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Can Omega-3 Fats Play a Role in Reducing Anti-Social Behavior
By Ilona Fordham , Registered Dietitian
Published: 12/14/2009

Grilled salmon Editors Note: Corrections.com author, Ilona Fordham, is a Registered Dietitian with Good Source Solutions, a food marketer to the Corrections Industry in Corrections

Our mood and behaviors are impacted daily by the foods we consume. From getting the jitters from too much caffeine, to the feeling of calm after a glass of milk or Thanksgiving turkey; there are components in our food that impact our mood. In this respect we are what we eat. The human body can be thought of a a car, when given the right fuel it runs optimally, but with inadequate fuel it might sputter and stall. So it stands to reason there may be better performing nutrients, which impact our mood or behavior, than others. This is true of omega-3 long chain essential fatty acids (EFAs).

Omega-3 essential fatty acids are so named essential fatty acids because they cannot be produced by the body and are derived from the foods we eat. These healthy fats (EPA and DHA in particular) are found in the highest amounts in oily fish like salmon, walnuts and ground flax seeds; foods that many people don’t consume on a regular basis. therefore, those people who consume less of these foods may have lower levels of these essential fats in their blood; those who regularly eat more fish, nuts and seeds will have higher levels and a correlating higher degree of cardio-protection and brain health benefit. See table 1 for a list of omega-3 containing foods

Table 1
Atlantic salmon, farmed (6 oz.)
Atlantic salmon, wild (6 oz.)
Mackerel, canned (3 oz.)
Sardines, in tomato sauce
Fish sticks (6)
Catfish, wild (6 oz.)
Tuna, canned (3 oz.)
Walnuts (1 oz.)
Ground flaxseeds (2 Tbsp.)

EPA + DHA (mg)


For years, omega-3 fats have been promoted for their cardioprotective benefits, now they are showing promise for their benefits to brain health. Science shows deficiencies in zinc, iron, protein and B vitamins in infancy can cause behavior problems in teenage years—since these nutrients are required for proper brain development. Researchers are now discovering that supplementation with omega-3 fats provides mood-stabilizing and antidepressant benefits, playing an important role in brain development and long-term health[1]. Emerging research also reveals omega-3 fats encourage the growth of neurons in an area of the brain that controls impulsive behavior; having enough of these EFAs may keep violent impulses in check. Supporting the idea that without the essential omega-3 fats the brain works poorly.

In 2004 the National Institutes of Health published a study that found a correlation between the intake in omega-3 fatty acids and lower murder rates[2]. Since then, there have been numerous studies reaching the same conclusions. The same author published a paper in 2006[3] with the following conclusion “clinical studies suggest that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids may reduce aggressive, impulsive and depressive behaviors” he went on to say that “omega-3 supplementation would be an important contribution to public health because these nutrients are inexpensive, non-toxic and readily available.”

Across the pond in the UK, The Welcome Trust (the UK’s biggest independent financial contributor of medical research) is spending $2.8 million on a two-year study looking at nutrients (including omega-3 fats) and behavior. One thousand offenders from 3 prisons are being recruited, the results of which will be published in two years. Offenders will receive four capsules a day with meals; half will receive the nutrients and half will receive a placebo, or inactive supplements, and their behavior will be monitored by the Prison Service. Neuroscientist, Professor Stein from Oxford University, is the primary researcher on the study and an advocate for brain nutrients. The results from a pilot study in 2002 demonstrated that inmates receiving EFA supplements showed a 37% reduction in anti-social behavior (as measured by assaults and other violations)[4].

Because of the health benefits associated with essential fatty acids, numerous agencies and organizations worldwide have issued recommendations for EPA and DHA, as well as for fish consumption, for health promotion and decreased risk of many chronic diseases. See table 2.

Table 2

American Dietetic Association

American Heart Association

World Health Organization

The American Psychiatric Association

2 servings of oily fish/week plus an additional 500mg/day EPA & DHA
1g omega-3 fats/day for documented coronary heart disease
1-2 servings of fish/week, providing 200-500 mg EPA & DHA
1g omega-3 fats/day for depressed individuals

Although there is more to anti-social behavior than nutrition alone, micro-nutrients may be an important missing link. Further research needs to be completed before any conclusive statements can be made with regards to the treatment of violence and anti-social behavior. The bottom line is omega-3 fatty acids are an important addition to a healthful diet and while the verdict is still out with regards to behavior and violence, it is certainly food for thought. There are nutritional guidelines for our physical health, so why not nutritional guidelines for our mental health?

  1. Kris-Etherton P, Hill A. n-3 Fatty Acids: Food or Supplements? J Am Diet Assoc 2008;108:7, 1125-1130
  2. Hibbeln JR, Nieminen LR, Lands W. Increasing homicide rates and linoleic acid consumption among five western countries, 1961-2000. Lipids. 2004;39(12):1207-1213
  3. Hibbeln JR, Ferguson TA, Blasbalg TL. Pmega-3 fatty acid deficiencies in neurodevelopment, aggression and autonomic dysregulation: Opportunities for intervention. Int. Rev. of Psych. 2006; 18(2): 107-118
  4. Gesch, C.B., Hammond, S.M., Hampson, S.E., Eves, A., Crowder, M.J. Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behavior of young adult prisoners. Randomized, placebocontrolled trial. British Journal of Psychiatry 2002; 181 22-8


  1. KrisJ on 03/11/2010:

    The problem with the site that alfredoe recommends above is that there is no mention of the importance of cutting down on the omega-6 fats that are so common in our American diet. Of course that means they can sell more fish oil to try to overcome the imbalance - profitable for them, but less effective for reaching a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6.

  2. KrisJ on 03/11/2010:

    I am a retired dietitian by trade and very interested in these issues. One thing that is often missed in addressing the issue of getting adequate omega-3 fats, is the importance of cutting down on omega-6 fats that are so pervasive in our food supply - as in margarine, most vegetable oils, and most processed foods. When omega-6 fats are excessive they overwhelm the modest amounts of omega-3 fats ingested, with very pro-inflammatory results. It is essential that these omega-6 fats be reduced for the omega-3 fats to works properly. That means use olive oil instead of most vegetable oils. Use butter rather than margarine - preferably from pasture-raised animals. Put those imprisoned back to work on the prison farm raising high quality food including animals on pasture and feed those foods to everyone in the prison and I predict you would see a vast improvement in behavior. There is a large and very beneficial difference in the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 between the fats in pasture-raised animals and those fed corn and soybeans, as in feedlot beef, and CAFO cows and chickens.

  3. LadyArkin on 02/20/2010:

    Never in human history have flax seeds been a food source. Flax has been used for its fiber for clothing, and the seeds have occasionally been used for medicinal purposes. However, the seeds have never been consistently eaten by people for nourishment.

    Remember the Chia pet?

    Chia seeds (Salvia hispanica) on the other hand have. The tradition of chia seeds goes back thousands of years. In pre-Columbian times they were a main component of the Aztec and Mayan diets. And they were the basic survival ration of Aztec warriors because of the strength and endurance they provided.

    Chia are very rich in omega-3 fatty acids, even more so than flax seeds. And it has another advantage over flax: chia is so rich in antioxidants that the seeds don't deteriorate and can be stored for long periods without becoming rancid. If you do choose to buy flax seeds, NEVER BUY THEM GROUND. They are already rancid when you buy them. Buy Flax whole and grind them in a blender or spice mill; If you don’t grind them you can’t get the nutrition out of the flax. With chia you do not have to be grind them to make their nutrients available to the body. Chia seeds also provide fiber (25 grams give you 6.9 grams of fiber) as well as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, copper, iron, molybdenum, niacin, and zinc.

    Another advantage: when added to water and allowed to sit for 30 minutes, chia forms a gel. Researchers suggest that this reaction also takes place in the stomach, slowing the process by which digestive enzymes break down carbohydrates and convert them into sugar.

  4. alfredoe on 12/20/2009:

    Hi All: If you want to read more about the role of omega 3 fats, specially in human conduct, please go to http://www.omega-3-fish-oil-wonders.com/omega-3-for-depression.html Best wishes. Alfredo E.

  5. Ms.Sardines on 12/17/2009:

    Another boost for mental health is vitamin D. D is very low in most food, even fortified foods, and since incarcerated people don't get much sunlight (the farther north we are, the less chance for making D, in fact above Los Angeles we can't make D during winter) wise wardens would be sure to supplement D.

    People no longer eat much fish, a great source for both D and the omega-3s DHA and EPA (forget the ALA from flax oil, we can only convert about 5% of it to DHA and EPA). Fish used to be a cheap, plentiful protein, but now it is a luxury and tuna has toxic levels of mercury and dioxin.

    Vitamin D is crucial for good brain activity. One function is to increase the serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that controls moods in the brain. Adequate vitamin D translates into adequate serotonin.

    Serotonin regulates stress, anger, depression, aggression, appetite, behavior and more. It's likely that gang conflicts would be reduced by adequate D. By the way, the more melanin in the skin, the lower the blood level of D; as a teacher I believe this explains the Achievement Gap, the term for the lower graduation rate for students of color.

    Most governments have recommended daily intakes for D that are far too low because they were set when people were outside more, before sunscreen was invented, and we all ate fish.

    Vitamin D has been shown to prevent and help recover from the flu, including H1D1 (see the vitaminDcouncil.com site)

    For general info on D, go to: http://goodschoolfood.org/pdf/D-Light-Full_VitaminD.pdf

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