How research suggests a link between our diet and behavior

Research Suggests a Link Between Diet and Behavior

Dr. Mark Hyman
Updated: 
November 25, 2020

Food has been linked to a host of mood disorders. But did you know an ultra-processed, nutrient-poor diet is also linked to changes in behavior and even acts of violence?

In fact, it might be partly responsible for the growing conflicts in our society—in politics, in race relations, in schools, in religion, and our mental health crisis, kids’ poor academic performance, and even our rising prison population.

When I started digging into the research, I was shocked by the data linking our ultra-processed diet to bad behavior, conflict, mental illness, and even homicide and suicide.

How Food Affects Behavior

How the food we eat affects our behavior according to research

Here’s what some of the studies show:

Junk food makes kids act violently—bullying, fighting—and suffer more psychiatric distress including worry, depression, confusion, insomnia, anxiety, aggression, and feeling worthless. Those who consume high levels of refined oils (currently more than 10 percent of our diet and found in all ultra-processed foods) and low levels of omega-3 fats from fish have higher rates of depression, suicide, and homicide. (1)

What’s scary is that our consumption of these refined omega-6 oils (mostly soybean oil) have gone up 248 percent from 1970 to 2010 and 1,000 percent from 1900.

Another study found that violent juveniles given a vitamin and mineral supplement reduced violent acts by 91 percent compared to a control group. These kids were deficient in iron, magnesium, B12, folate—all needed for proper brain function. (2) 

In that same study, they wired the kids up to EEG machines to look at their brain waves and found a major decrease in abnormal brain function after just 13 weeks of supplementation. They also advised kids to improve their diet. The ones that didn’t, showed no reduction in violent behavior. The kids that improved their diets showed an 80 percent reduction in violent crime. 

In another similar double-blind randomized controlled trial (the best kind of study), researchers found a 37 percent reduction in violent crime in those taking omega-3 fats and vitamin and mineral supplements. (3)

Alt text: Yoga teacher tips to practice yoga and eat nutrient-rich foods to support overall health and behavior

Yet another experimental study of 3,000 incarcerated youth replaced snack foods with healthier options and dramatically reduced refined and sugary foods. Can you guess what happened? 
Over the 12-month follow-up, there was a 21 percent reduction in antisocial behavior, a 100 percent reduction in suicides, a 25 percent reduction in assaults, and a 75 percent reduction in the use of restraints. (2) Considering suicide is the number one killer of kids between 10 and 19 years old this should be headline news.

How Yoga Can Help Kids Behave Better 

Kids in yoga class experiencing the benefits of yoga on their general ease and calm

Those of us who practice yoga know that our practice helps us meet our daily lives with more ease and calm. But a 2019 study found that 12 weeks of twice a week 30-minute yoga practice helped decrease inattention and hyperactivity in five-year-olds. Here’s an article on five ways yoga practice can help your child.

How to Fix Our Broken Food System

Clearly, crime and anti-social behavior arise from a complex set of social, economic, and environmental factors. But what if a big part of the solution to our increasing social strife, exploding rates of depression, mental illness, ADHD, bullying, violence, crime, and our overflowing criminal justice system is fixing our broken food system? 

If these foods perpetuate a cycle of poverty, food insecurity, poor brain development, mental illness, violence, homicide, and suicide, what should be the implications of regulating these products? 

Smoking kills far fewer people than food (7 million vs. 11 million a year), yet it is highly regulated—high taxes, no advertising, severe restrictions on where you can smoke, and who can buy cigarettes. 

Should the same be done for food? Should we regulate the ultra-processed food that is driving a greater loss in quality of life, productivity, and direct and indirect costs from mental illness than any other disease, including obesity and type 2 diabetes?

Yoga teacher and child practicing yoga and experiencing the benefits of eating nutritious food

I say yes.

In my new book, Food Fix, I outline practical solutions to some of our biggest problems driven by bad food, including how we can fix our personal health and the health of our communities, youth, schools, and more. 

If you’re a parent, a teacher, a caregiver, a community leader, or just someone who is fed up with our broken food and health care systems, I’d like to ask you to join me on this mission. Let’s fix the problem by addressing the cause of these terrible injustices.

 

Julie Gudmestad, Yoga teacher, Yoga therapist, practicing safe inversions in yoga, Yoga and Anatomy, Yoga and Anatomy-based alignment

 

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Mark Hyman.

Dr. Mark Hyman, family physician, speaker, educator, Cleveland Clinic, The Ultra Wellness Center, TV  medical contributorDr. Mark Hyman is leading a health revolution—one revolved around using food as medicine to support longevity, energy, mental clarity, happiness, and so much more. Dr. Hyman is a practicing family physician and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in the field of Functional Medicine. He is the founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, the Head of Strategy and Innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, a twelve-time New York Times bestselling author, and Board President for Clinical Affairs for The Institute for Functional Medicine. He is the host of one of the leading health podcasts, The Doctor’s Farmacy. Dr. Hyman is a regular medical contributor on several television shows and networks, including CBS This Morning, Today, Good Morning America, The View, and CNN. He is also an advisor and guest co-host on The Dr. Oz Show. We’ve spent billions of dollars on hundreds of Alzheimer’s studies with nothing to show for it. That’s because we were headed in the wrong direction. 
 
References:

  1. Hibbeln JR. “From homicide to happiness–A commentary on omega-3 fatty acids in human society.” Nutrition and health. 2007 Jul;19(1-2):9-19.

  2. Schoenthaler S, et al. “The effect of randomized vitamin-mineral supplementation on violent and non-violent antisocial behavior among incarcerated juveniles.” Journal of nutritional & environmental medicine. 1997 Jan 1;7(4):343-52.

  3. Gesch CB, Hammond SM, Hampson SE, Eves A, Crowder MJ. “Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behavior of young adult prisoners: Randomized, placebo-controlled trial.” The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2002 Jul;181(1):22-8.