RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Most parents know that feeding kids lots of sugar will undoubtedly lead to the youngsters bouncing off walls, crying and, eventually, crashing out on the couch in a sugar-induced coma. That's one case where the link between food and behavior is pretty clear. But a new study in the Journal of Attention Disorders suggests that sugar, along with other types of unhealthy processed foods, could have more subtle effects on a child's mental health. The study found an association between Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and diet, specifically Western diets that include too many processed meats, full-fat dairy, and unhealthy carbohydrates.
THE DETAILS: The authors used data collected from a 14-year study on pregnancy and child health that involved 2,900 women. The mothers were recruited during pregnancy, and at the 14-year mark, they filled out questionnaires about their children's dietary habits, and any diagnosis of ADHD. The latter was confirmed using clinical records. Data was collected on 1,860 14-year-old children, of whom 6.5 percent had been diagnosed with ADHD. Boys were more likely than girls to have ADHD, and children who ate a heavily "Western" diet—heavy on processed foods and meats, full-fat dairy, and fast food—were more likely to develop the condition than children eating a healthy diet that centered on vegetables, whole grains, and very little meat or dairy. The pattern existed even after adjusting for factors such as income and socioeconomic status.
The authors noted that certain foods were also more likely to influence ADHD risk. For instance, kids who had the highest intakes of fast food, sweets, red meat, processed meats, and high-fat dairy products were the most likely to have ADHD, and kids who at a lot of potato chips and drank more soft drinks had an elevated risk as well. The good news is that children who exercised at least twice a week outside of school saw a significantly decreased risk of ADHD, regardless of dietary pattern.
WHAT IT MEANS: The link between diet and mental health is well established for other mental disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, and impulsive behavior, says the study's lead author Wendy Oddy, Phd, MPH, a research fellow at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research at the University of Western Australia. "It would appear that a diet dense in fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish products, legumes, whole grains, and a reduced intake of takeout, red meat, and sugar-dense foods is best for one's mental well-being," she says.