ADHD News & Research

Unhealthy Prenatal Diet Linked to Increased Risk of ADHD

More than 40 percent of children with conduct disorder also have ADHD. New research suggests that a mother’s high-sugar, high-fat diet during pregnancy could increase the odds of her child having conduct disorder.

August 19, 2016

Many people insist that a low-sugar, low-additive diet can help manage symptoms of ADHD. Now, a new study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry finds that a healthy diet may make a measurable difference even before a baby is even born.

Researchers from King’s College London and the University of Bristol analyzed data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children to compare 83 children with early-onset conduct problems, such as lying and fighting, with 81 children with very few conduct problems. They examined how a mother’s prenatal diet and nutrition impacted her child’s insulin-like growth factor 2 (IGF2), a gene involved in developing the fetal cerebellum and hippocampus – two regions of the brain commonly associated with ADHD.

They found increased epigenetic changes – or environmental factors that turn particular genetic traits ‘on’ or ‘off’ – to IGF2 in mothers who ate a diet high in fat, sugar, and processed foods during pregnancy. When analyzing kids’ blood samples taken at birth and age 7, the scientists found a positive correlation between the amount of IGF2 methylation present and the likelihood that a child with early-onset conduct problems would develop ADHD between ages 7 and 13.

While highlighting the importance of eating a healthy diet during pregnancy, this research establishes association, not causation. “ADHD/conduct problems are very complex psychiatric problems; they are multi-determined,” says coauthor Dr. Edward Barker. “Diet could be important, but it’s going to be important alongside a host of other risks. A sensible diet can improve symptoms but it’s not a single causal agent.” The research team plans to do additional work to determine the specific types of foods that could lower the risk of ADHD and conduct disorders in children.

Journal Reference:

1. Jolien Rijlaarsdam, Charlotte A. M. Cecil, Esther Walton, Maurissa S.C. Mesirow, Caroline L. Relton, Tom R. Gaunt, Wend McArdle, Edward D. Barker. Prenatal unhealthy diet, insulin-like growth factor 2 gene (IGF2) methylation, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms in youth with early-onset conduct problems. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, July 2016; Online. DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.12589