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Untangling the Cause-and-Effect Between ADHD and Diet

Does anyone remember the study done a few years ago linking ADHD and Mediterranean diet?

Probably not. In fact, the only reason I remember it is because I wrote a blog post showing that what the study actually found was different than how it was portrayed in the media.

Here’s what happened: some researchers did a study showing that children with ADHD were less likely to follow a Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits and vegetables and low in sugars and fats.

FruitsIn response, some science journalists jumped the gun and decided that the only possible conclusion was that ADHD was caused by a bad diet and could be “treated” with a good diet. Subsequently, major media outlets put out articles with titles like Don’t want your child to have ADHD? Adopt a Mediterranean diet, experts tell mums-to-be.

In my post on the study, I pointed out that there are plenty of other possible explanations for the finding, including that children with ADHD might have less healthy eating patterns due to impulsivity. To interpret the study, there was a clear need for further studies looking at the causality between ADHD and diet.

The reason I bring all this up is because, happily, one such study has just been published. In the study, researchers in the Netherlands assessed 3,680 children’s ADHD symptoms at ages 6 and 10, and their diet at age 8.

What they found was that children’s ADHD symptoms at age 6 predicted the quality of their diet at age 8, but the quality of their diet at age 8 did not predict ADHD symptoms at age 10. To put it another way: children with more ADHD symptoms later on had worse diets, but children with worse diets did not later on experience more ADHD symptoms.

These findings aren’t consistent with the idea that ADHD results from a bad diet, or that adopting a better diet will improve ADHD symptoms. They are consistent with the idea that having ADHD puts children at risk for less healthy eating habits. Here’s the broad conclusion that the researchers drew from their findings:

Our study suggests that children with more ADHD symptoms may be at higher risk of an unhealthy diet but that overall diet quality does not affect ADHD risk.

To go back to the Mediterranean diet study I originally mentioned: these findings weigh in on the side of children with ADHD not following a Mediterranean diet because they have ADHD, rather than a Mediterranean diet “curing” ADHD.

Now, to be clear, this is still just one study, so we have to be tentative in the conclusions we draw. For example, we can’t claim definitively that diet has absolutely no effect on ADHD symptoms.

Just as importantly, this study doesn’t mean there’s no point in following a Mediterranean diet. Having a healthy diet, without question, has many positive effects – it’s just that “curing” ADHD isn’t likely to be one of them!

For ADHDers and parents of children with ADHD, the finding that ADHD symptoms can lead to a lower quality diet is a good reminder to be vigilant about ways your symptoms might be affecting your health.

That’s an important message. This study adds more evidence for the idea that ADHD can really interfere with living a healthy lifestyle and needs to be taken seriously.

Sadly, this result probably won’t be covered by many of the media outlets that covered the original, more ambiguous, finding that ADHD correlates with less healthy eating habits. These latest findings are a little too real, and just not as catchy as being able to take a correlational study and misinterpret it as “proof” that ADHD is caused by a bad diet!

Image: Flickr/Janaina C. Falkiewicz

Untangling the Cause-and-Effect Between ADHD and Diet


Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.


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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). Untangling the Cause-and-Effect Between ADHD and Diet. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 26, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/adhd-millennial/2019/03/untangling-the-cause-and-effect-between-adhd-and-diet/

 

Last updated: 28 Mar 2019
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