Something as simple as a pitcher of orange juice on the meal table at juvenile institutions may help to drastically curb misbehavior among the young inmates. In fact, suggested a pair of California sociology professors, with the proper diet "we can turn behavior problems in the joint on and off like a light switch."
Walter Doraz and Stephen Schoenthaller, who teach at California State College, Stanislaus, told an audience last Friday at the Newport Marriott Hotel that the theory that "you do what you eat" was supported by their six-year study of 818 schools and juvenile correctional institutions throughout the United States.
Schoenthaller and Doraz, in Newport Beach for the annual conference of the Western Society of Criminology, said youth institutions that made revisions in inmates' menus--providing more variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables and grains--recorded a 47% drop in anti-social behavior. Schoenthaller said assault, theft, fighting, suicide and other violent acts were reduced in the 12 institutions in Virginia, Alabama and California that improved the nutritional variety of their menus.
"And the fact that the (behavior) dropped off and stayed low indicates that it is not a placebo effect," Schoenthaller said.
In their study involving the California Youth Authority, Schoenthaller said, "we could predict two out of three (inmates) who would be a real pain, based on what they were eating for seven days."
'Good Kids Ate More'
What was found in the CYA study, he added, was, simply, that "the good kids ate more than the bad kids."
Among the most delinquent inmates, those who committed an average of 1.5 anti-social acts each month and were therefore classified as "bad" in the study, 71% were found to be malnourished, Schoenthaller said. Among the "good" inmates, those who over the course of a year engaged in no delinquent behavior, 22% were malnourished.
"Age, racial background, everything washed out," Schoenthaller said. "The only thing we could account for is that the good kids ate more and exercised more."
While the solution, Doraz and Schoenthaller said, is a simple one--a well-rounded diet--the theory of how it works is biologically complex. Doraz said a determinant of a person's ability to make proper decisions and to fight off weakness and irritability is the efficiency of nerve functions. A chemical located at nerve endings, tryptophan, determines how quickly and efficiently nerve impulses travel across the gap from one nerve end to another.
A malnourished person, Doraz said, does not ingest enought tryptophan to complete the nerve transmission well and does not have enough glucose in the system--which helps the process repeat--to help the nerve re-fire efficiently.
Hypoglycemia, which results in a deficiency of glucose in the brain, Doraz said, also can result in anti-social behavior.
Many food additives and preservatives can "retard absorption of essential nutrients into the body and the brain," Doraz said. Preservatives used in red meat, for instance, can bond with iron and nullify its beneficial effect on the body, he said.
"And the No. 1 (nutritional) deficiency in U.S. teen-agers," Schoenthaller said, "is iron," which can cause a deficiency of oxygen that is carried to the brain.
Source of Tryptophan
Orange juice, Doraz said, is a good source of tryptophan. In one case study, orange juice made readily available to inmates at a youth correctional institution over a period of several weeks coincided with a dramatic drop in anti-social behavior, Schoenthaller said.
Another study done by the two sociologists examined national standardized test scores that were recorded in the New York City School District over the last decade. In the last three years of the study, Schoenthaller said, there were "major academic improvements relative to the rest of the nation" among the students. The food served in the school cafeterias at that time, he said, had been improved by the reduction of synthetic food colors and flavors, preservatives and sucrose.
Overall, Schoenthaller said, better neurological health, and therefore better behavior, can be had by "eating a balanced diet of all the food groups. There are really no foods that are major no-no's, but if parents are concerned, they should call a registered dietitian to learn about planning meals."
Doraz said that, generally, foods to avoid are those that are high in calories and low in nutrients, like candy.
"A Twinkie and a Dr Pepper, for instance, is not the way to start the day," he said.
The sociologists' findings have been criticized by two national health organizations that have published articles in Nutrition Today magazine raising questions about their methods.
In a paper published last May, the American Dietetic Assn. said more research into the effects of diet on behavior was needed to supplement the two sociologists' findings.