At first glance, there seems nothing special about the students at this high school
in Appleton, Wisconsin. They appear calm, interact comfortably with one another,
and are focused on their schoolwork. No apparent problems.
And yet a couple of years ago, there was a police officer patrolling the halls
at this school for developmentally challenged students. Many of the students
were troublemakers, there was a lot of fighting with teachers and some of the
kids carried weapons.
School counsellor Greg Bretthauer remembers when he first came to Appleton
Central Alternative High School back in 1997, for a job interview: "I found
the students to be rude, obnoxious and ill-mannered." He had no desire
to work with them, and turned down the job.
Several years later, Bretthauer took the job after seeing that the atmosphere
at the school had changed profoundly. Today he describes the students as "calm
and well-behaved" in a new video documentary, Impact of Fresh, Healthy
Foods on Learning and Behavior. Fights and offensive behavior are extremely
rare and the police officer is no longer needed. What happened?
A glance through the halls at Appleton Central Alternative provides the answer.
The vending machines have been replaced by water coolers. The lunchroom
took hamburgers and french fries off the menu, making room for fresh vegetables
and fruits, whole-grain bread and a salad bar.
Is that all? Yes, that's all. Principal LuAnn Coenen is still surprised when
she speaks of the "astonishing" changes at the school since
she decided to drastically alter the offering of food and drinks eight years
ago: "I don't have the vandalism. I don't have the litter. I don't have
the need for high security."
The Problems with 'Convenience Foods'
It is tempting to dismiss what happened at Appleton Central Alternative as
the wild fantasies of health-food and vitamin-supplement fanatics. After all,
scientists have never empirically investigated the changes at the school. Healthy
nutrition -- especially the effects of vitamin and mineral supplements -- appears
to divide people into opposing camps of fervent believers, who trust the anecdotes
about diets changing people's lives, and equally fervent skeptics, who dismiss
these stories as hogwash.
And yet it is not such a radical idea that food can affect the way our brains
work -- and thus our behavior. The brain is an active machine: It only accounts
for two percent of our body weight, but uses a whopping 20 percent of our energy.
In order to generate that energy, we need a broad range of nutrients -- vitamins,
minerals and unsaturated fatty acids -- that we get from nutritious meals. The
question is: What are the consequences when we increasingly shovel junk food
into our bodies?
It is irrefutably true that our eating habits have dramatically changed over
the past 30-odd years. "Convenience food" has become a catch-all term
that covers all sorts of frozen, microwaved and out-and-out junk foods. The
ingredients of the average meal have been transported thousands of kilometres
before landing on our plates; it's not hard to believe that some of the vitamins
were lost in the process.
We already know obesity can result if we eat too much junk food, but there
may be greater consequences of unhealthy diets than extra weight around our
middles. Do examples like the high school in Wisconsin point to a direct connection
between nutrition and behavior? Is it simply coincidence that the increase in
aggression, crime and social incivility in Western society has paralleled a
spectacular change in our diet? Could there be a link between the two?
Stephen Schoenthaler, a criminal-justice professor at California State University
in Stanislaus, has been researching the relationship between food and behavior
for more than 20 years.He has proven that reducing the sugar and fat intake
in our daily diets leads to higher IQs and better grades in school.
When Schoenthaler supervised a change in meals served at 803 schools in low-income
neighborhoods in New York City, the number of students passing final exams rose
from 11 percent below the national average to five percent above.
He is best known for his work in youth detention centers. One of his studies
showed that the number of violations of house rules fell by 37 percent when
vending machines were removed and canned food in the cafeteria was replaced
by fresh alternatives. He summarizes his findings this way: "Having a bad
diet right now is a better predictor of future violence than past violent behavior."
But Schoenthaler's work is under fire. A committee from his own university
has recommended suspending him for his allegedly improper research methods:
Schoenthaler didn't always use a placebo as a control measure and his group
of test subjects wasn't always chosen at random. This criticism doesn't refute
Schoenthaler's research that nutrition has an effect on behavior. It means most
of his studies simply lack the scientific soundness needed to earn the respect
of his colleagues.
The Prison Test
Recent research that -- even Schoenthaler's critics admit -- was conducted
flawlessly, showed similar conclusions. Bernard Gesch, physiologist at the University
of Oxford, decided to test the anecdotal clues in the most thorough study so
far in this field. In a prison for men between the ages of 18 and 21 in England's
Buckinghamshire, 231 volunteers were divided into two groups: One was given
nutrition supplements along with their meals that contained our approximate
daily needs for vitamins, minerals and fatty acids; the other group got placebos.
Neither the prisoners, nor the guards, nor the researchers at the prison knew
who took fake supplements and who got the real thing.
The researchers then tallied the number of times the participants violated
prison rules, and compared it to the same data that had been collected in the
months leading up to the nutrition study. The prisoners given supplements for
four consecutive months committed an average of 26 percent fewer violations
compared to the preceding period. Those given placebos showed no marked change
in behaviour. For serious breaches of conduct, particularly the use of violence,
the number of violations decreased 37 percent for the men given nutrition supplements,
while the placebo group showed no change.
The experiment was carefully constructed, ruling out the possibility that ethnic,
social, psychological or other variables could affect the outcome. Prisons are
popular places to conduct studies for good reason: There is a strict routine;
participants sleep and exercise the same number of hours every day and eat the
same things at the same time.
Says John Copas, professor in statistical methodology at the University of
Warwick: "This is the only trial I have ever been involved with from the
social sciences which is designed properly and with a good analysis." As
a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, Gesch emerges with convincing
scientific proof that poor nutrition plays a role in triggering aggressive behavior.
Sugar's Not the Only Problem
Indeed, the study proves what every parent already knows. Serve soda and candy
at a children's birthday party and you'll get loud, hyperactive behavior followed
by tears and tantrums. It works like this: Blood-sugar levels jump suddenly
after you eat sugar, which initially gives you a burst of fresh energy. But
then your blood sugar falls, and you become lethargic and sleepy. In an attempt
to prevent blood-sugar levels from falling too low, your body produces adrenalin,
which makes you irritable and explosive.
But sugar can't be the only problem. After all, high blood-sugar levels mainly
have a short-term effect on behavior, while the research of Schoenthaler and
Gesch indicates changes over a longer period. They suggest it is much more important
that you get the right amount of vitamins, minerals and unsaturated fatty acids
because these substances directly influence the brain, and therefore behavior.
If these findings prove true -- and they do look convincing -- then we should
be sounding an alarm about good nutrition. What are the long-term implications
of the fact that the quality of our farmland has sharply declined in recent
decades? The use of artificial fertilizer for years on end has diminished the
levels of important minerals like magnesium, chromium and selenium, therefore
present in much lower concentrations in our food.
The eating habits of children and young people also should be a cause for serious
concern. Their diets now are rich in sugar, fats and carbohydrates, and poor
in vegetables and fruit. Add to this an increasing lack of exercise among kids,
and the problem becomes even worse. The World Health Organization (WHO) talks
of an epidemic of overweight among children. Obesity, the official name for
serious weight problems, is said to absorb up to six percent of the total health
budget -- a cautious estimate as all kinds of related diseases cannot be included
in the exact calculation. Think of what this situation will look like when the
current generation of overweight kids hits middle age.
The link between food and health is better understood by most people than the
relationship between food and behavior, so health has become the driving force
behind many public campaigns to combat overweight. A discussion has arisen in
a number of countries about introducing a tax on junk food, the proceeds of
which would be spent on promoting healthy eating. In Britain, Prime Minister
Tony Blair announced in May he planned to spend an extra 280 million pounds
(the equivalent of 420 million euros or $500 million U.S.) on improving school
lunches after the famous television chef Jamie Oliver began speaking out on
Yet with crime a major political issue almost everywhere, it's surprising more
leaders have not embraced the idea of healthy eating as a recipe for safe streets
and schools. After Gesch published his findings in 2002 in The British Journal
of Psychiatry, the study was picked up by European and American media. The newspaper
headlines were clear: "Healthy eating can cut crime"; "Eat right
or become a criminal;" "Youth crime linked to consumption of junk
food;" "Fighting crime one bite at a time." Then the media went
Perhaps that's because the relationship between nutrition and violence continues
to be controversial in established professional circles. During their educations,
doctors and psychologists are given scant training in nutrition, criminologists
provided little awareness of biochemistry, and nutritionists offered no hands-on
experience with lawbreakers or the mentally ill. As a result, the link between
food and behaviour winds up in no-man's-land. Even researchers interested in
the subject are discouraged -- not least of all because you can't get a patent
on natural nutrients like vitamins and minerals. Far more effort goes into pharmaceutical,
rather than dietary, solutions.
The Netherlands currently is the only country where Gesch's research is being
explored. Plans to test the findings about nutrition supplements and behaviour
further are being set up in 14 prisons, with nearly 500 subjects. Ap Zaalberg,
leading the project for the Dutch Ministry of Justice, remembers how he and
his colleagues reacted when they first heard of Gesch's study. "Disbelief,"
he states resolutely. "This was surely not true. But when I looked into
the issue more closely, I landed in a world of hard science."
Zaalberg knows diet is not the only factor that determines whether someone
exhibits aggressive behavior. "Aggression is not only determined by nutrition,"
he states. "Background and drug use, for example, also play a role. Yet
I increasingly see the introduction of vitamins and minerals as a very rational
"Most criminal-justice systems assume that criminal behaviour is entirely
a matter of free will," Gesch says. "But how exactly can you exercise
free will without involving your brain? How exactly can the brain function without
an adequate nutrient supply? Nutrition in fact could be a major player and,
for sure, we have seriously underestimated its importance. I think nutrition
may actually be one of the most straightforward factors to change antisocial
behaviour. And we know that it's not only highly effective, it's also cheap
Cheap it is. Natural Justice, the British charity institution chaired by Gesch,
which is researching "the origins of anti-social and criminal behaviour,"
estimates it would cost 3.5 million pounds (5.3 million euros or 6.4 million
U.S. dollars) to provide supplements to all the prisoners in Great Britain.
That is only a fraction of the current prison budget of 2 billion pounds (3
billion euros or 3.6 billion U.S. dollar).
Finding Safety Through the Stomach
It seems the link between nutrition and antisocial behaviour shows great promise
as both political issue and human-interest story. How much longer will politicians
concentrate on police and stricter surveillance as the answer to crime? When
will they realize healthy food can help create a healthier society? After all,
people would not only be more productive, but the cost of health care and of
the criminal-justice system would decline. As is the case for a man's love,
the way to safety may be through the stomach.
As Bernard Gesch notes, "Few scientists are not convinced that diet is
fundamental for the development of the human brain. Is it plausible that in
the last 50 years we could have made spectacular changes to the human diet without
any implications for the brain? I don't think so. Now, evidence is mounting
that putting poor fuel into the brain significantly affects social behaviour.
We need to know more about the composition of the right nutrients. It could
be the recipe for peace."