Sunday, February 15, 2015

Is Nutrient Deficiency the Cause of Social Breakdown?

While researching this post, I came across this article which detailed just how depleted of vitamins and minerals our vegetables are. I had heard some statistics before, but these are truly frightening:
A landmark study on the topic by Donald Davis and his team of researchers from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was published in December 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. They studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. Davis and his colleagues chalk up this declining nutritional content to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition.
“Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly,” reported Davis, “but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.” There have likely been declines in other nutrients, too, he said, such as magnesium, zinc and vitamins B-6 and E, but they were not studied in 1950 and more research is needed to find out how much less we are getting of these key vitamins and minerals.
The Organic Consumers Association cites several other studies with similar findings: A Kushi Institute analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that average calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables dropped 27 percent; iron levels 37 percent; vitamin A levels 21 percent, and vitamin C levels 30 percent. A similar study of British nutrient data from 1930 to 1980, published in the British Food Journal,found that in 20 vegetables the average calcium content had declined 19 percent; iron 22 percent; and potassium 14 percent. Yet another study concluded that one would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one.
Soil Depletion and Nutrition Loss (Scientific American)

And then I ran across this fascinating article in the context of America's imprisonment spree: Is Pellagra the Root Cause of Violent Shooting Rampages?
Dr. Weston A. Price, a researcher in the 1930′s found that primitive tribes eating a whole foods, natural diet high in animal foods and animal fat had no need for prisons. The moral character of these isolated people was strong. They were not incapacitated mentally or physically. In his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Price describes his travels around the globe, and he marveled at the stellar character of these people who had no access to modern manufactured foods.

On page 486 of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, is a shocking clue to the mystery of the scourge of violence amongst young people.

    “While pellagra was being investigated as an interesting curiosity in Europe, it was becoming a way of life in the Southern United States…The general diet consisted of cornmeal and grits, soda biscuits, corn syrup and salt pork; and even when they had enough bulk of food, the Southerners developed sore skin and mouths, became thin and listless, and suffered from depression, hallucinations, irritability and other mental disorders.

    The clinical description of the typical poor Southerner, any time between about 1900 and 1940, comes alive in the novels of William Faulkner–the brooding sullenness, suddenly shattered by outbursts of irrational anger, persecution, mania, the feeling of people living in a cruel and demented world of their own…Doctors knew very well that diet was at the bottom of all the misery they saw around them, and that disease could be kept at bay by a balanced food supply…”

Compare the modern junk food diet to the diet of poor Southerners: cereals, food bars, corn chips, crackers, and the high fructose corn syrup found in energy drinks and sodas. Not too dissimilar!

Vitamin B3 or niacin deficiency is the cause of pellegra. When I googled Pellegra and violence, sure enough I find a letter to a U.S. Senator by Barbara Stitt, an author who once worked as a probation officer. She found that changing the diet of ex-offenders eliminated the hostility and other symptoms that would lead them to act out in a criminal fashion.

Her book is aptly titled, Food & Behavior: A Natural Connection and her work seems to confirm the findings of Dr. Weston A. Price on nutritional injury and the role it plays in juvenile delinquency and adult crimes.

A review of Barbara’s book mentions her concern about reactive hypoglycemia, sub-clinical pellegra and vitamin B deficiencies being at the root of violent criminal’s actions.

Check out this revealing quote from the review:

    “The startling part of sub-clinical pellagra, like hypoglycemia, is that the symptoms also mirror those of schizophrenia, a problem so widespread that those who suffer from it occupy one out of every four hospital beds in the United States.”
Is Pellagra the Root Cause of Violent Shooting Rampages? (Hartke Is Online)

One is forced to wonder whether the junk-food diet fed to America's poor classes is at least partially responsible for the deteriorating state of the poor in America today. Note that most crime is in so-called "food deserts." Note that McDonald's junk food is primarily marketed to children. Go into any McDonald's, particularly in urban ghettos, and you will see poorer families using McDonald's as both cook and babysitter for their litter. The Little Caesars in the strip mall near my house always has a line literally out the door in weekends. Observing these people, they are almost always lower-class families with lots of young children, and  five-dollar pizzas is sadly the only way they can afford to feed their families.

Here's an article on the same subject by the Guardian:
That Dwight Demar is able to sit in front of us, sober, calm, and employed, is "a miracle", he declares in the cadences of a prayer-meeting sinner. He has been rocking his 6ft 2in bulk to and fro while delivering a confessional account of his past into the middle distance. He wants us to know what has saved him after 20 years on the streets: "My dome is working. They gave me some kind of pill and I changed. Me, myself and I, I changed."

Demar has been in and out of prison so many times he has lost count of his convictions. "Being drunk, being disorderly, trespass, assault and battery; you name it, I did it. How many times I been in jail? I don't know, I was locked up so much it was my second home."

Demar has been taking part in a clinical trial at the US government's National Institutes for Health, near Washington. The study is investigating the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplements on the brain, and the pills that have effected Demar's "miracle" are doses of fish oil....

For the clinician in charge of the US study, Joseph Hibbeln, the results of his trial are not a miracle, but simply what you might predict if you understand the biochemistry of the brain and the biophysics of the brain cell membrane. His hypothesis is that modern industrialised diets may be changing the very architecture and functioning of the brain.

We are suffering, he believes, from widespread diseases of deficiency. Just as vitamin C deficiency causes scurvy, deficiency in the essential fats the brain needs and the nutrients needed to metabolise those fats is causing of a host of mental problems from depression to aggression. Not all experts agree, but if he is right, the consequences are as serious as they could be. The pandemic of violence in western societies may be related to what we eat or fail to eat. Junk food may not only be making us sick, but mad and bad too.

Essential fatty acids are called essential because humans cannot make them but must obtain them from the diet. The brain is a fatty organ - it's 60% fat by dry weight, and the essential fatty acids are what make part of its structure, making up 20% of the nerve cells' membranes. The synapses, or junctions where nerve cells connect with other nerve cells, contain even higher concentrations of essential fatty acids - being made of about 60% of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA.

Communication between the nerve cells depends on neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, docking with receptors in the nerve cell membrane.

Omega-3 DHA is very long and highly flexible. When it is incorporated into the nerve cell membrane it helps make the membrane itself elastic and fluid so that signals pass through it efficiently. But if the wrong fatty acids are incorporated into the membrane, the neurotransmitters can't dock properly. We know from many other studies what happens when the neurotransmitter systems don't work efficiently. Low serotonin levels are known to predict an increased risk of suicide, depression and violent and impulsive behaviour. And dopamine is what controls the reward processes in the brain.

Laboratory tests at NIH have shown that the composition of tissue and in particular of the nerve cell membrane of people in the US is different from that of the Japanese, who eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids from fish. Americans have cell membranes higher in the less flexible omega-6 fatty acids, which appear to have displaced the elastic omega-3 fatty acids found in Japanese nerve cells.

Over the last century most western countries have undergone a dramatic shift in the composition of their diets in which the omega-3 fatty acids that are essential to the brain have been flooded out by competing omega-6 fatty acids, mainly from industrial oils such as soya, corn, and sunflower. In the US, for example, soya oil accounted for only 0.02% of all calories available in 1909, but by 2000 it accounted for 20%. Americans have gone from eating a fraction of an ounce of soya oil a year to downing 25lbs (11.3kg) per person per year in that period. In the UK, omega-6 fats from oils such as soya, corn, and sunflower accounted for 1% of energy supply in the early 1960s, but by 2000 they were nearly 5%. These omega-6 fatty acids come mainly from industrial frying for takeaways, ready meals and snack foods such as crisps, chips, biscuits, ice-creams and from margarine. Alcohol, meanwhile, depletes omega-3s from the brain.

To test the hypothesis, Hibbeln and his colleagues have mapped the growth in consumption of omega-6 fatty acids from seed oils in 38 countries since the 1960s against the rise in murder rates over the same period. In all cases there is an unnerving match. As omega-6 goes up, so do homicides in a linear progression. Industrial societies where omega-3 consumption has remained high and omega-6 low because people eat fish, such as Japan, have low rates of murder and depression.
An earlier pilot study on 30 patients with violent records found that those given omega-3 supplements had their anger reduced by one-third, measured by standard scales of hostility and irritability, regardless of whether they were relapsing and drinking again. The bigger trial is nearly complete now and Dell Wright, the nurse administering the pills, has seen startling changes in those on the fish oil rather than the placebo. "When Demar came in there was always an undercurrent of aggression in his behaviour. Once he was on the supplements he took on the ability not to be impulsive. He kept saying, 'This is not like me'."

Demar has been out of trouble and sober for a year now. He has a girlfriend, his own door key, and was made employee of the month at his company recently. Others on the trial also have long histories of violence but with omega-3 fatty acids have been able for the first time to control their anger and aggression. J, for example, arrived drinking a gallon of rum a day and had 28 scars on his hand from punching other people. Now he is calm and his cravings have gone. W was a 19st barrel of a man with convictions for assault and battery. He improved dramatically on the fish oil and later told doctors that for the first time since the age of five he had managed to go three months without punching anyone in the head.
Omega-3, junk food and the link between violence and what we eat  (The Guardian)

Is our diet driving us crazy? Look at the poor social outcomes. Look at increasing diseases like ADHD and teenage depression and suicide. Look at bullying, school shooting rampages and poor impulse control. The majority of America's children in public schools are considered low-income.  And junk food filled with GMO wheat and corn syrup is specifically marketed to poor Americans. Even vegetables may not help since they are so depleted of essential nutrients. And it's been shown that meat raised in CAFOs has a bad Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acid ratio, substances that are necessary for proper brain growth and development as noted above.
In a landscape dominated by golden arches, dollar menus, and value meals serving up to 2,150 calories, fast food has been much maligned. It’s fast, it’s cheap, but we know it’s generally not good for us. And yet, well-touted statistics report that Americans are spending more than ever on fast food:

    In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music—combined.
Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Will Industrialized Foods Be the End of Us? (SciAm)

Is the supposed poor behavior of Americans that conservatives like Charles Murray use to blame the poor for their plight actually caused by the atrocious foods they are forced to eat by agribusiness? Note that in the past, even the poorest Americans had better diets than many of the middle classes almost anywhere on earth, including large amounts of pasture-grazed meat. Individual behavior seemed a lot more calm and controlled back then. Look at old photos of people, and you can see an intelligence and quiet dignity in the eyes of even the poorest people. The people are calm and well-dressed. Look at the quality of school textbooks back then. Look at the front pages of newspapers compared to today. Exams given to secondary school children would baffle graduate students today. Look at the quality of rhetoric in the Lincoln-Douglas debates compared to today's televised spectacles - and those debates were targetted at the average voter.
If you live in America, you must have an inkling of these changes too. If you're one of the educated class - and if you're reading this, you probably are - then you must have had at least a glimpse of how the other side lives. You must have seen the awful "food" that they eat, the wrecked, destroyed state of their bodies. You must have at least seen hints of their broken family lives. Just the other day I got my hair cut in a poor white neighborhood, and the barber spent the whole time telling me about "that bitch" who was the mother of his children. No matter how thick the Belmont Bubble, you must have seen hints like this. And if it doesn't hurt you to see Americans living that sort of unhealthy lifestyle, then I don't know what to say to you.
America is separating into peasants and scholar-gentry (Noahpinion)

Today we have the disintegrating social behavior that conservatives tut-tut about - the drug abuse, the ugly ill-fitting wardobes, the bodies festooned with tattoos, the thuggish behavior, violence and divorce.

People of Wal-Mart

I wonder if this can explain history too. Humans evolved to eat a certain diet over millions of years (the lifetime of the genus Homo). When civilization got started, eventually the diet rich in fish, meat and vegetables got confined to a small slice of upper-class wealthy people, while the majority of people were forced to subsist on grains, porridge, beer, etc.
The great nutrition divide paralleled distributions in wealth. Peasants who worked the land relied on gruel and flatbreads to see them through the winters—their bounties were collected and stored to feed city residents.[v] The best foods were prepared in the kitchens of royalty, aristocracy, and merchants—those who had the means to purchase excess and diversity. (ibid)
And that's when civilization got violent. Although Steven Pinker thinks that violence actually declined when that happened, I'm not so sure. We have plenty of data, including written records, of the wars and violence and slaughter of hierarchical states and empires. Prior to that, we have little evidence of the amount of violence in the daily lives of humans. Pinker's data for this period is comprised entirely of some skeletal remains in various places which constitute a vanishingly small percentage of the human race prior to civilization. In other words, there is a paucity of data in this time period relative to historical data, and that is undeniable. And plenty of people have put forward valid criticisms of even the data that Pinker used from Keeley, Gat, et. al.

Based on the above, nutritional deficiencies that became widespread throughout society after the rise of agriculture and hierarchical states based on grain monocrops would almost certainly cause more violence, not less. It's hard to believe that civilizations with their masses of impoverished slaves, serfs and peasants subsisting on a diet of grains were worse than the hunter-gatherer period when hunting a single mammoth could feed a tribe for a month, and fish and nutritious vegetables were there for the taking (early human populations seem to have migrated by hugging coastlines). Indeed, we can make the case that humans' "natural" diet is elephant meat, seafood, tubers, fruit and nuts. Agriculture strip-mines nutrients from the soil, so such depletion would have been widespread in the past too, as we know soil erosion has been. What we know from actual history (as opposed to speculative reconstruction) is that states and empires have been roiled by constant military conflict and everyday violence as far back as we can tell. Note that decaying empires have increasing levels of violence (Mesopotamia, Rome, China). Is malnutrition a neglected cause of social decline violence?

If the above is true, we can accept that as our food supplies are squeezed by climate change, and corporations continue to engineer our food for their own benefit and the best food is available only to the wealthy few, things will get worse, not better. We need equality in diet more so than anything else.

BONUS: Update on the Lead as the cause of crime theory (Mother Jones)


  1. Mmmm... I thought that actual crime declined from the 70s. (?)

    It could be that higher levels of hostility are correlated with food deficiencies, among other things. But abuse exists in all classes, and it could easily be argued that the most violent and unscrupulous were the rulers in the old days (from Sumer on).

  2. There's also been a steady decline of violent crimes since the 1980's, so I'm not sure the loss of nutritional content directly correlates with crime/aggression.

  3. Nutrition is complex. It isn't just a matter of food availability its also food fashion and food preferences. There are also some people who are psychopaths and sociopaths, who if/when they gain power will use it for the sheer pleasure they gain, lacking as they are in interpersonal pleasures. Psychopaths apart there is also the matter of gut health and the impact of the biome (gut bacteria et al which are necessary for health and survival) on emotional wellbeing. I know from personal experience that we also need to feed resistant starch to our good gut bacteria to support good emotional health. So it might not only be a matter of deficiencies of food, essential though it is, but also the loss of a healthy gut biome. Research is only now giving us glimpses of the importance of this.

  4. In testimony before the U.S. State Department in 1999, Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, affirmed that most of the mosques in the U.S. are run by extremists.

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  10. Racism is alive and well in America. Now it is a criminal justice system that targets people of color. Mass incarceration provides a gigantic windfall for the private prison industry. ..
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