ADHD and Diet

Study: Poor Diet Does Not Elevate ADHD Risk in Children

Children with ADHD, particularly those with severe symptoms, are more likely to eat a diet high in sugar and low in nutrients. However, eating a low-quality diet does not increase a child’s risk of developing symptoms of ADHD, according to a new study of 3,680 Dutch children.

April 30, 2019

Eating a low-quality diet does not increase a child’s risk of having attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). This is the finding of a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition1 that determined children with severe ADHD symptoms are more likely to eat unhealthy diets, however overall diet quality does not affect a child’s ADHD risk.

Researchers from the Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, studied a cohort of 3,680 Dutch children — assessing them for ADHD symptoms at ages 6 and 10 using parent-report questionnaires. They also administered a food-frequency questionnaire at age 8 to asses dietary intake.

Linear regressions revealed that 6 year olds with severe ADHD symptoms had a lower diet-quality score at age 8; they were more likely to eat higher-than-recommended amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages and packaged meats, for example. At the same time, poor diet quality at age 8 was not associated with higher risk of ADHD symptoms at age 10. Cross-lagged modeling was used to confirm a unidirectional relation from ADHD symptoms to diet quality, but not vice versa. In other words, a poor diet does not predict ADHD symptoms in a child, but ADHD symptoms may predict a poor diet.

“Impulsivity may cause binge eating and loss-of-control eating, and dysregulation of neurotransmitters can affect appetite and satiety,” wrote the study’s authors, who call for further research on dietary patterns and the ways nutrients interact with each other to affect the health of children.

Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, reviewed the study and told HealthDay that more research is needed to determine whether ADHD is truly linked to poor dietary choices. Specifically, researchers should collect dietary data from children over several years, not just at age 8, he said, to determine a causal link.

“The relationship between ADHD and diet has been a longstanding area of controversy and confusion,” Adesman said. “Although this study tries to resolve some of the ‘chicken versus egg’ questions regarding diet and ADHD, the limitations of the study suggest that additional research is needed to fully delineate this relationship…In short, dietary differences may be worthy of further research, but it is unlikely that these differences are key to understanding the development of ADHD or its treatment.”

In the meantime, this study makes no determination regarding the efficacy of treating ADHD symptoms with dietary modifications and/or supplements — two approaches that roughly a third of all families use, according to a 2017 ADDitude treatment survey.


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