Children fed candy and sweets on a daily basis are more likely to be convicted of violent crimes as adults, a new study finds.
Researchers from Cardiff University in Wales looked at data on 17,415 children born in a single week during April 1970 in the United Kingdom. The data, from the British Cohort Study, included detailed health and lifestyle information on the children at several points during their lifetimes, including ages 5, 10 and throughout adulthood.
Thirty-five of those children went on to report at age 34 that they'd been convicted of a violent crime, the researchers found.
About 69 percent of those who reported having committed violent acts also reported eating candy daily at age 10, compared to 42 percent of those who did not have a violent criminal past, the study authors noted.
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"There appears to be a link between childhood diet and adult violence, although the nature of the mechanism underlying this association needs further scrutiny," said study author Simon Moore, a senior lecturer in the Violence and Society Research Group at Cardiff University.
The research, published in the October issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, is the first to look at childhood nutrition and violent behavior, according to the study.
The link between eating candy and violence held true after controlling for other factors, including teachers' reports of aggression and impulsivity at age 10, the child's gender, and parenting style, including authoritative versus more liberal discipline styles.
So, does this mean parents should ban sweets entirely?
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Not necessarily, Moore said. A possible explanation for the candy-violence association is that giving children sweets and chocolate regularly may prevent them from learning to delay gratification. That, in turn, may encourage impulsivity, which is linked to delinquency.
"We think that it is more to do with the way that sweets are given to children rather than the sweets themselves," Moore said. "Using sweets to quiet noisy children might just reinforce problems for later in life."
Other experts were skeptical of the findings.
"While it's an interesting correlation, any scientist will tell you that a correlation never shows causation," said Melinda Johnson, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "If there is any real link, my instinct is that the daily candy may be indicative of certain lifestyle factors that the researchers did not capture. For example, I do not see that the researchers were able to control for violence in the home. Perhaps children who end up violent as adults also tend to grow up in violent homes, and perhaps candy is used excessively as an 'ease the pain' tool."
Another possibility is that a diet high in sweets is indicative of poor nutrition overall, which could have led to abnormal brain growth during a critical period of development, Johnson added.
Aside from the risk of turning children into criminals, there are many other good reasons to limit sweets, Johnson said.
Candy is short on vitamins, minerals, fiber and healthy fats that children need to grow and thrive, Johnson said. Instead of a treat, children often need a parent's undivided attention.
"I see no reason to tell parents to be frightened of giving their children candy in moderation, as long as the overall diet of the child is well-rounded," Johnson said.