Eating Sweet, Fatty Foods During Pregnancy is Linked to ADHD in Children

Researchers find a potential epigenetic connection underlying ADHD in children

Moms eating sweet fatty foods linked to ADHD in children

A high-fat, high-sugar diet during pregnancy could be connected to ADHD in children, suggests new research. A mother’s diet may adjust epigenetic marks that attach to her child’s DNA, potentially increasing the odds that he or she will develop ADHD.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, has become a prevalent condition in modern society as researchers attempt to explain its dramatic rise. As of 2011, around 6.4 million children ages 4 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD according to the CDC. It often occurs in tandem with early onset conduct problems in children, such as lying or fighting and, in previous studies, has been traced back to many factors like maternal distress or poor nutrition.

In a study of over 160 children, researchers from King’s College London and the University of Bristol assessed mothers’ nutrition along with marks on their children’s DNA in order to identify associated epigenetic changes. Specifically, they looked at DNA methylation of IGF2, a gene linked to fetal development and development of certain areas of the brain associated with ADHD, namely, the cerebellum and hippocampus.

They found that eating sweet and fatty foods during pregnancy was linked to higher DNA methylation of IGF2 in children who had early-onset conduct problems. Higher IGF2 DNA methylation at birth was able to predict ADHD symptoms in children between the ages of 7 and 13 who had early-onset conduct problems.

“Our finding that poor prenatal nutrition was associated with higher IGF2 methylation highlights the critical importance of a healthy diet during pregnancy,” said Dr. Edward Barker from King’s College London.

“A prenatal maternal high-fat and -sugar diet may alter the DNA methylation status of the IGF2 gene at birth, which in turn, may increase risk for a range of psychiatric and health disorders,” the researchers reported.

Could a healthy prenatal diet lower ADHD symptoms and conduct issues in children via epigenetic mechanisms? Dr. Barker believes this may be the case. “This is encouraging given that nutritional and epigenetic risk factors can be altered.”

Further studies will tease out the epigenetic effects of specific nutrients and food types eaten during pregnancy and determine whether they may be able to lessen the risk for diseases. For example, we know that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, nuts, and chicken, are crucial for proper neural development.

“We already know that nutritional supplements for children can lead to lower ADHD and conduct problems, so it will be important for future research to examine the role of epigenetic changes in this process.”

It should be noted that there are many underlying causes of ADHD as well as many small influences all working together. Mothers of children with ADHD or other developmental disorders should not take from this study that they are the cause of their child’s condition. As a society, we should never use insights gained from epigenetic studies to blame mothers. However, the study does strengthen the message of the importance of proper prenatal nutrition.


Source: Rijlaarsdam, J. et al. (2016). 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, doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12589.

Reference: Unhealthy diet during pregnancy could be linked to ADHD. King’s College London. 18 Aug 2016. Web.

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About Bailey Kirkpatrick 164 Articles
Bailey Kirkpatrick is a science writer with a background in epigenetics and psychology with a passion for conveying scientific concepts to the wider community. She enjoys speculating about the implications of epigenetics and how it might impact our perception of wellbeing and the development of novel preventative strategies. When she’s not combing through research articles, she also enjoys discovering new foods, taking nighttime strolls, and discussing current events over a barrel-aged sour beer or cold-brewed coffee.

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