Does the Mediterranean Diet Offer New Hope for ADHD?

By now we’re all familiar with
the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A lack of attention, concentration, memory, motivation, and applied effort are all common traits that can short-circuit a child, teen or adult’s executive functioning skills. Often, ADHD affects one’s ability to learn from mistakes, control impulses, and develop appropriate social skills.

Unfortunately, the etiology of ADHD isn’t yet completely understood. Though it’s considered “highly genetic,” scientists believe there may be multiple co-factors. One new study, for instance, shows  a link between an ADHA diagnosis and low adherence to a Mediterranean diet pattern.

The Mediterranean diet consists of whole, diverse foods including vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, breads, herbs, spices, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil. It’s a diet where, poultry, eggs, and dairy are eaten in moderation, and red meat is a rare treat. And foods with added sugars, sugar-sweetened beverages, processed meat, refined grains, refined oils and any other highly processed foods? Generally, not eaten.

The study involved 120 participants, both children and teens. Participants were divided into two groups, one consisting of 60 newly diagnosed ADHD participants and the other, of 60 sex- and age-matched controls.

Energy, dietary intake, adherence to a Mediterranean diet, and family background were measured. Dietary patterns and adherence to the Mediterranean diet of both groups were tracked using journals, questionnaires, and the KIDMED test.

Reseachers compared these groups and  found that those with a low adherence were more likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD.

These findings support previous research that has indicated clear dietary associations. One previous study found traditional diets low in sugar, food dyes, and preservatives may offer protection from ADHD. Diets containing low levels of copper, iron, zinc, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids and high in sugar, artificial food colorings, and preservatives were associated with an increased risk of ADHD.

Another notable study determined that free fatty acid supplementation and food dye exclusion may improve ADHD symptoms.

Though ADHD does have a genetic component, it’s considered multifactorial. Environmental risk factors such as exposures to lead, mercury, organochlorine, organophosphates, and phthalates, as well as diet and lifestyle all play a role.

While we can’t eliminate all potential risk factors, the Mediterranean diet does appear to safeguard against an ADHD diagnosis. It also appears to protect against chronic diseases of inflammation, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and yes, even periodontal disease.

There is hope this study will usher in new approaches for ADHD treatment. Rather than prescribing pharmaceuticals as a first line of defense, perhaps research-based dietary and supplemental therapies could be seen as a first phase in treating ADHD.

A minimally-invasive approach could also include other innovative strategies, like the Hunter or Farmer approach that Thom Hartman’s research yielded years ago. Hartman has long questioned the harm a diagnostic label can have on a child’s self-image. He suggests reframing the “label” to highlight ADHD traits as traits belonging to a Hunter or Farmer. Reframed, Hartman says, traits can be seen as “genetic gifts” each child has inherited.

While more research is needed, we remain hopeful that a first line of defense for treatment of ADHD could include specific dietary or supplemental therapy. We see the potential for creating a higher level of self-esteem by “reframing” a child’s diagnostic name into genetic gifts. And, we encourage a diverse, nutrient dense diet that includes the foundational aspects of the Mediterranean Diet for ADHD, and for life in general.

Photo Credit: Neil Moralee