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Western’ Style Diet Increases Risk of ADHD

I recent­ly report­ed on an intrigu­ing study exam­in­ing the impact of an herbal treat­ment for youth with ADHD. Results from this ran­dom­ized-con­trolled tri­al were quite promis­ing and con­sis­tent with the idea that some indi­vid­u­als with ADHD have defi­cien­cies in essen­tial nutri­ents that com­pro­mise healthy brain devel­op­ment and result in ADHD symp­toms. This idea has sparked the long-stand­ing debate about whether dietary fac­tors play an impor­tant role in the devel­op­ment of ADHD, at least for some chil­dren, and led to many stud­ies of this issue.
Although results of these stud­ies elude any sim­ple con­clu­sions, dietary fac­tors do appear to con­tribute to ADHD symp­toms in some indi­vid­u­als.

Some have argued that research on the rela­tion­ship between diet and ADHD is more impor­tant than ever because the diets of chil­dren in West­ern coun­tries have shown steady increas­es in the amounts of heav­i­ly processed foods rich in sat­u­rat­ed fats, salt, and sug­ars accom­pa­nied by decreas­es in omega-3 fat­ty acids, fiber, and folate. Is it pos­si­ble that such ‘West­ern’ style diets are asso­ci­at­ed with an increased risk of ADHD, and per­haps a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to the high preva­lence of the dis­or­der?

This impor­tant ques­tion was exam­ined in a study pub­lished recent­ly online in the Jour­nal of Atten­tion Dis­or­ders [Howard et. al. (2010). ADHD is asso­ci­at­ed with a “West­ern” dietary pat­tern in ado­les­cents. Jour­nal of Atten­tion Dis­or­ders]. Par­tic­i­pants were 1172 14 year-old Aus­tralian ado­les­cents and their par­ents who had been recruit­ed into the study and fol­lowed since the moth­ers were between 16 and 20 weeks preg­nant. The data col­lect­ed in this study was part of a large-scale lon­gi­tu­di­nal inves­ti­ga­tion focused on a vari­ety of issues relat­ed to under­stand­ing healthy and mal­adap­tive devel­op­ment.

When youth were 14, par­ents were asked whether their child had ever been diag­nosed with ADHD by a qual­i­fied health pro­fes­sion­al. One hun­dred and fif­teen — near­ly 10% — had been diag­nosed, includ­ing 91 boys and 24 girls. These diag­noses were con­firmed by review­ing children’s med­ical records. Pri­ma­ry care­givers also com­plet­ed the Food Fre­quen­cy Ques­tion­naire (FFQ) in which they rat­ed the typ­i­cal intake by their child of over 200 dif­fer­ent foods from near­ly 40 dif­fer­ent food groups.

Based on respons­es to the FFQ, 2 major dietary pat­terns were iden­ti­fied.

  • The ‘West­ern’ pat­tern was pos­i­tive­ly asso­ci­at­ed with high­er intakes of total fat, sat­u­rat­ed fat, refined sug­ars, and sodi­um. Spe­cif­ic food types promi­nent in the West­ern diet includ­ed ‘take­away’ foods (I believe this refers to ‘fast’ food’) red meat, processed meats, soft drinks, full fat dairy prod­ucts, soft drinks, sug­ary foods, and fried foods.
  • The ‘Healthy’ pat­tern (these labels were assigned by the inves­ti­ga­tors) was pos­i­tive­ly asso­ci­at­ed with omega-3 fat­ty acids, fiber, and folate. Promi­nent foods in the healthy diet includ­ed all types of veg­eta­bles, fresh fruit, whole grains, legumes, and fish.

Ado­les­cents received scores on both diet pat­terns based on par­ents’ respons­es about their typ­i­cal food intake. Those above the mean were clas­si­fied as ‘high’ for that pat­tern and those below the mean were clas­si­fied as ‘low’. Thus, each ado­les­cent was placed in a high or low group for both the West­erns style and Healthy diets. By clas­si­fy­ing par­tic­i­pants in this way, the researchers could exam­ine whether being high vs. low for a West­ern diet and a Healthy diet was asso­ci­at­ed with an increased like­li­hood of being diag­nosed with ADHD.

Because many fac­tors besides diet may increase risk of ADHD, the researchers mea­sured a num­ber of oth­er vari­ables that could poten­tial­ly con­found the results. These includ­ed mater­nal age at con­cep­tion, mater­nal edu­ca­tion, mater­nal smok­ing dur­ing preg­nan­cy, pres­ence of bio­log­i­cal father in the home dur­ing preg­nan­cy, fam­i­ly income dur­ing preg­nan­cy, and the num­ber of stress­ful life events expe­ri­enced by the moth­er dur­ing preg­nan­cy. In addi­tion, data was col­lect­ed on ado­les­cents’ typ­i­cal week­ly lev­el of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty and the num­ber of hours they spent each day watch­ing tele­vi­sion, play­ing video games, or using the com­put­er.

- Results -
After con­trol­ling for all the oth­er vari­ables not­ed above, ado­les­cents in the ‘high’ group for the West­ern dietary pat­tern were more than twice as like­ly as those in the ‘low’ group to have been diag­nosed with ADHD.
These results were con­sis­tent for boys and girls. A high score for the Healthy dietary pat­tern, how­ev­er, was not asso­ci­at­ed with reduced risk of hav­ing a diag­no­sis.

When the authors looked at spe­cif­ic food groups, high con­sump­tion of fast food, red meat, processed meats, and high-fat dairy prod­ucts, pota­to chips, and soft drinks were all asso­ci­at­ed with increased risk of an ADHD diag­no­sis.

Increased like­li­hood of an ADHD diag­no­sis was also relat­ed to moth­ers hav­ing expe­ri­enced mul­ti­ple stress­ful events dur­ing preg­nan­cy. The only vari­able asso­ci­at­ed with low­er odds of diag­no­sis was phys­i­cal activ­i­ty, as youth who exer­cised at least 2 hours per week out­side of school were less like­ly than oth­ers to be diag­nosed.

- Sum­ma­ry and Impli­ca­tions -
Results from this study based on a large com­mu­ni­ty sam­ple of youth clear­ly indi­cate that a West­ern-style dietary pat­tern is asso­ci­at­ed with greater odds of hav­ing ADHD. This was true for both boys and girls. The West­ern-style diet iden­ti­fied in this study was one that was high in total fat, sat­u­rat­ed fats, refined sug­ars, and sodi­um.

One pos­si­ble inter­pre­ta­tion of these find­ings is that diets high in these food ele­ments play a direct causal role in the devel­op­ment of ADHD. How­ev­er, there was no evi­dence that adher­ing to a healthy diet, i.e., one high in veg­eta­bles, fresh fruit, whole grains, and fish, reduced the odds of being diag­nosed. Thus, while West­ern style diets may increase risk for ADHD, the find­ings do not sup­port the notion that adher­ing to a health­i­er diet reduces such risk. This does not mean that the healthy dietary pat­tern may not have had oth­er ben­e­fits, but only that it did not alter the risk for ADHD beyond what could be explained by being high vs. low for the West­ern-style pat­tern.

While it is tempt­ing to con­clude that the West­ern dietary pat­tern direct­ly con­tributed to the devel­op­ment of ADHD in some youth, the authors are care­ful to note that the design of their study does not allow causal con­clu­sions to be made. For exam­ple, although the con­sump­tion of a more ‘West­ern’ style diet may have “…pro­mot­ed the expres­sion of atten­tion deficits” it is also pos­si­ble that “…diag­nosed atten­tion deficits led to poor­er food choic­es and a more ‘West­ern’ style diet.” For exam­ple, the authors sug­gest that their results “…could be explained by the ten­den­cy for ado­les­cents expe­ri­enc­ing emo­tion­al dis­tress to crave fat-rich snack foods as a self-sooth­ing strat­e­gy.” It is also worth
not­ing that this study did not exam­ine whether dietary changes can reduce ADHD symp­toms and that the find­ings should not be inter­pret­ed in that way.

While no sin­gle study can ful­ly answer com­pli­cat­ed ques­tions per­tain­ing to the role of diet and nutri­tion­al fac­tors in the eti­ol­o­gy of ADHD, this research clear­ly high­lights that a West­ern-style dietary pat­tern is asso­ci­at­ed with increased odds of hav­ing an ADHD diag­no­sis. This sug­gests, but does not prove, that dietary pat­terns may be impli­cat­ed in the devel­op­ment of ADHD, and high­lights the need for addi­tion­al study so that a more defin­i­tive under­stand­ing of this impor­tant issue can be obtained.

These find­ings also pro­vide an reminder that although risk for ADHD has been strong­ly linked to genet­ic fac­tors, it is impor­tant to con­tin­ue the explo­ration of oth­er fac­tors that may increase risk. Such explo­ration should ulti­mate­ly lead to a rich­er under­stand­ing of the dis­or­der and how it devel­ops, and hope­ful­ly to the devel­op­ment of more effec­tive treat­ments.

Rabiner_David– Dr. David Rabin­er is a child clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and Direc­tor of Under­grad­u­ate Stud­ies in the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­ogy and Neu­ro­science at Duke Uni­ver­sity. He pub­lishes Atten­tion Research Update, an online newslet­ter that helps par­ents, pro­fes­sion­als, and edu­ca­tors keep up with the lat­est research on ADHD, and teach­es the online course  How to Nav­i­gate Con­ven­tion­al and Com­ple­men­tary ADHD Treat­ments for Healthy Brain Devel­op­ment.

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3 Responses

  1. james says:

    It is also worth not­ing that this study did not exam­ine whether dietary changes can reduce ADHD symp­toms and that the find­ings should not be inter­pret­ed in that way.”

    I would like to add an obser­va­tion on this point. We have two sets friends each with a child that has been diag­nosed with ADHD. A few years ago we sug­gest­ed to them that they try the “elim­i­na­tion diet”, which is used to iden­ti­fy food aller­gies. The diet removes all preser­v­a­tives, arti­fi­cial col­ors and fla­vors, and foods that are high in nat­ur­al food chem­i­cals. In both cas­es the symp­toms remit­ted spon­ta­neous­ly and they have enjoyed good health since.

    This is not to say that the change in diet reduced ADHD symp­toms. My own pet the­o­ry is that food intol­er­ance is often mis­di­ag­nosed as ADHD, because the symp­toms in chil­dren can be very sim­i­lar.

  2. Anon says:

    It would real­ly take lit­tle to con­vince me that this is true. In 2002 I suf­fered a rup­tured cere­bral aneurysm on the ante­ri­or com­mu­ni­cat­ing artery fol­lowed by the clip­ping surgery to repair the bleed. While, for the most part, I emerged phys­i­cal­ly intact I did have deficits relat­ed to the expe­ri­ence. I suf­fered extreme fatigue (both phys­i­cal and men­tal), was very dis­or­ga­nized, for­get­ful and could not remain focused on any­thing for any length of time. Pri­or to the rup­ture my weight had been increas­ing and in the months after­ward I real­ly bal­looned up. As my weight had reached a point that it was threat­en­ing my health I did make attempts at diet­ing. My girl­friend took a very crit­i­cal look at my diet and noticed that I was con­sum­ing huge amounts of fats and sug­ars. I con­cen­trat­ed on reduc­ing these, no deep fried foods, no fast food, no soda, and ate a bal­anced healthy diet. The weight begin quick­ly drop­ping off and I noticed a def­i­nite improve­ment in my thought process­es. Now, some eight years post rup­ture, it is even more appar­ent, to me, how much this diet improved me and not just my car­dio­vas­cu­lar health.

    James, you pose a good ques­tion. In my opin­ion, based sole­ly on my own expe­ri­ence, I would think that dietary changes could well reduce ADHD symp­toms.

  3. Anon says:

    James, are refer­ring to nat­ur­al whole food intol­er­ance or processed foods?

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