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British fitness coach Joe Wicks has come under heavy criticism for claiming that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – ADHD – is caused by ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

In an interview with BBC Radio 5’s Headliners podcast on Tuesday, Wicks, known as The Body Coach, blamed UPFs for a spike in ADHD cases.

The 38-year-old, who rose to prominence for his YouTube home workout videos during the Covid-19 pandemic, told the podcast: “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.”

Wicks, the author of 11 cookbooks which have sold more than 2 million copies worldwide, said that now people are cooking less and less and relying more and more on ready meals and sugary snacks.

“And that’s the issue we’ve got because people are cooking less than ever and relying on these processed foods and it’s a shame because kids are getting their energy sucked out of them,” he told the podcast.

“They’re struggling at school with focus, they’re gaining weight, and probably having really low energy crashes because these foods are just not going to give your children the energy they need to sustain a healthy day — a balanced level of energy,” he added.

Why was Wicks’ claim criticised?

ADHD UK, the UK’s leading neurodiversity charity, spoke out against Wicks’ comments in a statement posted on Instagram, calling his claim “disappointing,” “misleading,” “wrong,” and “damaging”.

“It was really disappointing to hear Joe Wicks linking a processed food diet to having ADHD,” said Henry Shelford, chief executive and co-founder of the charity, adding: “Joe is a force for so much good but on this, he is abjectly wrong.”

He went on to set the record straight, saying that “diet good, bad, or ugly won’t make you have ADHD or make you not have ADHD.”

“To suggest for ADHD that swapping sweets or burgers for a plate of veggies is all that is needed to ‘fix’ someone with ADHD is both wrong and damaging,” he said, before adding that such a claim is “misleading and undermines the very real difficulty of living with the life-long condition ADHD”.

Dr Max Davie, co-founder of the charity and consultant paediatrician with a specialism in ADHD, joined Shelford in debunking Wicks’ claim.

“There is absolutely no evidence that any particular diet, including ultra-processed food, has any causative role in the development of ADHD symptoms and to suggest otherwise is a gross distortion of the facts,” he said.

Dr James Brown, chair and co-founder of ADHD Adult UK, made the same point.

“While processed foods often lack essential nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iron, and magnesium, which are important for brain health and function, there is no robust evidence that processed foods ‘cause’ or ‘worsen’ ADHD symptoms,” he told i.

What causes ADHD?

Scientists say the causes and risk factors for ADHD are unknown, though ongoing research shows that genetics play an important role.

Besides genetics, scientists are looking into other possible causes and risk factors, including brain injury exposure to environmental risks during pregnancy or at a young age, alcohol or tobacco use during pregnancy, premature delivery and low birth weight.

However, research does not support the widespread belief that ADHD is caused by sugar consumption, excessive TV consumption, parenting, or social and environmental variables such as poverty or family dysfunction.

“Sadly, ADHD is still associated with persistent and damaging myths, misunderstandings, and stigma, with much of the stigma around ADHD falling on mothers, so Joe Wicks perpetuating these myths by sharing poorly researched and incorrect opinions on processed food and ADHD will only add to the societal stigma that people with ADHD have to face on a daily basis,” Dr Brown said.

What does the research say?

Dr Brown warned that most studies looking into nutrition and ADHD are “poorly designed”, and mostly “observational” and so can only report “associations” but not “causality”.

He cited a meta-analysis of seven studies encompassing a total of more than 25,000 participants from six countries on three continents – the largest study to date – which found no evidence of any association between sugar consumption and ADHD in youth, he said.

He also referred to a smaller study in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, which looked at the evidence from 15 trials with 219 participants and reported that artificial food dyes were associated with a “small” increase in hyperactivity in children.

A separate analysis published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, covering 20 studies with only 794 individuals, found a “very small” increase in ADHD symptoms, but “only when rated by parents”, not by teachers or other observers, he said.

“Collectively, these studies do not provide sufficient evidence to support any claim that processed food either causes or significantly worsens ADHD,” Dr Brown said.

How is ADHD diagnosed?

Most cases are diagnosed when children are under 12 years old, with some diagnosed later in childhood while others go unnoticed until later in adulthood, the NHS says.

A complete assessment allows an expert to provide an accurate diagnosis: this may include a physical examination, a series of interviews with a parent and their child, and interviews or reports from other important parties, such as partners, parents, and teachers.

Common symptoms of ADHD include inattentiveness – difficulty concentrating and focusing – and hyperactivity and impulsiveness, with many people falling into both categories.

To be diagnosed with ADHD, a child must exhibit six or more symptoms of inattention, or six or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity.

When it comes to adults, though, they must show five or more of the symptoms of inattentiveness, or five or more of hyperactivity and impulsiveness to be diagnosed with ADHD.

The NHS says around two to three in 10 people with the condition have problems with concentrating and focusing, but not with hyperactivity or impulsiveness.

ADHD is more common in men than in women, and female ADHD patients are more likely to show inattention symptoms, according to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

How is ADHD treated?

In the UK, there are five types of medicine licensed for the treatment of ADHD: methylphenidate, lisdexamfetamine, dexamfetamine, atomoxetine and guanfacine.

These medications are not a cure for ADHD, but they can help people with the disease concentrate better, be less impulsive, feel calmer, and acquire and practice new skills.

Last December, i revealed that the UK would suffer shortages affecting ADHD medications well into 2024 due to persistent supply-chain problems.

The charity ADHD UK reported a “significant decline” in the availability of drugs in February, with only 11% receiving their typical prescription in January, down from 52% in September.

The medical journal, The Lancet, and the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), both report a childhood incidence rate of 5 per cent and an adult incidence rate of 3-4 per cent, which accounts for about 2.6 million people in the UK with ADHD, according to ADHD UK.

Do you think you may suffer from ADHD and live in Florida, California or New York?

If so, please consider scheduling a proper virtual online ADHD and Anxiety diagnosis with one of our physicians. Although we have an online ADHD and Anxiety diagnosis tool, a proper diagnosis from a Board-Certified Medical Doctor will help you know for sure. If appropriate, a customized treatment program will be recommended at the conclusion of that initial visit.

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