New research suggests that children that eat a Mediterranean diet may have a reduced likelihood of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The Mediterranean diet, heavy in fruits, vegetables and healthy fats, has been promoted as a likely contender for ‘most ideal diet.’ This study, which was conducted on 120 children in Spain, seems to support that claim.
The study shows that the kids who showed a “low adherence” to the Mediterranean diet were a full seven times more likely to develop ADHD. The children who had ADHD generally ate fewer vegetables, fruits and fatty fish. They also tended to eat more fast food and junk food.
The relationship between ADHD and the Mediterranean diet was correlative, not clearly causal. Nobody knows for sure if diet can effectively prevent ADHD.
One possible explanation for the study’s results is that children who have ADHD simply make worse food choices than kids who don’t.
Richard Gallagher, an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU Langone Child Study Center in New York City, says the study corroborates past research into diet and ADHD.
There is some research that suggests the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids can reduce ADHD symptoms. The Mediterranean diet is famously high in foods that contain omega-3’s, principally oily fish like tuna, salmon and mackerel.
“This is the type of diet that’s recommended for everyone, for their overall health,” says Gallagher. Even if it has no effect on ADHD, it’s still probably a good call for general health.
ADHD is a widespread diagnosis in America. Estimates place about 11% of children between the ages of 4 and 17 as having the disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other research suggests that dietary deficits in iron and zinc can contribute to ADHD symptoms.
The Spanish study followed 120 kids from 6 to 16 years old. Half of them had recently been diagnosed with ADHD. They were scored on how well their average meals meshed with the Mediterranean diet.
Out of the kids who had ADHD, 30% of them were judged to have “good” adherence to the diet. The kids with “medium” or “low” adherence were between three and seven times more likely to have ADHD than the “good” adherence sample.
The results can be interpreted in various ways. Dr. Eric Hollander, director of the Autism and Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City says the study poses a “chicken-and-egg-question” conundrum.
“Kids’ impulsivity can manifest in their eating habits,” he says. He also says that it’s unclear whether the diet as a whole is beneficial or if it’s due to specific nutrients like omega-3’s that happen to be included in it.
“One thing we try to do in managing ADHD is to encourage positive habits, across the board,” Hollander says. He does recommend avoiding sugary processed foods.