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26 April 2006

The Diet Made Me Do It

By Dr. Debra Goodwin, Ph.D., R.D., & Al Harris, M.P.A.
Jacksonville State University

Al: Hi Doc. Jacksonville State University's Dr. Ron Mellen, a criminal psychologist, says there may be a link between food and criminal behavior. Ron described studies in which groups of prison inmates were given nutritious, healthy meals low in fat, salt, and carbohydrates and provided vitamin supplements rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and certain other substances. In four major studies, researchers found that inmates on the special diet acted out less, got into fewer fights, and generally reported feeling better. Researchers reported a 35 to 60 percent improvement in behavior among inmates eating the enhanced diet. The experts think a good diet releases more of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which calms the emotions, while a poor diet inhibits it.

    The control group, which ate most of their food from a snack shop and vending machines, exhibited many more behavioral problems and got into trouble far more often.

    On the Web, many researchers report that taking supplements of the amino acid GABA and eating foods rich in tryptophan (found in abundance in turkey) seem to increase receptors in the brain for the type of neurotransmitters that make us calm, steady, and positive. Ultimately, these strategies are said to bring about dramatic reduction of bad behavior and an increase in positive behavior. This is a controversial area of research, and many new findings are bound to be reported in the future as scientists learn more.

    In the past, you've spoken about the food-mood connection, but would you go so far as to say food can actually reduce criminal behavior and turn formerly surly individuals into pleasant personalities -- law-abiding citizens with a positive outlook? If there's something to this, should we all rush to the vitamin shop and buy GABA and related supplements?

Doc: Hey Al, kudos to Dr. Mellen for this dialogue regarding food and behavior.  I think that diet definitely affects conduct and not only in prison populations.  A recent magazine article entitled “You do what you eat” described an experiment conducted eight years ago at a high school in Appleton, Wisconsin, in which hamburgers and french fries were replaced by nutritious foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains and vending machines were replaced by water coolers.  Although this study was far from scientific, the reports of the changes in student behavior were astonishing. 

    According to the school’s Principal, LuAnn Coenen, following the modifications in diet, the students were calmer, vandalism and troublemaking decreased, and there was no longer the need for constant security surveillance.  This makes one wonder if certain unruly behaviors could be corrected through diet instead of medications.   Of course there are factors other than diet that are related to criminal behavior, therefore, diet modification is not the cure for this societal problem.  However, research shows promising potential for nutritional therapy in the treatment of mood disorders.    

     You asked about the possible roles of Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and tryptophan in the regulation of human behavior.  Both are thought to influence one’s mood.  GABA, sometimes referred to as the body’s natural tranquilizer, is an amino acid produced in the brain.  It is believed by some that poor diet and/or exposure to environmental toxins may lead to GABA depletion; therefore, some individuals choose to take GABA supplements.  However, a study published in the Journal of Neurochemistry suggests that GABA cannot be transported efficiently into brain tissue from the bloodstream and therefore oral supplements would not significantly increase GABA levels in the brain.  Since there is limited scientific information on the safety of this supplement, I would caution everyone to ask their physician before taking GABA. 

    I would give the same advice for tryptophan, an amino acid involved in the production of serotonin (known to affect sleep and aid in the prevention of depression).  Although the biochemical effects of tryptophan are well known, the true physical effects of supplemental tryptophan on brain function are not.  In 1989, one tryptophan supplement was linked to toxic symptoms in several individuals and removed from the market.  I again recommend seeking medical advice before taking this supplement.  Or better yet, increase your intake of foods containing significant amounts of tryptophan such as dairy products, soy products, seafood, turkey, whole grain rice, lentils, nuts, eggs and sunflower seeds.  Al, as you well know, a healthy diet requires knowledge and planning.  Eat well and live well.  


Debra Goodwin, Ph.D., R.D., teaches nutrition in the Jacksonville (Ala.) State University Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. Al Harris, M.P.A., is News Bureau director at JSU and the former writer/editor of a nutrition column published by the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. If you have questions for the authors, send e-mail to or

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