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Ain’t Misbehavin’ With A Fishier Diet


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Ain’t misbehavin’ with a fishier diet

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Are the kids misbehaving again?

Don’t spank them, or ground them, or make them do extra chores.

Just pour some fish oil down their throat! That’ll fix ‘em!

Admittedly, that may be a slight exaggeration. In fact, it may even be a not-so-slight exaggeration.

But recent studies in both the United Kingdom and the United States indicate that poor diet may be a contributing factor to violent behavior, and that too much of the wrong kind of fatty acids – and not enough of the right kind – probably don’t help things, either.

In a UK study involving jailed convicts, young men were fed multivitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, and the number of violent offenses committed in the prison fell by 37 percent.

In a pilot study conducted in the United States by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - part of the National Institutes for Health - researchers found that supplements of omega-3, the essential fatty acid in fish oil, decreased the amount of anger, as measured by standard scales of hostility and irritability, in alcoholics by one-third – even if they had relapsed in their efforts to stop drinking.

A subsequent study involving more participants is almost complete.

Joseph Hibbein, the clinician in charge of the U.S. study, told the British newspaper The Guardian that the results aren’t really all that surprising, given modern diets. Although not all experts agree, Hibbein believes - and his study appears to indicate - that deficiencies in essential fatty acids can cause mental problems like depression and aggression.

The science behind it goes something like this: Essential fatty acids are called such because they’re just that – essential. We can’t produce them in our own bodies, so it’s essential that we acquire them from the foods we eat. The brain requires fats to operate (so being called a fat-head or some other such fat-related insult might not be all that demeaning, after all).

The synapses, the points inside the brain where nerve cells meet, contain high concentrations of fatty acids. But not all fatty acids are the same.

Omega-3 DHA, is a long, flexible fatty acid. Think of it as the lithe runner/swimmer/cyclist of the fatty acid community. (It probably would even take an occasional yoga or tai chi class, too.)

Nerve signals in the brain pass through omega-3 pretty easily. But omega-6 is a fatty acid of a somewhat different nature. It’s a short, dumpy, totally inflexible couch potato of an acid.

Guess which fatty acid Americans are more prone to eat?

“It’s very easy to get omega-6 in your diet,” said Cherokee County Health Department nutritionist Jennifer Murray, adding that many of the cooking oils and other ingredients we eat tend to contain omega-6. “But you don’t get omega-3 as much. I have seen studies that show that the right mixture of the two is important to mood and test-taking.”

Hibbein theorizes that omega-6 fatty acids take up the same pathways in the brain as omega-3 fatty acids, and clog things up.

Hibbein has also measured the increase in consumption of omega-6 fatty acids in 38 countries over the past 40 years, and found that increase correlated to an increase in homicides in those countries. However, industrialized countries with diets high in fish, like Japan, have low murder rates.

Of course, a lot of factors have changed during that 40-year period – not just diets - so to blame murders on a lack of fish oil might be a hasty assumption.

But as early as the 1970s, some nutrition experts were warning that deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids could cause behavioral problems as diets in industrialized countries became lighter on omega-3 and heavier on omega-6.

Becky Boman was alive back in the ‘70s and actually became a vegetarian during that particular decade. Later, she added fish and chicken to her diet.

“I grew up eating cow, so it was hard to remain a vegetarian,” she said.

She finally settled on a diet that was less “anti-meat” than in her younger years, but which also included no processed sugar.

“I’m convinced sugar is the main culprit, but I can see where the wrong kinds of fats would be just as bad,” she said. “Really, anything processed is probably not going to be as healthy as fresh, and red meat is definitely not as healthy as fish.”

Health department nutritionist Murray said studies like these, that measure the effects of various foods on mood, emotion, and behavior, will probably have an eventual effect on the offerings in public school cafeterias.

It’s commonly accepted that kids need to eat in order to learn effectively. Now, the trick is figuring out what exactly it is they need to be eating.

“Schools are just now changing their vending machines that had candy in them,” Murray said. “So it’ll probably be a slow progression, as they do more research.”

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