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jess joy adhd food joe wicks

‘ADHD diagnoses can make eating well a challenge’Jess Joy

An unexpected spotlight has fallen on the 5% of school-age children in the UK with ADHD (or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) after Joe Wicks last week appeared to suggest it was down to poor diet. Here, Jess Joy – co-founder of Instagram platform @IAmPayingAttention, who has been empowered by her own diagnosis as an adult in 2021 – points out the important message lost in the heated debate…

Whether you have your ear to the ground on ADHD issues or not, it’s likely you’ve heard about Joe Wicks sharing his views on the condition that affects 2.6 million people of all ages in the UK. The 38-year-old PT used his hugely popular pandemic-era PE lessons for kids to launch an equally successful brand of healthy living, from workouts to cookbooks, but as someone with a recent diagnosis – and conscious of the misunderstanding prevalent in this space – I fear this is one area where he might need a little schooling of his own.

To bring you up to speed, Wicks – also known as The Body Coach – told the BBC Radio 5 Live Headliners podcast that if he were a child in 2024 he believes he would have been diagnosed with ADHD, with his poor behaviour at school linked to his diet at home. ‘There’s no doubt the food I was eating was directly linked to my behaviour,’ he said.

‘I was never diagnosed with ADHD but I think nowadays it’s this common thing that every child seems to be being diagnosed, and I think a lot of it can stem back to the diet and the foods that we’re eating. So, when I think about my diet it was cereal for breakfast, concentrated juice from the milkman, Sunny Delight, Wagon Wheels, sandwiches just jam, Nutella, very little nutrients – pure sugar.’

Following backlash from ADHDers, experts in the space and leading charities, Wicks hopped on Instagram to insist that his words had been misconstrued. ‘The headline that basically came out of that was “Joe Wicks says that ADHD is caused by poor diet”,’ he told the camera. ‘Now, I know that’s not factual, that isn’t true – and I believe that. I never have, I never would say that.

‘It’s a neurodivergent disorder, which affects the brain. Lots of factors involved. I do believe food has a massive impact. Whether you have ADHD or not, I think it really impacts our mood and our ability to sit still and focus, and even our energy and our mental health, it has a massive impact.’

ADHD and children – food for thought

Having listened to Wicks’ interview – plus his follow-up video – I truly don’t believe his intentions were malicious. I do, however, think that his lack of education – and understanding of the actual reality of a lot of ADHDers – is clear.

Over the years, studies have looked into whether there is a link between the condition and diet. For instance, one 14-year study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders suggested that the Western diet – with higher levels of fat, calories and sugar – may be associated with higher rates in children. However, even the researchers pointed out this only highlighted a possible correlation, not that it was to blame.

As ADHD UK stated in response to Wicks’ comments: ‘There is no one cause of ADHD. It is considered to be a result of an often complex interplay between genetic and environmental factors – with genetic factors being responsible for 70% to 80% of the probability.’

Lost in all this, too, is that the parents of children with ADHD may be limited in what they can feed them – it’s not as simple as serving up a plate of vegetables. Even the aforementioned study authors noted that the connection could be explained by how kids may want certain foods – in this case, items that were less-than nourishing – because they provided comfort.

Indeed, for those with a brain wired like mine, healthy eating often isn’t as straightforward as it might be for others. As well as being diagnosed with ADHD, I’m also autistic (research has found that up to 70% of autistic individuals also present with ADHD) and my life-long journey with food has been complicated to say the least.

Many autistic people rely heavily on ‘safe’ foods that happen to be ultra processed, often due to their predictable nature. They also commonly don’t vary in taste or texture, versus other foods like vegetables or meat which can differ drastically from batch to batch. To demonise processed or ‘unhealthy’ foods wholesale is to ignore that for some members of society they can be a godsend – to be fuelling themselves on something rather than nothing.

It can be improved by healthy eating – but it’s not so simple

Of course, a nourishing diet can serve up both mental and physical benefits. One of the reasons why Wicks’ comments about ADHD and diet really got my attention is that I have been attempting to avoid ultra processed food where possible because of evidence it can help the autoimmune condition lupus – which I was diagnosed with in 2014.

I also agree with him that some foods make us feel better than others – although to me ‘healthy’ foods might differ slightly. To me they include ones that sustain my energy – unlike the days of forgetting to consume anything but coffee until 3pm – that won’t leave me in physical pain, and that I can realistically manage given how my brain works. ‘Healthy’ foods to me are also ones that make me happy – not just because they might be tasty, but also because they contain key nutrients that are good for me and for which I can metaphorically pat myself on the back for consuming.

But putting this into practice has been difficult. Cooking from scratch is a huge challenge for me – whether that’s struggling with finding the energy, holding my attention, getting overwhelmed by the sheer number of steps involved or experiencing sensory issues. Additionally, I didn’t always have the money for more expensive groceries, even if I knew they were better for me.

In recent years, particularly since understanding my neurodivergent brain, I’ve been better able to find approaches to eating that help me nourish my body and meet my physical needs. To positively and sustainably change my relationship with food. I have a tendency to think black and white about things – something common in neurodivergent people – and have had to work hard to find a healthy balance.

But getting to this point has required a knowledge and capacity I didn’t always have. Realistically, not everyone has the disposable energy or finances to eliminate ultra processed foods, nor is it always feasible for them. Such people – like me – don’t need to be carrying any extra shame about struggling to eat ‘healthily’ than they already are.

I have the budget to afford some unprocessed alternatives these days and the energy to make them. However, if either of those things change I truly won’t be shaming myself for swapping out a porridge, paired with fruit and nut butter, for a shop-bought protein bar.

The discussion inadvertently generated by Wicks has also got me thinking about ADHD – and particularly the lack of empathy sometimes involved in conversations centring disability.

Regardless of all the changes I’ve made to my diet, I still have ADHD. I continue to struggle with concentration, memory and organisation, and accidentally interrupt people during conversations. Sure, it’s given me some extra energy and slightly improved mental health, but it doesn’t change the fact that I still find it hard to manage.

Intentional or not, I fear that Wicks’ comments feed into a narrative that the neurodivergent community is not enough, in a society that largely refuses to acknowledge our struggles. Like the rest of the disabled community, those with a brain like ours – and their carers – deserve support.

Because empowering people to create positive changes when it comes to their diet requires them to possess self-compassion, and nobody’s going to hate themselves into changing. Let’s spend more time on understanding the neurodivergent experience here and now in 2024 rather than ‘where’ it comes from.

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