Kid breaking pencilTalk of the health risks from “the Western diet” is nothing new. “Western diet” is shorthand for one that’s heavy in processed sugars, fats, and starches; high in salt and meats; and low in fresh fruits and vegetables. The diseases long associated with it are diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and cancer.

But a study out of Australia suggests that such a diet may not just put kids’ bodies at risk, but their brains. Scientists from the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Perth, believe that eating a Western diet heightens the risk of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in kids.

The researchers looked at the diets of 1,800 teens involved in an ongoing long-term health study. They classified the participants’ diets into two categories, “Western” and “Healthy,” with a “Healthy Diet” being one high in fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and fish.

Wendy Oddy, one of the study authors, summarized the findings (via Science Daily): “We found a diet high in the Western pattern of foods was associated with more than double the risk of having an ADHD diagnosis compared with a diet low in the Western pattern, after adjusting for numerous other social and family influences … having an ADHD diagnosis was associated with a diet high in takeaway foods, processed meats, red meat, high fat dairy products, and confectionery.”

Oddy suggested that one reason for the ADHD association may be the kids’ lack of omega-3 fatty acids, which many scientists believe aid brain function.

The main caveat from this study is that it was not longitudinal — it didn’t follow individual kids to see what happened to them, but rather analyzed a large population. As a result, we can’t know with certainly how much of this effect is due to parents “giving in” to kids with ADHD, or ADHD kids themselves “giving in” to their impulses, rather than the diet itself causing the condition. More study is needed. That said, it’s unlikely that parents of kids on a healthy diet go to the other extreme of allowing nothing but processed foods and meat in the face of an ADHD diagnosis.

Even the possibility that a poor diet might lead to ADHD in a child should be enough to raise serious alarms in any parent, including me. Between diet, food coloring, and pesticides, the potential causes of ADHD are overwhelming. At what point do the FDA, manufacturers, and the medical establishment admit that maybe we’ve got a problem here?