ADHD News & Research

The Anti-ADHD Diet?

Eating lots of fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, nuts, and legumes may make it less likely that a child will be diagnosed with ADHD.

February 8, 2017

Adhering to a “Mediterranean diet” — rich in fruit, vegetables, and “good fat,” and lean in processed foods and saturated fat — may lower the risk of ADHD in children, a new study1 indicates.

Published in the February 2017 issue of Pediatrics by a team at the University of Barcelona, the study examined 120 children, half of whom had ADHD. Children who were taking ADHD medication or nutritional supplements were excluded from the sample. Researchers interviewed subjects (and their parents) about their diets — as well as the severity of their ADHD symptoms — and used the KIDMED test (a tool designed to measure how well children adhere to a Mediterranean diet) to calculate the relationship between their diet and the prevalence of ADHD.

Children with ADHD had a diet that was considerably less “Mediterranean” than their peers without ADHD, results showed. Children with ADHD ate a lot less fish, fruit, vegetables, pasta, and rice — and lot more cola, candy, and “fast food” — than children without the condition. And while eating breakfast is not a formal component of a Mediterranean diet, the researchers noted that kids with ADHD also skipped breakfast more frequently than the controls — potentially leading them to overeat or make poor food choices later in the day.

Spain — the country where the study took place — has historically adhered to a mostly-Mediterranean diet, the researchers said; however, modernization and cultural shifts have led many of the younger generation to consume more fast food, more sugar, and less fruits and vegetables. ADHD rates have risen both in Spain and across the world in the past few decades, leading researchers to wonder if global dietary shifts may be at least partially to blame.

Previous research has made it clear that a poor diet — particularly one that is high and sugar and low in certain vitamins like iron — contributes to more severe ADHD symptoms. However, the specific link between a Mediterranean diet and an ADHD diagnosis was not well explored. The authors note that their study may be the first to examine such a link. They stress that their research didn’t prove that low adherence to a Mediterranean diet causes ADHD; in fact, they note that children with ADHD may have a poor diet because of the condition — particularly if they struggle with impulsive eating.

Still, they say, the study adds further evidence of the link between diet and ADHD, and should be taken into account by physicians when recommending dietary changes to children or adults.

“The current findings suggest that certain dietary habits may play a role in ADHD development, even though further work is required to investigate causality and to determine if dietary manipulation could reverse the symptoms of ADHD, taking into consideration all potential factors,” they conclude. “Therefore, our main recommendation is that clinicians focus on diet — not with the expectation of dietary changes improving behavior — but with the concern that children with ADHD are more likely to be eating unhealthy diets; this component should therefore be part of the evaluation to improve their health.”

1 Ríos-Hernández, Alejandra, et al. “The Mediterranean Diet and ADHD in Children and Adolescents.” Pediatrics, vol. 139, no. 2, 2017, doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2027.