Could diet be part of the reason so many kids today are being diagnosed with ADHD? Parents of children with Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have the challenge of helping their young one deal with impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and inattention, which can create difficulties for the child in school and social situations. ADHD is diagnosed in 3% to 7% of school-aged children, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the most diagnosed childhood mental health problem, identifying causes and treatment of ADHD is imperative. Now, a recent study suggests that diet may play a role, as it indicated that teenagers with ADHD were more likely to consume a so-called “Western-style” diet.
Researchers from Australia looked at the diets of 1,799 adolescents who have been followed since birth as part of the Raine Cohort Study. At the 14-year follow-up point, they collected data regarding the teens’ current diets and whether they had been diagnosed with ADHD by a health professional. Based on the foods consumed, two major dietary patterns emerged: “Western” and “Healthy.” The “Western” pattern was characterized by a high intake of total fat, saturated fat, sugar, sodium, and a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and folate. Major food groups included take-out, sweets, red and processed meats, refined grains, full-fat dairy, and soda. Conversely, the “healthy” dietary pattern was primarily comprised of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and non-fried fish.
Of all the adolescents, 115 had been clinically diagnosed with ADHD. The researchers found that the adolescents who consumed the “Western” diet were 2.2 times more likely to have ADHD than their counterparts who consumed the “healthy” diet. Additionally, it appeared that the whole “Western” dietary pattern had a stronger association with an ADHD diagnosis than any one (or more) of its individual parts.
If the association indeed holds true in future research, why might this dietary pattern be associated with ADHD? Previous studies have indicated that optimal brain and nervous system function could be negatively influenced by a diet low in omega-3 fatty acids and micronutrients, and/or high in food additives, flavors, and colors. Each of these is, to some degree, characteristic of a “Western” diet.
In addition to diet, the researchers found other factors that might have an effect on ADHD. If the mother had three or more stressful events while pregnant, the child was twice as likely to have ADHD. Conversely, if the child was physically active at least twice per week outside of school, they were less likely to be diagnosed.
It is important to keep in mind that this study’s analysis was just a snapshot in time, so it can’t conclusively say that a Western-style diet causes ADHD; it only points to a possible association. The researchers also pointed out that the association could be bi-directional. That is, it could be that the impulsiveness of an ADHD teenager leads them to select more unhealthy foods.
With a plethora of research indicating the harm of a typical “Western” diet, it couldn’t hurt to try a healthier approach. While research does not yet tell us whether doing so can actually prevent your child from getting ADHD or reduce their symptoms if they already have been diagnosed, the other health benefits of a nutrient-rich diet certainly make this approach a worthwhile one to try.