What's the relationship between diet and aggression? Would prisons be less violent places if they served less meat? Or are there other nutritional changes that could influence offender behavior for the better?
It's not hard to find vegetarian activists who claim "meat eating promotes more aggressive behavior - a lack of gentleness in personality, and arrogance." Another common meme on the topic is that "in nature carnivorous animals are fierce and aggressive, while non-carnivorous ones are peaceful and sociable." Such declarations from holier-than-thou vegetarian activists are a dime a dozen and in general lack legitimate research to back up their claims. (After all, Adolf Hitler, the worst genocidal maniac in world history, was a vegetarian, showing that at best such stereotypes don't amount to a hard and fast rule.)
I was surprised, though, to learn how far back the idea that meat promotes aggression can be traced in Western thought. Plutarch argued there is an explicit trajectory from meat-eating to war and murder: "at the beginning it was some wild and harmful animal that was eaten, then a bird or fish that had its flesh torn. And so when our murderous instincts had tasted blood and grew practised on wild animals, they advanced to the labouring ox and the well-behaved sheep and the housewarding cock; thus, little by little giving a hard edge to our insatiable appetite, we have advanced to wars and the slaughter and murder of human beings."
A much-cited quote attributed to the mathematician Pythagoras made the same claim: "For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love."
And there are plenty of modern folk who believe there's a link between meat eating and aggression. Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong website suggests that, "People who rely on sugar and high-fat foods such as meat are more prone to violence and depression."
In the criminal justice system, Prison Legal News said recently that "reports of prisoner assaults increased dramatically" in Georgia after meals were scaled back to two per day. "Prison officials said the reduced diet was not the cause of the surge in violence, but offered no alternative explanation." In Kentucky two years ago, inmates orchestrated a violent prison riot over food so bad that one prison guard described it as "slop."
Whether meat per se is the issue or a lack of other healthy foods in prison diets, some studies have shown remarkable links between diet and inmate behavior. The UK-Guardian published a item several years ago about studies on prisoner diets, concluding that "violent behaviour may be attributable at least in part to nutritional deficiencies." The results of one landmark study were reported in this excerpt:
Aylesbury was at the time a prison for young male offenders, aged 17 to 21, convicted of the most serious crimes. Trevor Hussey was then deputy governor and remembers it being a tough environment. "It was a turbulent young population. They had problems with their anger. They were all crammed into a small place and even though it was well run you got a higher than normal number of assaults on staff and other prisoners."That study did not indict meat per se but identified other deficiencies in prisoner diets - particularly low levels of Omega 3 (contained in fish oil) - that researchers believe contribute to aggression. In the US, reported the Guardian, "a clinical trial at the US government's National Institutes for Health, near Washington ... is investigating the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplements on the brain" by giving violent offenders pills containing Omega-3 rich fish oils. Researcher Joseph Hibbeln who's in charge of the study believes we are all suffering:
Although the governor was keen on looking at the relationship between diet and crime, Hussey remembers being sceptical himself at the beginning of the study. The catering manager was good, and even though prisoners on the whole preferred white bread, meat and confectionery to their fruit and veg, the staff tried to encourage prisoners to eat healthily, so he didn't expect to see much of a result.
But quite quickly staff noticed a significant drop in the number of reported incidents of bad behaviour. "We'd just introduced a policy of 'earned privileges' so we thought it must be that rather than a few vitamins, but we used to joke 'maybe it's Bernard's pills'."
But when the trial finished it became clear that the drop in incidents of bad behaviour applied only to those on the supplements and not to those on the placebo.
The results, published in 2002, showed that those receiving the extra nutrients committed 37% fewer serious offences involving violence, and 26% fewer offences overall. Those on the placebos showed no change in their behaviour. Once the trial had finished the number of offences went up by the same amount. The office the researchers had used to administer nutrients was restored to a restraint room after they had left.
"The supplements improved the functioning of those prisoners. It was clearly something significant that can't be explained away. I was disappointed the results were not latched on to. We put a lot of effort into improving prisoners' chances of not coming back in, and you measure success in small doses."
from widespread diseases of deficiency. Just as vitamin C deficiency causes scurvy, deficiency in the essential fats the brain needs and the nutrients needed to metabolise those fats is causing of a host of mental problems from depression to aggression. Not all experts agree, but if he is right, the consequences are as serious as they could be. The pandemic of violence in western societies may be related to what we eat or fail to eat. Junk food may not only be making us sick, but mad and bad too.Which bring us to commissary food - the other main source of calories for inmates besides what's served in the prison cafeteria. Much of it is straight up junk food or else processed foods without a great deal of nutritional value. Chips and snacks along with assorted drinks (mostly soda and coffee), processed meat products and dry goods are the most commonly purchased items. I've long thought that it would considerably improve inmate health (and potentially reduce long-term healthcare costs) to provide healthier options at the commissary and limit the junk food available.
As the link between nutrition and behavior becomes more thoroughly understood, perhaps it might also make sense for prisons and potentially even jails and probation departments to provide education on nutrition and advice on preparing healthy meals. Indeed, since about half of prisoners are parents of minor-age children, doing so might well even benefit their offspring when offenders return home to their families.
A final thought here on a more pragmatic note: Whether or not meat causes aggression, vegetarian meals are substantially cheaper to prepare. As Grits reported this spring, Texas slashed funding for prisoner food in the next biennium by 13.5% from 2009 levels, though global food prices are rising and they still plan on feeding the same number of prisoners. (After the cuts, prisoners now will spend more per year at the commissary, mostly for food, than the state has budgeted to feed them.) Necessity being the mother of invention, might introducing more vegetarian meals help keep up the nutritional value of prison food while accommodating already-implemented budget cuts? I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case. And who knows, maybe doing so would reduce violence and improve chances for rehabilitation, to boot.