Thus, it has been posited that a poor diet may be a modifiable causal factor in antisocial behaviours.
We tested what happened to the behaviour of violent young adult prisoners (18-21years) when nutrients missing from their diets were reinstated. We used food supplements as an analogue of a better diet because it provided the possibility of a placebo control. On a random basis, where neither the volunteers, prison staff nor researchers in the prison knew who was getting which type, 231 volunteers were given either placebo or real capsules containing broadly the daily requirements of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. The number of proven offences committed by each prisoner was monitored before and while taking supplements.
The result was that those who received the extra nutrients committed significantly (26.3%) fewer offences compared with placebos. Those consuming real supplements for at least 2 weeks committed 37% fewer (highly statistically significant) of the most serious offences, such as violence.
These findings have been replicated by the Dutch Ministry of Justice; their double-blind study reported a 48% difference between groups. If these studies are widely replicated - and they need to be - we may have a simple and humane means to help reduce and prevent a significant proportion of violence and antisocialbehaviour.
This should also work in the community, because it is not about where you eat but what you eat. Indeed, criminal justice systems are often over-represented with ethnic minorities, but providing a more nutritious diet is never going to be discriminatory to these young people. The only risk is better health.
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