December 2, 2021

House Call

Q:My normally peaceful, slender cousin joined an extreme survival training group in 2019. He’s now emaciated and has become violent. He’s a different person! Could this be brainwashing?

A:Your question is disturbing on many levels, and we seriously recommend urgent professional intervention.

Extremism and fanaticism thrive in times of uncertainty and perceived threat, and there’s growing evidence that uncertainty correlates with and quite possibly is a precondition for extremism.1 Supportive communities ease internal tension and provide “safe havens” where extremism may flourish. We have no expertise in “brainwashing,” but we wish to alert you to an important yet underappreciated contribution to violent behaviors.

It may be obvious, but for normal body function good nutrition is essential and is important for recovering from, preventing, and mitigating conditions caused by other factors. Even subtle nutritional deficiencies may lead to cellular and systemic biochemical abnormalities that preclude normal or optimal physical and mental function. Recent research is uncovering relationships between nutrition and mental well-being; there’s even a new discipline called nutritional psychiatry.2 Levels of specific nutrients correlate with mood, behavior, sleep patterns, and responses to physical and mental stress. Nutrient levels also affect brain development and the severity of brain and psychological disorders. What you eat affects how you think.

Food-mind interactions have intrigued researchers for many years. Researchers have concluded that nutritional factors may even cause delinquent and violent behavior. Multiple studies confirm that among incarcerated adolescents and adults, removing “junk food” and replacing it (or improving it through supplementation) significantly decreases within-institution delinquency. Studies in California, New York, Virginia, and Oklahoma all show that serious offenses are more likely to occur among adolescents and adults with dietary inadequacies, and that appropriate dietary intervention was always followed by less-violent and nonviolent offenses.3

The main nutritional factors cluster among the water-soluble B vitamins, especially thiamin (B₁), pyridoxine (B₆), and folate (B₉), and the omega-3 fatty acids. Interestingly, the demographic groups at highest risk of B-vitamin deficiencies measured in blood samples obtained through population studies of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are people of color, teenagers, and biological males—a striking similarity to the demographics of those charged with violent crimes in the United States.4

It’s a special blessing and assurance that the Judge of the universe takes into account all of one’s life’s course. Your cousin probably has multiple issues that feed his new behavior; we don’t know him and can only scratch the surface here. Yet you (and he) can still have hope. A thorough, professional, wholistic, nonjudgmental approach is highly recommended. Times may be uncertain, but there’s certainty found in the God of Creation and His Word.

Pray fervently for your relative. Without condoning his behavior, surround him with love and compassion, and encourage him to get professional help—including an improved dietary plan.

1 Journal of Social Issues 69, no. 3 (2013): 407-418.

2 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 76 (2017): 427-436.

3 California Association of Collaborative Courts, 2020 Conference on Crime and Delinquency, Stephen J. Schoenthaler, “The Effect of Nutrition on Crime and Delinquency,”

4 Science 325 (2009): 1614-1619.

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference. Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.