Food and Behaviour Research

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Crime and Nourishment: Cause for a re-think?

Date: 2010

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Lord David Ramsbotham, GCB CBE, was formerly Adjutant-General and HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. He was awarded a life peerage in 2005 and now sits on the cross benches of the House of Lords. He is the Vice-Chairman of the charity Natural Justice. Bernard Gesch FRSA, is a senior research scientist in the Department of Physiology, University of Oxford. He is also the director of the charity, Natural Justice, which has pioneered research into diet and antisocial behaviour for 20 years.

Are we missing something?

The classic criminal justice model assumes that behaviour is entirely a matter of free will. This assists the often difficult task of sentencing, but what is less clear is how one can exercise that free will without involving the brain. And since the brain is a physical organ, how can the brain function properly without an adequate nutrient supply? Straightforwardly, it can’t. Crime may often be described as brainless but we should not take that literally.

The authors argue that we need to bring the brain into criminal justice thinking and in doing so address the paucity of evidence that underpins assumption about what ‘causes’ people to offend. A stratum of evidence about the causes of crime or antisocial behaviour needs to be in place before we can talk about ‘prevention’ or ‘risk factors’ in any meaningful sense. Also, we are not acting on findings from studies designed to examine possible causal factors in antisocial behaviour, which give good reasons to question assumptions about culpability. These studies highlight factors such as poor diet that affect behaviour seemingly without our knowledge.

Brain and behaviour

If it is true that we are what we eat then what are we turning ourselves into? No one would argue that our diet is unconnected with the increase in obesity but what we eat can not only be deposited as body fat but also contributes to the composition of our brain. Food supplies the energy for our brain to function, the raw materials for the neurotransmitters that influence communications in the brain and largely determines the operating environment for the brain. It is only 2 per cent of body mass and consumes about 20 per cent of available energy. And yet we seem to have made major changes to modern diets in a relatively short space of time with little or no systematic examination of potential impacts on brain function or behaviour.What is not widely appreciated is that our standards of dietary adequacy were not developed with brain function or behavioural outcomes in mind. Given this, we may have seriously underestimated the potency of these physiological influences, and we ignore them at our peril.