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ADHD Associated With Western Diet

ADHD Associated With Western DietDiet may have an influence on the development of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Recent research from Australia suggests that teenagers with ADHD are more likely to have a “Western diet.”

“When we looked at specific foods, having an ADHD diagnosis was associated with a diet high in takeaway foods, processed meats, red meat, high fat dairy products and confectionary,” said Dr. Wendy Oddy, Leader of Nutrition Studies at the Perth Telethon Institute for Child Health Research who led the research with her colleagues.

ADHD is one of the most common problems in childhood; according to the National Institute for Mental Health, 4.1 percent of American children are diagnosed with the disorder.  Symptoms include hyperactivity, behavioral problems, problems in school, and difficulty staying focused and paying attention.  Difficulty functioning can continue throughout life.   The exact causes of ADHD are unknown, but genetics, brain changes, and changes in the levels of some brain chemicals, such as lower levels of dopamine, might play a role.  Recent research has also suggested that chemicals found in common household products, such as packaging, may also play a role in the development of ADHD.

Oddy and her colleagues used data from the Raine Study, which collected a large amount of health, developmental, and environmental information on 2,868 children in Australia from birth.  Oddy analyzed the data on the children’s diets, and whether they had a diagnosis of ADHD.

1,799 of the teens had information recorded about their diets, and the researchers divided the dietary patterns into two groups, “Western” and “Healthy.”

A diet high in fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains was considered “Healthy” and the “Western” diet was considered as higher in fat, especially saturated fats, processed food, sodium, fried food, and refined sugar.

There were a total of 115 adolescents with a diagnosis of ADHD.

“We looked at the dietary patterns amongst the adolescents and compared the diet information against whether or not the adolescent had received a diagnosis of ADHD by the age of 14 years. In our study, 115 adolescents had been diagnosed with ADHD, 91 boys and 24 girls,” said Oddy.

“We found a diet high in the Western pattern of foods was associated with more than double the risk of having an ADHD diagnosis compared with a diet low in the Western pattern, after adjusting for numerous other social and family influences.”

The “Healthy” diet was not associated with a diagnosis of ADHD.

“We suggest that a Western dietary pattern may indicate the adolescent has a less optimal fatty acid profile, whereas a diet higher in omega-3 fatty acids is thought to hold benefits for mental health and optimal brain function,” says Oddy.

Prior research has indicated that decreased levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain can be associated with worsened ADHD symptoms.  Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat found in foods like fish oil and flax seed that have a number of health benefits.  A diet high in omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to reduce ADHD symptoms,  improve symptoms of depression,  symptoms of schizophrenia, and may play a role in bipolar disorder as well.

“It also may be that the Western dietary pattern doesn’t provide enough essential micronutrients that are needed for brain function, particularly attention and concentration, or that a Western diet might contain more colours, flavours and additives that have been linked to an increase in ADHD symptoms. It may also be that impulsivity, which is a characteristic of ADHD, leads to poor dietary choices such as quick snacks when hungry.”

Although this study shows a link between a poor diet and ADHD, it does not necessarily prove that that an unhealthy diet causes ADHD.  It may be that ADHD is the root cause of a poor diet.

“This is a cross-sectional study so we cannot be sure whether a poor diet leads to ADHD or whether ADHD leads to poor dietary choices and cravings,” Dr. Oddy said.

Further research may help to better define the association between diet and ADHD, and help better develop dietary interventions.

Dr. Oddy’s results can be found in the July 14 edition of the Journal of Attention Disorders.

Source:  Journal of Attention Disorders

ADHD Associated With Western Diet

Jessica Ward Jones, MD, MPH

APA Reference
Jones, J. (2019). ADHD Associated With Western Diet. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 18 Mar 2019 (Originally: 3 Aug 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 18 Mar 2019
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