Link between vitamins, kids' behavior explored

August 03, 2010|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

A bad diet may lead to bad health for many inner-city kids. And it may also lead to bad behavior.

That's the conclusion of some public health experts who are advocating for vitamins and other nutritional supplements to curb youth violence and to increase learning. The controversial idea is getting a fresh hearing in Baltimore, where advocates for the disadvantaged are considering testing it on city kids.

If it's proven that a tablet a day can tick up test scores and dial down violence, it could be a cheaper and easier means of improving a lot of young lives than costly and labor-intensive treatments, according to the Abell Foundation, which wants to determine whether a Baltimore study would be worthwhile.

"We wanted to see what the scientific view was at this point in time," said Robert C. Embry Jr., foundation president. "It seemed like there was something there worth exploring."

Embry passed the latest data on the issue to the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, where a team will be assembled in the fall to consider the scientific studies and the outlines of a possible study, perhaps in city schools.

Some Baltimore schools, like many others in urban school systems, suffer with low test scores and chronic violence — though the number is down from previous years, there were more than 11,000 suspensions last school year for fighting and other offenses. A city schools spokeswoman had no comment about a possible study because officials had not been approached about participating or seen the Abell report. But Edie House-Foster said she recognized the link between proper nutrition and learning and said the sometimes poor eating habits of students were being addressed in the cafeteria and classroom.

As for supplements, Abell reports that there is a lot of suspect research, some funded by the $60 billion supplements industry. But there also are many encouraging studies that seem to show in prisons and school systems that the vitamins, minerals and fatty acids can help curb bad behavior and improve mood and learning.

Critics say the issue is complex and suggest consistent and better meals would be a more appropriate answer than supplements that may not have an effect or may make some children sick. And even scientists involved in credible supplement research say that more study is needed to show the overall effects on behavior and learning.

In previous studies, other elements could have influenced results. For example, government research has shown that hunger can influence academic performance, so it may be hard to separate supplements' effect when regular meals are also provided. And without baseline information on deficiencies in each child, the specific effects of supplementation also are hard to measure.

But the Abell report points out that the cost of youth violence and aggression reached $156 billion in 2006, and Embry said possible solutions need examining.

The foundation report found promising studies published in the last decade in peer-reviewed journals including the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, the British Journal of Psychiatry, Aggressive Behavior and the American Journal of Psychiatry.

For example, they found that after being given supplements, kids in Leavenworth, Kan., improved their math and English test scores and were disciplined less, kids in Australia and Indonesia had "significant increases" on tests for verbal learning and memory, and in Phoenix, Ariz., school kids got into fewer fights and engaged in less disrespectful behavior.

British prisoners given supplements were involved in 35 percent fewer disciplinary infractions and Dutch prisoners were involved in 34 percent fewer incidents in a similar study.

Joseph E. Hibbeln, a commander in the U.S. Public Health Service, has been studying the impacts of omega-3 fatty acids for two decades and has no doubt of nutritional deficiencies' role on the mind. He notes the brain is primarily made up of fats that must be obtained from the diet.

"The composition of kids' brains are directly dependent on what their mothers ate and what they're eating," said Hibbeln, a physician, psychiatrist and biochemist and acting chief of the section on nutritional neuroscience at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

He said that the human diet had long included large amounts of omega-3 rich fish because it was available. But in the last 50 to 60 years, the diet has shifted to more fast food that contains cheaper omega-6 rich oils. In the same time, rates of depression and homicide have risen in the United States and other countries, suggesting a correlation.

So, many researchers began studying the connection between omega-3s, vitamins and other nutrients and brain performance. He said there are four areas of study: violence, hyperactivity, academic performance and mood disorders.

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