Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice?

If we are what we eat, then we might expect children who eat a lot of candy to be sweet and lovable. Quite the opposite, according to recent research. Authors of a study published in a recent issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry claim that children who eat a lot of confectionery treats are more likely to be violent adults.

The British researchers followed more than 17,000 British children born in 1970 for almost 4 decades. More than two-thirds (69%) of the children arrested for violent behavior by age 34 ate candy daily at age 10. Among children with no violent record, only 42% ate candy daily. After accounting for other variables, including parenting styles and socioeconomic status, there was still a significant association between candy consumption as a child and violent behavior as an adult.

Much to the delight of Willy Wonka and children everywhere, the researchers do not blame the candy. They believe that the underlying issue is the children’s inability to make good choices. For instance, parents who bribe their children with sweet treats are not teaching the children how to delay gratification. This, in turn, can lead to impulsive and violent behavior.

Diet has long been associated with behavior issues in children, and numerous studies have linked better nutrition to better behavior in both children and adults. But, this is not the only cause of aggression and violence. Many other variables are at work: biologic factors, a history of victimization or abuse, intelligence, living conditions, and family circumstances.

Still, much has been made of the connection between diet and behavior. Children from families that do not or cannot make healthy, safe, sufficient food choices are at risk for developmental problems, some of which can lead to delinquency and violence. But, the reason for the poor food choices may be more telling than the diet itself. Families without access or resources to make proper food choices are often of low income and low socioeconomic status — risk factors for future violence, themselves. Maternal mental illness is also quite prevalent among these families. Several studies have suggested that focusing interventions on maternal mental health will stop the cycle of poor food choices and eating habits and, in turn, reduce violence in the next generation.

A large, 3-year study of prisoners in the United Kingdom is currently underway to examine the effect of a balanced diet in adults on reducing violent behavior. More than 1000 prisoners among 3 prisons will receive nutritional supplements and participate in a battery of blood tests and behavioral and cognitive exams. The researchers will attempt to discover if proper nutrition actually stems violence, and, more importantly, how.

For now, parents do not need to remove all the candy from the pantry. Focus on teaching kids strong decision-making skills and feed them a healthy, balanced diet — with a few treats every now and then — and kids will indeed be sweet and lovable adults.


Moore, S., Carter, L., & van Goozen, S. (2009). Confectionery consumption in childhood and adult violence The British Journal of Psychiatry, 195 (4), 366-367 DOI: 10.1192/bjp.bp.108.061820

Farrington DP, Loeber R. Epidemiology of juvenile violence. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. Oct 2000;9(4):733-748.

Melchior, M., Caspi, A., Howard, L., Ambler, A., Bolton, H., Mountain, N., & Moffitt, T. (2009). Mental Health Context of Food Insecurity: a Representative Cohort of Families With Young Children PEDIATRICS, 124 (4) DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-0583

Bohannon, J. (2009). The Theory? Diet Causes Violence. The Lab? Prison Science, 325 (5948), 1614-1616 DOI: 10.1126/science.325_1614

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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