Support 100 years of independent journalism.

16 February 2004updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

Diet can make you nice

Michael Meacher argues that there's no need to spend millions on prisons. We can get better results

By Michael Meacher

Restraining violent offenders is an expensive business. The prison system costs about £1.7bn a year, and the cost of holding each prisoner is £24,241. Expensive security arrangements underpin the whole system. But recent research suggests there may be a better way to deal with difficult offenders – one that is far less costly.

Diet can dramatically cut violence. Organic food and quality food standards do not just ensure better nutrition, improved health, better animal welfare and environmental gains: their impact on behaviour is so striking that prison management programmes now urgently need to incorporate them.

Two research projects have generated similar and remarkable findings. Appleton Central Alternative School in Wis-consin in the US is attended by “problem” students. The school used to be out of control: kids carried weapons, discipline problems swamped the principal’s office. After 1997, it all changed. Did they line every inch of the hallways with cops? Did they spray Valium gas in the classrooms? Did they instal metal detectors in the bathrooms? No.

A local bakery company called Natural Ovens introduced a healthy lunch programme. Fast-food burgers and fries were replaced by fresh salads, meats prepared with old-fashioned recipes and wholegrain bread. Fresh fruits and good drinking water were added to the menu, and the vending machines were removed. Access to soda, candy, chips and chemically processed food was prohibited.

The principal, responsible for filing annual reports with the state authority, reported that grades went up, truancy stopped, arguments were rare and teachers were able to spend their time teaching. As of 1997 and the introduction of the Natural Ovens programme, no pupil dropped out or was expelled, none was discovered using drugs or carrying weapons, and none committed suicide.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

This seems scarcely believable. But research undertaken by Natural Ovens with Yale University looked at the effects of healthy eating on levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Both are neurotransmitters that affect the brain’s functioning. The study included testing cortisol, a hormone produced by the blood sugar controlling the adrenal gland. Cortisol also stimulates the release of amino acids from muscle tissue and fatty acids from adipose tissue. The amino acids are converted to glucose in the liver for use by the brain. The fatty acids can then be used by skeletal muscles for energy, thus allowing the glucose to be used more efficiently by the brain.

Scientists have long understood the connection between nutrition and learning. It is well known that inadequate food intake limits a child’s learning ability; yet we have never applied the principle of good nutrition to schools or prisons, or indeed other institutions, in this country.

In the UK, the high-security Aylesbury Young Offenders Institution in Buckinghamshire for 18- to 21-year-olds has car-ried out an experiment on the institutional diet. Some 230 prisoners, typically serving long sentences for serious offences, took part. Half of them received daily nutrient supplements containing 28 vitamins, minerals and fatty acids; the rest were given placebo pills. The trial was “double blind” so that neither the prisoners nor their guards knew who was given the real pills and who got the dummies.

Those taking the placebo showed no reduction in violence, but the group given the nutrient pills committed 37 per cent fewer violent or other serious offences than in the equivalent nine-month period before the trial. Significantly, when the trial was completed, the violence quickly returned to previous levels.

Bernard Gesch, who led the study, is a research scientist in physiology at Oxford and a director of Natural Justice, which investigates causes of criminal behaviour. He is careful not to exaggerate the implications of this latest experiment: many badly behaved children, after all, do have good diets, so poor nutrition is not necessarily at the root of all antisocial behaviour. Nevertheless, the findings clearly deserve to be taken seriously, and a further study is now being carried out at Polmont Young Offenders Institution in Scotland. Again, offenders will be prevented from eating large amounts of high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods, sweets and sugary drinks; volunteers will then be given nutrient tablets of supplementary vitamins, fatty acids and minerals.

The rationale behind these studies is that although the brain makes up only 2 per cent of our body mass, it consumes roughly 20 per cent of available energy; to obtain this energy, it requires a diet rich in essential fatty acids, which affect cognition, depression, mood, co-ordination and sensation, but that cannot be produced by the body itself. Perhaps the most important of these acids are the Omega-3 fatty acids that are found in oily fish, flax, nuts, evening primrose and avocados.

As Gesch himself says, these clinical studies suggest nutrition is a humane and highly effective means of reducing antisocial behaviour. It is also cheap. If all prisoners were given an improved diet of micronutrients, it would cost about £3.5m a year – 0.2 per cent of the overall prison service budget. When we already have the fullest prisons in Europe and with the level of violent crime still rising, this is surely a management option that should be urgently adopted.

Michael Meacher is a former minister for the environment

Topics in this article: