Food and ADHD: When Too Little Means Too Much to Children

Food insecurity describes a person’s worry and fear about not having enough food or having access to nutritious and safe food. For children, food insecurity can be a big problem. Even in industrialized countries like Canada, many children do not have access to adequate food sources. This can cause them to experience physical problems such as illnesses. Also, children who have food insecurities may not be able to perform at their best in academic settings. Together, these deficiencies can lead to psychological problems in children as well.

To determine what type of impact food security has on the mental health of children, one must first control for other conditions that can affect psychological well-being, including parental depression, poverty, parental tobacco use, and overall family functioning and parenting. To accomplish this, Maria Melchior of the Centre for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health in France conducted an analysis of over 2,000 Canadian children.

Melchior first measured food insecurity when the children were 1 and 4. Later, at age 4, 5, 6, and 8, Melchior evaluated the mental health of the children. She found that psychological issues were high in the total sample. Specifically, over 20% of the children had anxiety or depression, over 25% had symptoms of aggression and 6% demonstrated symptoms associated with attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD). When she controlled for the other factors such as family poverty level, parental education, and tobacco use in the home, she found that there was a strong association between food insecurity and ADHD.

These results are the first of their kind to demonstrate a potential link between inadequate food supplies and childhood ADHD. For most children, the fear and worry that arise from not having enough food are very real. In an environment that may have other negative conditions, such as familial depression, neglect, or abuse, the stress from food insecurity can be magnified. Understanding the potential behavioral ramifications of food insecurity on children is just one step toward combatting the problem. Melchior added, “Addressing food insecurity and associated problems in families could help reduce the burden of mental health problems in children and reduce social inequalities in development.”

Melchior, M., Chastang, J-F., Falissard, B., Galéra, C., Tremblay, R.E., et al. (2012). Food Insecurity and Children’s Mental Health: A Prospective Birth Cohort Study. PLoS ONE 7(12): e52615. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052615

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Linda


    May 13th, 2013 at 11:21 PM

    How would a 2,3 or even a 4 year old child know and understand about food shortage or lack of healthy food? A child is hungry, he either cries or asks for food, that’s it.

    If you ask me, this is not because the children are themselves identifying the lack of food but rather the body playing it’s role in saying “Hey, I’m not getting enough nutrition!”

    That has to be the reason why issues like ADHD and illnesses are caused. Its because the body isn’t getting enough nutrition.

  • marie


    May 14th, 2013 at 1:48 AM

    the school my boy goes to worries about the kids that don’t have enough food.
    at the end of the day on friday them kids go to the guidance counselor and she give them enough food in there backpack for the weekend.
    Reason i know is cuz my boy always brings home a bunch of food on friday.
    At first I thought its cuz he stole it on the way home.
    boy he almost got in some major trouble.
    til he told me who done give it to him and i call the school and ask myself.
    i think its real nice that them church ladies take up food so kids will have it on the weekend

  • n mcmanus

    n mcmanus

    May 14th, 2013 at 1:51 AM

    It is just so sad that some kids don’t get enough to eat. At home or whereever. With all the food we throw away. In this world. And some kids don’t have enough to eat? It is such a shame. And I hope we can all work together to bring an end to it. I mean how great would that be. If no kids ever had to worry about where their next meal. Was coming from. Or worry about their brothers and sisters being hungry. Cuz I’ve seen kids worry not just about themselves but their brothers and sisters too.

  • Lilac


    May 14th, 2013 at 1:53 AM

    So true-kids that are hungry can’t learn as good as they can when they ain’t hungry. I know. I was one of ’em.

  • Sadie


    May 14th, 2013 at 1:55 AM

    If you can control this:

    To determine what type of impact food security has on the mental health of children, one must first control for other conditions that can affect psychological well-being, including parental depression, poverty, parental tobacco use, and overall family functioning and parenting.

    you can control the world. Go for it, honey!

  • Ashley


    April 4th, 2018 at 1:34 PM

    I don’t think that they mean that they are some how making it go away where it exists in the households in this study… I assume they mean that they eliminated those families from the results. In order to get the data they were searching for, they had to “control” the environment. This means (probably) that there was a survey and anyone who answered “yes” to those things listed were eliminated from at least this portion of the results. I could be wrong – but I’m pretty sure that’s what they mean in a study like this when they say they will “control for it”.

  • Frank


    May 14th, 2013 at 1:57 AM

    Um…why is some woman in France studying some kids in Canada? Why not study them in France? Sometimes, I just don’t get these people and the way they choose to study other people. This is one of those times. I just don’t get it…

  • Gregory Q

    Gregory Q

    May 14th, 2013 at 2:01 AM

    Children who are chronically hungry are at such a huge disadvantage. While they are obviously unable to perform at their peek in physical and mental tasks, a much deeper issue emerges. Kids who are hungry are deeply emotionally scarred by not having enough to eat. They develop a mistrust for the adults and society around them. They cannot trust anyone to care for even their most basic needs which sets up a lifelong pattern of mistrust. These children must adapt and go against morals they are taught at school and at home in order to survive. This type of child is often very hardened as an adult and has a difficult time getting needs met, whatever those needs may be, in a legal way. They become very callous at a young age.

  • Leigh


    May 14th, 2013 at 2:05 AM

    Huge message here: rather than having yet another generation of pill popping kids, let’s make sure they have enough to eat first.

  • j rhymes

    j rhymes

    May 14th, 2013 at 2:08 AM

    i am personally wondering something andwondering if anybody else on here is to. so maybe the not having enough food doesn’t cause the adhd maybe it’s that the kids who have adhd come from families who are real poor more than ones who come from families iwth monehy. i could be way off base here but sometimes i think these studies just find what they want to find.

  • Temiz


    May 14th, 2013 at 2:10 AM

    I don’t see how them hungry kids would have enough energy to by so hyperactive. Seems to me the hungry you are the less energy you have to be so hyper.

    maybe they’s just trying to run away from there hunger or something. or just trying to distract thereselves from feeling so hungry.

  • Patrick


    May 14th, 2013 at 2:13 AM

    Just more reason to have food banks at schools. I am hoping that administrators at the school and district levels are really paying attention to studies like these. Want to improve your test scores? Maybe the way to a child’s brain is through his stomach. Also, kids probably end up going to the nurse a lot when they are hungry. A young child probably can’t tell the difference between a tummy that hurts from being hungry and one that hurts from being sick. And, every minute that is spent outside of the classroom is a minute spent not learning about these holy standards that the world of education seems to revolve around these days.

  • Cassandra Stevens

    Cassandra Stevens

    May 14th, 2013 at 3:56 AM

    Most of us take for granted that there will be food in the house for us to eat whenever we want it, or at least we will have the ability to get it when we wnat it.
    But think from the perspective of a child who never knows whether he will have anything else to eat for the day, or when he might get his next hot meal. This must bve a scary thought for a child to process, so I can certainly see how this fear and insecurity in a child could manifest into behavioral problems, especially when they don’t feel like they have any other way to get some attention and hopefiully a better chance at a full belly.
    We don’t give very much thought to the idea of hunger in our own country, but it is an issue for more people than we probably even know, and to have children suffer from hunger in this land of plenty is unacceptable.



    May 14th, 2013 at 11:28 PM

    Those numbers are very significant!

    I can only imagine what the picture would be in the developing and poorer countries.

    If the screening was done right there the figures would go through the roof if you ask me!

  • tommy


    May 15th, 2013 at 4:02 AM

    you know how it is with any of us. the more we don’t have something the more we seem to want it. and if a young child has this kind of relationship with food from a very early age then this is setting him up for a lifetime of acting out and behaviors that he perceives are more apt to get him what he wants. so how is this supposed to be remedied with medication?

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