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ADHD

06 May 2019

Does diet affect a child's ADHD?

Researchers have found that while kids with ADHD are more likely to have unhealthy diets, their poor diets weren't at the root of their ADHD symptoms

Parents of kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may change their child's diet in the hope it might ease the disorder's symptoms.

But a new study suggests it might not be worth the effort.

The researchers found that while kids with ADHD are more likely to have unhealthy diets, their poor diets weren't at the root of their ADHD symptoms.

"In contrast to what may be expected, we observed that a poor diet does not predict the level of ADHD symptoms in children, either diagnosed or not. So, based on our study, dietary changes may not prevent or reduce ADHD symptoms," said study author Trudy Voortman. She's an assistant professor of nutritional epidemiology at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Impulse eating

Diet has long been suspected to play a role in ADHD. People have tried avoiding certain nutrients or adding supplements to improve symptoms, according to background information in the study.

But the researchers wanted to know if the quality of a child's overall diet might make a difference in their symptoms.

They studied nearly 3 700 children with ADHD from Rotterdam at ages 6, 8 and 10.

The researchers figured out each child's dietary quality score based on the foods they reported eating when they were 8.

Voortman said that children with ADHD had higher than recommended amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages and processed meats. She said their diets tended to be lacking in legumes, vegetables and nuts.

The researchers don't know exactly why these dietary differences occurred. But they suggested the poor dietary choices may have something to do with ADHD symptoms, such as restlessness and poor self-regulation.

"This may translate into impulsive eating of highly palatable foods or having no patience to eat vegetables, which are less rewarding than high-calorie foods," Voortman said.

It's also possible that parents may try to soothe difficult behaviour by offering kids the meals and snacks they prefer instead of healthier choices, she noted.

An open question

Dr Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioural paediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, reviewed the study. He felt it wasn't yet clear if the ADHD symptoms led to the unhealthy diet.

"Although it is possible that underlying ADHD symptoms may be responsible for dietary differences, this remains an open question," said Adesman, who had no part in the research.

He said the study does suggest that diet isn't likely "central to the development of ADHD or its treatment".

Adesman noted that the study would've been stronger if dietary information had been collected when the children were 6, and not just when they were 8.

Both Voortman and Adesman said more research is needed to fully understand this relationship.

In the meantime, because kids with ADHD appear more likely to have unhealthy diets, Voortman said it may be important for health care professionals to monitor children's diets and to provide parents with suggestions for healthier choices.

The findings were published in April issue of the Journal of Nutrition.

Image credit: iStock

 

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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 (www.gb4adhd.co.za) 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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