Monday, February 4, 2008

Junk Foods, Sugar, and Violence

My little great-nephew Alex (the one who became a vegetarian at four years old) has a horrifying reaction to sugar. Within minutes of consuming even small amounts—in drinks or food—a charming little boy becomes an uncontrollable child, shouting and even hitting people. And it seems that he is one of many, as several of his friends at school are also on sugar-free diets.

My son Grub has a friend who was diagnosed with bipolar personality disorder. As he is a very large man there were times when his behavior was frightening—he actually chased his father around the kitchen table with a knife during one of his manic episodes. It was just after this that Grub read an article about the effect of sugar on the metabolism of some people, and convinced his friend to cut out sugar from his diet. The result was amazing—he became a much calmer person immediately. So I was fascinated to read about a study linking sugar and violence among prisoners.

Stephen J. Schoenthaler, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the Stanislaus campus of California State University, had a hunch there was a link between three alarming statistical curves: the number of incidences of useless violence, the increased consumption of fast foods, and the increased consumption of processed sugars. He convinced a large-scale prison facility in Virginia to help him conduct a study with inmates. Initially the prisoners were fed a typical American diet that included white bread, hamburgers, sausages, fried potatoes, cookies, sweet snacks, and soft drinks. After a few days they were switched to a whole food diet that included plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole meal bread, as well as fish and lean meats.

Diet Start

The results were remarkable. Once they moved on to healthy foods, behavior problems, such as violence and verbal abusiveness, immediately decreased. When they were switched back to the soft drinks and fatty foods, behavior problems returned. The findings created a stir in the national prison network, and Schoenthaler became a much sought after nutritional advisor. He also conducted an interesting study with approximately 8,000 teenagers at nine juvenile correctional facilities. In each site, the standard diet—high in sugar and other refined carbohydrates—was switched to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as vitamins and mineral supplements. During that year, the facilities reported that the incidence of physical violence, verbal abuse, and escape and suicide attempts decreased by almost half.

After twenty years of studying nutrition and behavior at juvenile and adult correctional facilities and in public schools, Schoenthaler is now convinced that the effects of diet are so powerful that everyone should be held responsible for what they eat, just as they are for what they drink when driving. Which means we must do a better and better job of educating people, and ensuring that all these junk foods that we know are causing so many problems are removed from the stores and from our kitchen cupboards.


One of the main threats to our health and the health of our planet is overconsumption. More than a billion of the most poverty-stricken people in the world are suffering and in some cases dying from lack of enough food. Meanwhile, it's estimated that a billion of the wealthiest people in the world are at risk of debilitating diseases and death partly because they are eating too much of the wrong kinds of food.

A person living in an industrialized country consumes, on average, twice as much grain, three times as much meat, nine times as much paper, and eleven times as much gasoline as someone in a developing country, according to the World Resources Institute. With all this consumption comes a huge amount of waste. Timothy W. Jones, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, spent ten years studying food waste, examining farms and orchards, warehouses and retail outlets, dining rooms and landfills. His research shows that an average family of four currently tosses out $590 per year in meat, fruits, vegetables, and grain products. Nationwide, he says, household food waste alone adds up to $43 billion.

When I first returned from Tanzania, having experienced true poverty firsthand, to the so-called developed world, the thing that utterly shocked me was the waste. The waste of packaging. The throw-away this, that, and the other. And the waste of food. That was the greatest shock of all. The size of the portions of food served, especially in America. The amount left over in restaurants, after school meals, in the homes I visited. And the reason for my distress was not only that I had just spent many years living among people who had almost nothing, but also because I can never forget the lean war years of my childhood. We were taught that waste was one of the greatest sins.


Tempting and convenient as it can be, we should all avoid fast foods whenever possible and I certainly have given you plenty of incentive for doing so. Each one of us can also make a concerted effort to create as little waste as possible, each day. We can remember to start with smaller piles of food on our plates and ask for reduced portions at social gatherings and restaurants. We can always order more food or go back for seconds. Why not begin small and keep adding if you are still hungry?

When we bring groups of students together for a Roots & Shoots summit, we provide buckets for recycling various waste products, including food. After the first meal we carefully weigh this bucket of food scraps. The kids are horrified when they realize how much they have put on their plates, only to throw it out afterward. The amount of waste is then equated to how long that amount of food would feed a family living in poverty.

If you have a garden, you can make compost from food waste, as we do at my home in Bournemouth. But you can compost even if you do not have a garden. I met a group of youngsters from South Central Los Angeles, in the inner city, who collected food scraps from local residents, and broke it down by using worms. This is known as vermiculture—which can actually be located in the living room for there is no smell! Moreover, it gives the very best quality soil, which the children sold to local parks and greenhouses. They had created a flourishing business!

... andjoyohoxing