Domestic violence and diet

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Experts say that domestic violence increases after natural disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones and bushfires.

A study by Melbourne University published last month (1) shows higher levels of violence against women in regions more severely affected by the 2009 fires, and family violence support services are now receiving calls from women in areas affected by this summer's devastating fires (2).

All the emphasis is on psychological effects of disasters.

When we started the Food Intolerance Network in Darwin about 30 years ago, some of our families were caught up in severe floods, unable to access their usual foods.

Effects of food

These families reported that the behaviour of children who were affected by additives in processed food worsened because they were unable to buy, for example, preservative free bread, and had to rely on food parcels full of convenience foods that tend to be high in additives.

So it made me wonder – could some of these cases be due to what fire refugees have to eat and drink?

Processed foods are not usually blamed for domestic violence, but maybe they should be.

Reader reports

Graeme from story [304] wrote:

"Last weekend I assaulted my wife and did horrific damage to her face. I have deep regret, humiliation, shame and remorse for my actions.

“I had been drinking most of the afternoon, then consumed two strawberry sundae tubs of icecream. I did not check the brand so I cannot be certain that food colours contributed to the way I acted. Although the alcohol is obviously a large contributor, in the past I have never reacted violently after drinking alcohol. However, from the ages 18-25 I experienced panic and violent moods, then I started to look at my diet. Cordials with artificial colours especially red had been a part of my diet and I noticed a link. Since then I have avoided food colours where ever possible, however I simply overlooked the strawberry sundae … "

Michael from story [1251] wrote:

"I was reading about 'alcohol-fueled' violence in Sydney, while listening to my seven- and five-year-old having a Category 5 tantrum outside as they recovered from the preservatives and artificial flavourings and colourings they'd been plied with at family holiday functions…

“Could it be that ingredients other than alcohol in beer, wine, spirits and mixed drinks could be at least partly responsible for the so-called 'brain snaps' which have led to recent violent and tragic incidents?...I've had some terrible experiences with some mainstream beer and mixed drink brands.

“I have had…brain snaps, not leading to any violent behaviour on my part, but certainly reckless in terms of self-harm.

“I've also had massive headaches and allergic reactions from these drinks and, when I've told other people about this, some have described exactly the same symptoms...I'm thinking if they're serious about doing something to reduce these violent incidents, they would be as keen as anyone to ensure they're targeting the right ingredients and that the right approach is taken."   

What we know

  • 50 food additives have been identified that can cause behavioural problems including violent outbursts

  • these additives are commonly used and are often hidden under confusing names due to the current "clean label" strategy, e.g. "cultured dextrose" or "fermented wheat" to describe propionate preservatives (formerly 280-282)

  • some natural foods such as strawberries, tomato sauce, chocolate or aged meats can cause the same problems in some people

  • low levels of the monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) enzyme levels have been linked to antisocial behaviour and aggression (3) -  these people have trouble processing amines (e.g. in chocolate, cheese, processed meats, tomato sauce and some fruits and veg, some alcohol) and do better if they watch their diet

  • in 1968, Professor Eric Bywaters reported a patient who attacked him with a knife while 'under the influence of salicylates' (4) – occurring naturally in foods like tomato sauce, strawberries, most fruit and many vegetables.

More reader reports 

"My 23 yo daughter…lost the plot this morning…screaming, hitting herself repeatedly in the face with both hands, while attacking me verbally and even threatening to kill herself…I would put the blame…on phenylethylamine. It's the only amine found in chocolate, and so far, the only amine that makes me, my sister and daughter lose the plot in this kind of way…I honestly think that there are thousands of violent crimes carried out every day in the world, purely due to people eating the wrong stuff for them…Later…She came home last night full of apologies and tears, and willing to admit that she's had chocolate… - Kathy  from story [1438]

“…we let our son have some things that we haven't allowed for a long time including bacon, tomatoes, ham and a doughnut. This morning I had a raging child who was…throwing punches at me. Since we have cut a lot of nasties out of his diet he has not been violent at all until this morning…” – from story [415]

"Our son was diagnosed with Conduct Disorder…hitting/kicking/swearing/yelling/pushing etc.  Considerably violent and unpredictable outbursts…If only we had looked more closely at his diet two years ago… - Megan  from story [1125]

“My son’s worst reaction is amines…and the big sign is rage like he's possessed – Ali from facebook thread story [1506]

“Colours, flavours and preservatives make my son go nuts but his worst reaction ever was to some blue pain medication after he had his tonsils out - he grabbed a knife and started stabbing the sofa - Breanna from story [1535]

“…your books and DVD have been a Godsend! We've noticed a HUGE difference in our son's temper tantrums and violent tendencies! - Julie from story [1194]

“We lasted 3 days until I called off (the amine challenge…for my son aged 7), OMG, huge meltdowns, aggression and behaviour…He is a different child on FS. His response to amines was huge” – Zoe [1437]

Conclusion

Many years ago, I myself was a battered wife, with scars to show for it. But I was one of the lucky ones - I got away. Like Graeme in story [304] above, my ex-husband would be full of remorse. He would cry and promise never to do it again - until the next time.  I think now, it's quite possible that food intolerance was involved and I particularly identify with the foods mentioned in story [415]. I'm not going to say I wish I 'd known about failsafe eating then, because I'm glad I escaped, and will be forever  grateful to the neighbour who intervened so I could do so. However, like Michael from story [1251] above, I wonder what would have happened if I had known about food intolerance and chosen our food more carefully?

I'd like to see the effects of food reactions more widely recognised, and a dietitian-supervised trial of the RPAH diagnostic elimination diet with challenges (5) offered to families involved in domestic violence, so that they know what they are dealing with.

Read more

Our blog Prevent violence with diet

Reader stories in our updated violence and aggression story collection

What you can do - Our list of supportive dietitians (in every state and overseas)

Introduction to food intolerance

How to start failsafe eating 

References

1. ABC news A new bushfire crisis is emerging as experts brace for an imminent surge in domestic violence https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-24/domestic-violence-anticipated-spike-bushfires-crisis/11980112

2. Molyneaux R et al, Interpersonal violence and mental health outcomes following disaster, BJPsych Open, 2019;6(1):e1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31796146

3. Kolla NJ, Vinette SA, Monoamine Oxidase A in Antisocial Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. Curr Behav Neurosci Rep, 2017;4(1):41-48. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29568721

4. Bywaters E. Comment on salicylate toxicity in Lamont-Havers RW, Wagner BM (eds) 'Proceedings of the Conference on Effects of Chronic Salicylate Administration, New York City 1966. US Dept of Health, Education and Welfare, National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Disease, 1968, p176.

5. RPAH diagnostic elimination diet handbook, 2019 https://www.slhd.nsw.gov.au/rpa/allergy/resources/foodintol/handbook.html