Updated 12 July 2017

Diet in pregnancy may influence child's odds for ADHD

Results of a new study suggest that promoting a healthy prenatal diet may ultimately lower ADHD symptoms and conduct problems in children.

An unhealthy diet during pregnancy could influence a child's risk of ADHD, a new study warns.

Many causes of ADHD

Researchers found that a high-fat, high-sugar diet can affect the function of a gene called IGF2 that helps steer foetal development of brain regions previously linked to ADHD.

"These results suggest that promoting a healthy prenatal diet may ultimately lower ADHD symptoms and conduct problems in children," said senior researcher Edward Barker, director of the developmental psychopathology lab at King's College London.

However, Barker said the study only shows an association, rather than a direct cause-and-effect. "We do not suggest that a mother's diet will cause ADHD or conduct problems," he said. "There are many causes of ADHD and conduct problems, and usually many small influences are at work together, diet being one of them."

Read: Smoking during pregnancy linked to ADHD in offspring

A bad diet appears to influence the way the IGF2 gene is read and interpreted by cells through a process called DNA "methylation", Barker said. In methylation, an extra molecule is tacked onto a DNA strand.

"DNA methylation can influence how a person's genetic make-up might affect their development, in response to risk exposures including poor nutrition," Barker said.

Conduct problems

Animal research has shown that what a mother eats during pregnancy can change the action of genes important for the development of the brain, but very little is known about the influence of diet during pregnancy on the human brain, he said.

To investigate this, Barker and his colleagues compared 83 British children aged seven to 13 with conduct problems against 81 relatively well-behaved children. Conduct problems often go hand in hand with ADHD, his team noted.

During pregnancy, the children's mothers filled out a questionnaire regarding their diet.

Read: Painkiller used in pregnancy linked to ADHD

Researchers then assessed whether the IGF2 gene in their children had experienced DNA methylation. They did this using blood samples taken either from the children's umbilical cord at birth or from the child at age seven.

The IGF2 gene is involved in the development of the cerebellum and hippocampus, regions of the brain that have been implicated in ADHD, the researchers explained.

ADHD can be passed down

The researchers found that poor prenatal nutrition was associated with higher IGF2 methylation in children with conduct problems. Diets that included lots of processed foods and baked sweets particularly appeared to affect the function of IGF2, Barker said.

Higher IGF2 methylation also was associated with increased ADHD symptoms, but only for children with conduct problems, the researchers noted.

But there's more than one way to interpret these results, warned Dr Ruth Milanaik, director of the neonatal neurodevelopmental follow-up programme at Cohen Children's Medical Centre New Hyde Park, New York.

ADHD can be passed down from parent to child through genetics, Milaniak said. These children might simply have inherited their ADHD from their mother, with the pregnant mom's poor diet playing little to no role.

"Women who have ADHD who are hyperactive may impulsively overeat and impulsively make poor food decisions," Milaniak said. "We all know that genetics in some way play a part in ADHD, and before this study can be really generalised we need to look at the genetics of the mother."

A woman's ADHD might also lead her to smoke, drink or use drugs during pregnancy, which are also risk factors for childhood ADHD, Milaniak added.

Read: Antidepros during pregnancy raise ADHD risk in kids

"There are some confounding variables here that I'm not 100 percent sure of," she said. "Without correcting for them, you really have an issue."

Well-rounded diet

Milaniak believes the study should be followed up, but she is concerned about backlash from these findings.

"I don't want this to be another thing that can be used to put guilt or blame on any mother," she said. "It is very difficult to have a child with ADHD. What they don't need is somebody pointing a finger at a mother."

However, both Barker and Milaniak agreed that a healthy diet during pregnancy is important for proper foetal development. Such a diet should be well-rounded, and include lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy, and protein from animals and plants.

"Diet is important for a child's health and development," Barker said. Foods that a mother might want to eat in moderation include processed foods and sweets, he added.

The study was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Read more:

What is ADHD?

Causes of ADHD

Treating ADHD


Ask the Expert

ADHD Expert

Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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