NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 25, 2006

Most prisons are notorious for the quality of their cuisine (pretty poor) and the behavior of their residents (pretty violent). They are therefore ideal locations to test a novel hypothesis: that violent aggression is largely a product of poor nutrition. Toward that end, researchers are studying whether inmates become less violent when put on a diet rich in vitamins and in the fatty acids found in seafood.

Could a salmon steak and a side of spinach really help curb violence, not just in prison but everywhere? Researchers find a correlation between a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids and decreased violence, says Stephen Mihm of the University of Georgia:

  • Higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids lead to lower murder rates.
  • Antisocial behavior of prison inmates dropped by more than third for those prisoners who ate fatty acids and other supplements.
  • Prisoners convicted of violent crimes found that they had lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids than ordinary.
  • In a double-blind trial, when omega-3 fatty acids were given to people with a history of substance abuse, the symptoms of "anger" fell by 50 percent.

Omega-3 fatty acids foster the growth of neurons in the brain's frontal cortex, the bit of gray matter that controls impulsive behavior. Having enough of these fatty acids may keep violent impulses in check. However, says Mihm and others, simply throwing fish and vegetables at violent criminals is unlikely to have a lasting effect on its own.

The state of evidence doesn't pinpoint which dietary fat is responsible for changes in behavior, warms scientist, Bernard Gesch. Furthermore, the brain needs nourishment in another important way: education.

Source: Stephen Mihm, "Does Eating Salmon Lower the Murder Rate?" New York Times, April 16, 2006.

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