Criminals and Fat People, Traits and Behaviors

Eating sugar will turn you into a criminal, and restricting carbs will make you fat.  Those are the conclusions drawn from a couple of recent studies, at least as they were reported in the media. 

Dangit, now what am I supposed to do … eat sugar and end up robbing a bank, or avoid the stuff and end up becoming an obese but law-abiding citizen?  I suppose I could spend a lot of time lifting weights in the prison yard and get really buffed up …

Naturally, both of these studies are of the observational variety, which means they found correlations … and that’s it.  As I’ve said before, there’s a strong correlation between gray hair and heart attacks, but nobody believes gray hair causes heart attacks.  A statistical link doesn’t prove cause and effect.  Unfortunately, too many reporters (and far too many researchers) can’t seem to grasp that concept.

Observational studies are iffy for a very simple reason:  people are different.  We’re all walking bundles of interrelated traits, many of which are largely genetic:  intelligence, affability, athleticism, laziness, discipline, focus, a sense of humor, likes and dislikes, a predisposition to be fat or thin, etc.  Those traits exert a powerful influence on our choices and behaviors … but people interpreting or reporting on observational studies often get the equation backwards.

In the first study, reported in Time Magazine, British researchers found a strong correlation between eating sugary treats during childhood and becoming a criminal later in life.  Here is the opening paragraph from the Time story:

What parent hasn’t used candy to pacify a cranky child or head off a brewing tantrum? When reasoning, threats and time-outs fail, a sugary treat often does the trick. But while that chocolate-covered balm may be highly effective in the short term, say British scientists, it may be setting youngsters up for problem behavior later. According to a new study, kids who eat too many treats at a young age risk becoming violent in adulthood.

So what exactly prompted the writer to conclude that sugary treats lead to violent behavior years later?  It was this finding:

Moore plumbed the data for information on kids’ diet and their later behavior: at age 10, the children were asked how much candy they consumed, and at age 34, they were questioned about whether they had been convicted of a crime. Moore’s analysis suggests a correlation: 69% of people who had been convicted of a violent act by age 34 reported eating candy almost every day as youngsters; 42% of people who had not been arrested for violent behavior reported the same.

Well, that’s it then … sugar must screw up your brain and make you decide it’s okay to mug people. Or perhaps — and this is the more likely explanation — we’re just witnessing the natural relationship between traits and behaviors.  In other words, the kind of parents who end up raising criminals are also more likely to let their kids eat candy bars for breakfast. 

Maybe we should talk to some teenage criminals and find out how many of their mothers spend a lot of time worrying about nutrition.  I doubt many of them leave the house in the morning hearing “Johnny, if you rob a Walgreen’s this week, would you mind picking up some whey protein powder and a bottle of CoQ10?  Oh, and your father likes magnesium supplements, so pick up some of those in case he ever shows up again.”

The same principle applies to positive behaviors and traits as well.  For years, we were told that parents could raise more intelligent children by reading to them, limiting their TV time, and keeping a lot of books in the house.  Those are, after all, common behaviors among the parents of intelligent kids.  So read to little Johnny, and he’ll do well in school.

But as it turns out, the theory doesn’t hold up to actual research.  Intelligent people who enjoy words and language and learning tend to read a lot of books.  (You should see the size of Mike Eades’ library.)  They’re also likely to produce intelligent kids who enjoy words and language and end up learning more easily in school.  The kids inherited a trait — verbal intelligence — that tends to be exhibited as a related behavior — reading. 

Thankfully, the lead researcher in the British study did seem to understand the concept (not that you’d know from the headline and lead paragraph of the article):

One of those questions is whether sweets themselves contain compounds that promote antisocial and aggressive behavior, or whether the excessive eating of sweets represents a lack of discipline in childhood that translates to poor impulse control in adulthood. Moore is leaning toward the latter… It’s also possible that children who are poorly behaved from the start tend to get more candy.


The second article, warning us that restricting carbs could make us fat, definitely gets the relationship between traits and behaviors backwards.  Here are some choice quotes:

Low-carb eaters could be setting themselves up for obesity, suggests a new study from this month’s issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Researchers analyzed data collected from the Canadian Community Health Survey, which collected health data from a sample of over 35,000 Canadians. They narrowed the sample down to 4,451 people who had submitted information on their diets, including how much and what type of food they’d eaten on the day of the assessment. They found that people with higher intakes of carbohydrates ate fewer calories but more protein, fat, and fiber than low-carb eaters consumed.

Okay, wait a second … I’m writing late at night, after a play rehearsal, so maybe I’m missing something here, but please re-read that last sentence and answer this question for me:  how can the people who eat more carbohydrates also consume more fat, more protein, and more fiber, but still end up consuming fewer calories?  Did Monsanto create a new macronutrient I don’t know about?  Anyway …

In fact, the incidence of overweight and obesity in the lowest-carb-intake group was 65 percent, while it was just 51 percent in the highest-carb group, and the risk for becoming overweight or obese was 40 percent lower in the highest-carb-intake groups.

This makes about as much sense as the observation that fat people are more likely to drink diet sodas, so diet sodas must make you fat.  If you recruit a large group of people and tease out the data on those who restrict their carbs, you’re most likely looking at the dieters in the group.  You’d probably also tease out dieters if you looked at who counts fat grams.

Now … what kind of people go on diets?  Fat people, that’s who — those of us who tend to gain weight easily.  Once again, the trait  — predisposed to gain weight — produces the behavior — dieting.  I restrict my carbohydrates, but I’m fatter than my son, who lives on them.  He doesn’t watch his carbohydrates because he doesn’t have to.  It’s a case of selection bias, not cause and effect.

Selection bias is also the reason that vegetarians tend to be leaner than the population as a whole.  Yes, I’ve known some skinny vegetarians.  And pretty much every one of them has been skinny since birth.  They give up meat, they don’t gain weight, so they stick with it.  They’re a self-selected group.

But I also know plenty of people — myself included — who tried a vegetarian diet and gained weight.  So we became ex-vegetarians and selected ourselves out of the group.  Once again, a trait — gains weight easily — produced a behavior — gave up the vegetarian diet.  In other words, we’re not fat because we avoid sugar and starch; we avoid sugar and starch because we’re fat.

And also, of course, because we don’t want to become criminals.

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16 thoughts on “Criminals and Fat People, Traits and Behaviors

  1. Susie

    “It’s also possible that children who are poorly behaved from the start tend to get more candy.” Ah yes, the squeaky wheel gets the oil adage. Anyone who has a dog knows that the best way to train it is to give it treats for compliance. Any action rewarded will be repeated. But is a good child suffering from a sweetie deficiency? I think not. It is also as accurate as the statistic that 99.9% of criminals ate bread sometime in the 24 hours before they committed the crime, hey presto, bread causes crimewave.

    Well, there are a lot of breadsticks on the table in those Italian restaurants where Tony Soprano likes to eat …

  2. Vin - NaturalBias

    Hi Tom,

    I agree that this particular study about sugar and criminal activity can clearly involve a multitude of other factors, but I also believe that sugar can have a considerable influence on behavior.

    In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Weston Price talks a lot about the correlation between modern refined foods and delinquent behavior as well as mental disabilities and physical deformities. He also points out numerous times that none of the primitive cultures that he studied had a need for a prison system.

    Another excellent book, The Mood Cure by Julia Ross, explains how many of today’s sugary and refined foods can alter the brain’s balance of neurotransmitters and lead to undesirable behavior and emotions as well as addiction.

    I believe sugar can produce cranky behavior. I’ve seen that in my girls. But committing a violent crime requires a sociopathic mentality, which I believe (and I’m open to being proved wrong) is mostly an inborn trait.

    I do remember reading that in primivite societies, the criminal types were banished, not imprisoned. Too bad we can’t just banish all our criminals to the wilderness.

  3. TX CHL Instructor

    I really like your style, Tom. And sharp wit. Having slogged through countless posts on the old (remember UseNet, anybody?), and actually *read* dozens of nutritional ‘studies’, and endured countless lectures on how ‘unhealthy’ my low-carb lifestyle is, I have come to the conclusion that what passes for science in the field of nutrition is much more closely related to religion.

    My favorite along that line was the one that reduced the amount of sugar in the diet of a group of diabetics, and concluded from the remarkable improvements in just about all of the standard health measurements, that animal protein was bad for diabetics. I kid thee not. (Of course, I just did to that study what they did to real science.) Fewer than half of the studies that I have read (not just the summaries, which is all the typical MD ever reads) would not get a passing grade in a truly rigorous undergraduate science course.

    Here is the apparent process that produces a nutritional ‘study’:

    1) Write a conclusion based on whatever you already believe
    2) Construct a study designed to reinforce than conclusion (be sure to change a large number of variables to confound the issue, to make it easier to cherry-pick)
    3) Throw out, minimalize, gloss over, or simply ignore any data that inconveniently goes counter to that conclusion
    4) Blame any variances that run counter to that conclusion on ‘noncompliance’
    5) Get it ‘peer’ reviewed by some folks that already agree with your conclusion
    6) Submit for publication

    Sadly, I believe you’ve got the process nailed.

  4. Elenor

    BRAVO, Tom!! You’re as sharp as Mike Eades in “catching and clearing up” research and reporting idiocy. I’m so glad you’re here to provide me with ….er…. weapons… to use on people who think low carb is crazy and brandish bad studies as if they meant something!

    (Writing about weapons? I guess I was fed too many candy bars in childhood…. Oh, but wait, no — I’m an intellectual who reads all the time… EEK! I’m some kinda freak!)

    I don’t put myself quite in Mike’s league, but thank you for the compliment.

  5. Brian

    I read recently of a lawsuit brought by prisoners against a diet based 70% on soy. Oh, you’ll be getting big but just not in a manly way. You’ll need to dial up Kramer for a bro!

    I still think it should be called the manssiere.

  6. Angel

    Poor impulse control is the most likely cause of the criminal behavior. There have been previous studies (sorry, no cites) correlating poor impulse control in children with later criminal behavior as adults. While I’m willing to believe that lots of extra sugar might cause brain damage in kids somehow, I’m much more willing to believe criminal behavior is due to durable personality traits, that are measurable even in childhood.

    Exactly. I ate plenty of sugar in childhood and probably suffered a few meltdowns because of it, but I didn’t turn into a criminal.

  7. April

    I too ate a lot of sugar as a kid, but have never committed a crime nor did I do poorly in school. I did develop a craving for sugar though which made me fat and unhealthy until I discovered how good I felt without it!

    And for that second study, I have to wonder what their definition of “Low Carb” was… I know in other studies you’ve talked about their carb count was certainly not what most Low Carb dieters eat!

    It’s sad that people don’t realize that there are so many ways to manipulate data in any type of research that is conducted…

    You got me curious about that, so I dug around until I found more info. The analysis was based on 24-hour recall; low-carb was defined as less than 47% of energy intake. So if my memory about what I ate yesterday told the researchers I consumed 2000 calories, they’d label me as low-carb if I consumed fewer than 235 carbs. Certainly not what I’d call a low-carb diet.

    They also defined overweight as BMI > 25. You know how I feel about that measurement.

    So here’s what we actually know from the study: People whose caloric intake the day before the survey consisted of less than 47% carbohydrates (based on their recall) were somewhat more likely to have a BMI of greater than 25. Boy, I guess that proves it: low-carb diets make you fat.

  8. Nic Smith

    “They found that people with higher intakes of carbohydrates ate fewer calories but more protein, fat, and fiber than low-carb eaters consumed.”

    This is actually possible, because there are some oddball things that aren’t usually considered carbs, fats, or protein that still have calories. Alcohol comes to mind as the most obvious. Vinegar, lots of it, are another possibility (see ). So, it’s possible… but still implausible.

    Next they’ll be saying restricting carbs leads to alcoholism. At least I see the possible explanation now. I read that sentence over and over, wondering what they were trying to say. In looking for the study, I found an analysis of under-reporting of calories by respondents. I coulda told them that.

  9. monasmee

    Makes me wonder if the sugar = crime association is a leftover myth from the 70s. Remember the “Twinkie defense” purportedly used by Dan White’s lawyer in the killing of Harvey Milk?

    “Twinkies were never mentioned in the courtroom during the White trial, nor did the defense ever claim that White was on a sugar rush and committed the murders as a result. Yet, one reporter’s use of the term “Twinkie defense” caught on and stuck, leading to a persistent misunderstanding by the public that exists to this day, and was mentioned at the end of Milk, Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic of Harvey Milk. In a bonus feature on the DVD version of The Times of Harvey Milk, a documentary on Milk’s life and death, White’s lawyers explain what they actually argued in court.
    The actual legal defense that White’s lawyers used was “diminished capacity” and White’s consumption of junk food was presented to the jury as one of many symptoms, and not a cause, of White’s depression.” Wikipedia

    Interesting. I remember the murder, but never saw the film.

  10. Crusader

    Since when is 235 carbs a low carb diet? Talk about perverted definitions.

    Indeed. And it’s certainly not the first time researchers have been pretty loose with the definition.

  11. mezzovoice

    Sugar is likely to be one of the culprits here. But we shouldn’t forget that sweets and candy contain a lot more than sugar. All those colourings, flavours and other additives play a big role here. Also: people who have a lot of sugar and starch in their diet are likely to suffer from nutritional deficiencies. If you eat a lot of sugar and starch you are likely to eat food of very inferior quality so you will not get enough protein, eat a lot of bad fats and most certainly suffer from a lack of vitamins and minerals. ALL of that will have a major influence on your physical and mental wellbeing. A lot could be gained if people ate REAL food – even real chocolate instead of the frankenfood-chocolatey stuff that is out there.

  12. kris

    I think mezzovoice is on to something.

    Many sugary or high carb processed foods are loaded with dyes, preservatives and chemicals. I happen to be sensitive to something I consume occasionally and it has been an interest of mine over the past several years to figure out what the heck it is. What ever it is causes insomnia and a restless, slightly wired feeling, especially when I want to be sleeping. I have sorta pinned it down to preservatives, although I am a little suspicious of carbon dioxide which I thought was only in carbonated beverages, but have since found out it is in the plastic used to cover meats to keep the color from turning. Yes, I know that seems silly because its as natural as oxygen, but maybe too much of it is not good. My suspicion is that this substance, whatever it is, may be causing a chains of events which then causes a cortisol and adrenaline surge.

    In my more reckless days, if I ate half a bag of Doritos, it was a given I wasn’t sleeping that nite. These days, I notice if I eat very simply with whole foods and no coffee, alcohol or carbonated beverages (even seltzer) I sleep well. Surprisingly, this issue hasn’t impacted my life a whole lot; I don’t seem to need much sleep. The question is- how are all these people who may be nutrition depraved and a bit unstable to begin with, reacting to all these chemicals and a poor diet… not to mention, many sleepless nights- if they were to have that symptom as well?

  13. donny

    This looks like it might be the “low-carb” study they’re talking about.

    This from the abstract is interesting;

    “Spline analyses revealed lowest risk among those consuming 290 to 310 g/day carbohydrates.”

    These guys are good. That’s a very specific range. 😉

    That’s the study. So now we know: people who recall eating 290 to 310 grams of carbohydrates yesterday are less likely to be obese. What a solid finding.

  14. Laurie

    Sugar and 6/2008, After I read Taubes’ GCBC I got it about sucrose and stopped eating it cold turkey and then 6 months later I had an epiphany about frankenfats which were first developed for the paint, varnish, and putty industries. I learned that when new markets were sought and adding corn and soy oil to animal feed didn’t pan out (experiment to feed turkeys on these oils solely!) they were added to human chow and health claims began- and continue. Then 6 months after that (about a month ago) the last piece fell into place for me. Bread, wheat and gluten is poisonous TO ME. ‘Spark of Reason’ blog, ‘Children of the Wheat’ and ‘Wheat Head’ posts…….OMG. The food pyramid with the holy grail of grains, grains, grains, is making us fat, crazy, diseased, deformed AND ADDICTED. I don’t think they cause aggression, but that’s there only claim to fame. I will not be touching much less eating bread or wheat EVER again.
    I love the SUnday New York Times magazine. After all, in 2002 they published Taubes’ article “What if it’s all been a big fat lie”. Today is their ’09 food issue. OMG again. It’s all low-fat, high-carb, high-gluten CR@P. Except maybe the endpage, Lives column by ZZ Packer titled “No Polenta, No Cry”. She mentions Atkin’s without boatloads of scorn.

    Can’t say it surprises me about the NY Times food issue. This, after all, the paper that believes Jane Brody understands nutrition science.

  15. Lynda

    Oh boy… I picked up on the sugar one straight away. I mean you don’t have to actually be a rocket scientist to realise that the type of parent who gives their kids candy to shut them up are the same kind of parents that might perhaps be raising a criminal. These ridiculous studies are actually dangerous because some people actually believe them!!

    Exactly. Kids who grow up to be violent criminals aren’t usually raised by the most conscientious parents in the first place.

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