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How a Healthy Diet Can Reduce Violence and Rudeness, and Increase Your Child's IQ

Like a taunting teenager, a nosy mother-in-law or a meddling neighbor, food messes with our emotions. A bowl of ice cream can make you happy. An entire carton of ice cream can make you sad. Just the smell of a home-cooked meal when you can't have one can make you lonesome and a bowl of chicken noodle soup can make you feel better.

It's no stretch, then, to think that food can also influence our behaviors -- and it does. According to cutting-edge research, eating a healthy diet affects much more than your weight and health. It's been linked to decreases in violence, rudeness and antisocial behavior and increases in IQs, test scores and grades among students.

From Student Terrors to the Head of the Class

Healthy school lunches translate to calmer, more behaved, smarter kids.

Prior to 1997, the Central Alternative High School in Appleton, Wisconsin used to be filled with troublemakers, kids carrying weapons and police officers patrolling the halls. School counselor Greg Bretthauer turned down a job there, saying, "I found the students to be rude, obnoxious and ill-mannered."

The school then implemented a healthy food program, one that added fresh fruits and vegetables, a salad bar and whole-grain bread to the cafeteria in lieu of hamburgers and fries, and replaced vending machines with water coolers.

By 2002, one teacher, Mary Bruyette, said, "I don't have to deal with daily discipline issues ... I don't have disruptions in class or the difficulties with student behavior I experienced before we started the food program. One student asserted, 'Now that I can concentrate I think it's easier to get along with people.'"

Since 1997, the school has reported no drop-outs, expelled students, students with drugs or weapons and no student suicides. The school's principal, LuAnn Coenen, was understandably impressed:

"I can't buy the argument that it's too costly for schools to provide good nutrition for their students. I have found that one cost will reduce another. I don't have the vandalism. I don't have the litter. I don't have the need for high security."

Bad Diets Equal Bad Behavior

A study by University of Southern California researchers, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found similar results. After studying more than 1,000 children for 14 years, they found that children who had a poor diet, one that lacked zinc, iron, vitamin B and protein, during their first three years of life were more likely to become aggressive and anti-social.

By the age of 8, the poorly fed children were more irritable and picked more fights than the healthy children. By age 11, they cheated and got into fights and by age 17 they stole, took drugs and were bullies.

Said Adrian Raine, co-author of the study, "Poor nutrition leads to low IQ, which leads to later anti-social behavior. At a societal level, should parents be thinking more about what kids are eating? There's more to anti-social behavior than nutrition, but we argue that it is an important missing link."

Other research by Stephen Schoenthaler, a criminal-justice professor at California State University in Stanislaus, echoed these findings. After 803 New York City schools in low-income neighborhoods were provided better meals, the number of students who received passing scores on final exams increased 16 percent. And violations of house rules at one youth detention center fell by 37 percent after fresh fruits and vegetables were added to the cafeteria.

Says Schoenthaler, "Having a bad diet right now is a better predictor of future violence than past violent behavior."

Adults, This Applies to You, Too

Kids aren't the only ones affected. In one prison in England, 231 inmates between the ages of 18 and 21 were divided into two groups. One group received nutrition supplements with their meals while the other group got placebos. After four months, here's what happened:

  • Prisoners given supplements committed, on average, 26 percent fewer violations, and 37 percent fewer violent violations, compared to the preceding period.

  • No behavioral change occurred in those given placebos.

Said the study's researcher Bernard Gesch, physiologist at the University of Oxford:

"Most criminal-justice systems assume that criminal behavior is entirely a matter of free will. 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 behavior. And we know that it's not only highly effective, it's also cheap and humane."

Only purchase healthy foods at the supermarket, and you'll have an easier time getting your family to eat healthy.

And, according to Food and Behavior Research, a charitable organization trying to advance scientific research into the links between nutrition and human behavior, diet can play a role in preventing and managing the following conditions:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

  • Dyslexia

  • Dyspraxia

  • Autistic spectrum disorders

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder

  • Schizophrenia

If you're interested in trying some simple dietary changes of your own to see if you notice any changes in mood or behavior, here are some tips to try out for you and your family.

  • Sit down to a regular, family mealtime everyday (or as often as possible).

  • Make an effort to eat lots of different fruits and vegetables.

  • Opt for fresh whole foods over processed and packaged ones.

  • Drink water as your primary beverage.

Recommended Reading

The 6 Most Unhealthy Foods You Should Avoid at All Costs

How to Talk to a Teenager (and Know That They're Listening)


Ode Magazine: You Do What You Eat

Path to Health: A Miracle in Wisconsin

BBC News: Poor Diet Linked to Bad Behavior

Food and Behavior Research

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