Published a couple days ago, the study has already made it onto several news sources. For example, Daily Mail’s headline summarized it as follows: “Don’t want your child to have ADHD? Adopt a Mediterranean diet, experts tell mums-to-be.”
Huffington Post opted for a somewhat more measured approach: “The Mediterranean Diet Could Help Kids With ADHD,” their headline read.
In both cases, the central message seems to be that adhering to a Mediterranean diet higher in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and lower in unhealthy sugars and fats could prevent ADHD. Or, to put it another way, not adhering to a Mediterranean diet could increase the risk of developing ADHD.
Now let’s look at what the study actually found.
To learn about the connection between Mediterranean diet and ADHD, researchers recruited 60 children and teens who’d been recently diagnosed with ADHD and 60 who didn’t have ADHD. When they surveyed participants’ eating habits, they found that children who more closely followed a Mediterranean diet were seven times less likely to be in the ADHD group.
They also found that children in the ADHD group had a tendency to do all of the following:
- Consume less fruit, vegetables, pasta, rice and fatty fish
- Consume more sugar, candy and soft drinks
- Skip breakfast
- Eat at fast-food restaurants
The sexiest way to interpret these results is to say that following a Mediterranean diet prevents ADHD. So naturally, that’s the interpretation that makes it into the headlines at Daily Mail and Huffington Post.
But that’s only one interpretation. The research only established a correlation between Mediterranean diet and ADHD – it didn’t make any claims about which one causes the other. For example, here are some other plausible explanations:
- Children and teens with ADHD could be less disciplined in their dietary habits and impulsively consume more unhealthy food.
- Children and teens with ADHD could have parents with ADHD, which could result in less healthy eating patterns for the whole family.
- Risk for ADHD correlates with things like family income and education level, which could influence diet.
You might think some of these explanations sound more likely than others. But the study itself doesn’t shed light on which way the cause-and-effect goes. It’s possible that poor diet increases risk for ADHD. It’s possible that having ADHD makes people more likely to have unhealthy eating habits. It’s possible that neither directly causes the other. And it’s possible that some mixture of all these factors is at play.
Incidentally, the authors of the study are quick to acknowledge that more research has to be done to figure out cause-and-effect. Here are some quotes from the paper that drive this point home:
Although these cross-sectional associations do not establish causality, they raise the question of whether low adherence to a Mediterranean diet might play a role in ADHD development.
Individuals with ADHD are often characterized by impulsivity traits and emotional distress that may lead to poor dietary choices (i.e., fat-rich or sugar-rich snack foods) to balance their emotions as a form of self-medication.
Parents of individuals with ADHD often report a more dysfunctional family environment, it is plausible that the relationship between low adherence to a healthy diet and ADHD diagnosis may be exacerbated by a dysfunctional family environment.
The bottom line is that there’s something going on here, but the study in and of itself raises just as many questions as it answers.
Still, one thing we can all agree on is that making healthy choices about what you eat is always a good idea. After all, ADHD aside, physical health is important too!
So regardless of which way the cause-and-effect goes, you can’t go wrong by taking note of this study. If it’s true that unhealthy dietary choices exacerbate ADHD, then great, eating well can only help. And if it’s true that the causation goes in the other direction, that having ADHD leads people to eat unhealthy foods, this study is a wake-up call that ADHD symptoms like impulsivity can affect your diet and your health.
Image: Flickr/Fiona Moore