Hunger feeds high levels of violence
Research shows that poor nutrition in early life robs the brain of normal impulse-control mechanisms, writes Tracy Ledger
Domestic violence levels in SA (along with violent crime in general) are significantly higher than global averages. The reason for this is a cause for considerable national debate.
Poverty is often put forward as a factor that supports crime, but on its own, it is an unsatisfactory answer because levels of violent crime in SA are significantly higher than in many countries with comparable poverty rates.
The historic position of women in society, together with SA’s violent history, are also proposed as explanations.
These are all issues that can contribute to increased levels of violence, but academic research suggests there is a critical contributing factor we are missing: malnutrition, and childhood malnutrition in particular.
There is a relationship between hunger and crime and, if the hunger is acute, with violent crime.
People whose families are starving might go to extreme measures to find food.
But there is another, less visible but just as important, link between how much food is in a household and the overall level of violence in a society. Whether or not people engage in violence — be it domestic or outside the home — is determined to a great extent by their brains’ ability to manage their impulses.
When people are annoyed by others, their response to reprimand or to assault them is determined in large part by how strong their impulse control is.
The ability to control a response to a situation or set of circumstances is determined by what is going on in a brain, and that is determined to a great degree by nutritional status.
There are millions of children clearly at risk of becoming violent adults
A brain requires as much as 20% of a person’s daily nutrition intake, and impulse control in particular takes a lot of energy (nutrition). When that nutrition intake is insufficient (in terms of calories and micronutrients), a brain cannot function optimally.
Malnutrition compromises cognitive development in children, and severe malnutrition can wipe as many as 18 points off a child’s IQ.
But there is also a compelling body of academic research pointing to a relationship between malnutrition and an increased capacity for aggressive behaviour and violence, because of damage to the brain’s impulse-control mechanisms.
One study found a significant relationship between low glucose levels in people and increased aggression towards their spouses.
It is a general truth that people on calorie-restricted diets can become cranky and bad tempered. Several studies have shown that anorexic and bulimic adolescents are significantly more aggressive and quick to anger than their nonanorexic contemporaries.
A study of hunger strikers showed that, as their strike progressed, they became more impulsive and aggressive.
The hypothesis is that malnutrition affects the part of the brain that controls impulsiveness, and therefore makes people more likely to adopt aggressive responses in a wide range of circumstances.
This is a good evolutionary survival mechanism: hunger stops people from thinking about the long-term consequences of their actions (I need food now), and makes violence acceptable to them (I will use violence to obtain food).
Research on the link between hunger and violence found that chronic malnutrition in early life may permanently damage the brain’s impulse-control mechanism, resulting in adults who have a strong predisposition to react violently in social situations (as well as engage in drug and alcohol abuse — also because of reduced impulse control — which fuels further violence).
A 1998 study in the US found a significant correlation between heightened levels of anxiety and aggression in children who were classified as food insecure, compared to children from the same socioeconomic backgrounds (and neighbourhoods) who were not food insecure.
A 2011 study found that malnutrition in early life was a strong indicator of whether or not children between the ages of nine and 15 years displayed aggression against their peers.
And a 2016 study by researchers at the University of Texas in Dallas found that poor impulse control is "a key correlate of crime and violence", and that poor nutrition early on in life is a key predictor of poor impulse control.
There is thus a direct relationship between childhood nutrition status and the possibility of those individuals becoming violent adults.
What this implies is that many malnourished South African children are having their brains permanently rewired to predispose them to violence. In SA, 25% of all children are so malnourished, they are classified as stunted.
This is significantly higher than any other country with a similar GDP per capita, and it goes a long way towards explaining why our nation has higher levels of violence than other countries.
There are millions of children clearly at risk of becoming violent adults, simply because there is not enough nutritious food in their homes.
And this is not the only way in which hunger in SA contributes to the cycle of violence.
Children who regularly experience violence in their homes are also more likely to become violent adults, and there appears to be a relationship between the food security status of households and aggression within them.
A 2016 study of the effect of food insecurity on a group of South African women found that the constant pressure of having hungry children ask for food they were unable to provide, provoked significant feelings of shame and guilt.
These emotions were often expressed in aggressive behaviour towards their children, which then fuelled even more shame and guilt.
When these parents are malnourished as children, which contributes to poorly functioning impulse control, their capacity for domestic violence is also increased.
This combination of damage to the brain’s impulse control, together with children’s regular experiences of domestic aggression that greatly influences how they perceive "normal" behaviour, is a toxic one.
Yet, people are still surprised by the levels of violence in South African schools where many children arrive at the start of the day with no food in their stomachs, or go home to empty plates and angry parents.
What other outcomes should be expected than one of the highest levels of murder in the world when one in four children live in hungry households?
The real question that needs to be asked is this: how much longer can we stand by and watch hunger tear our society apart before we realise this is a national emergency?
• Dr Ledger is the author of An Empty Plate, published by Jacana.