The term “ADHD” often invokes images of hyperactive children who rarely sit still and have endless amounts of energy. Think about what these children may be like as adults, and you’ll likely picture individuals who are always on the go and maintain a relatively average weight because they are so active. Of course, today we know that ADHD is associated with much more than hyperactivity, and that some kids with ADHD experience difficulties with inattention and/or impulsivity without being at all hyperactive. However, even for non-hyperactive kids, parents, teachers, and mental health professionals have historically not considered ADHD to be a risk factor for obesity. Yet, recent research has in fact shown that adults who were diagnosed with ADHD during childhood are more likely to be overweight or obese than adults without a history of ADHD. There is also evidence to suggest that kids with ADHD are more likely to be overweight or obese than kids without ADHD (although additional research is needed to confirm these findings).
Why are kids with ADHD at increased risk for becoming overweight or obese in their lifetime? At this point, researchers aren’t sure, but they do have some theories. Preliminary studies suggest that dysregulated eating patterns, decreased physical activity, sleep problems, genetics, and the executive functioning deficits associated with ADHD may be some of the factors driving the connection. Studies also suggest that treatment of ADHD symptoms with stimulant medication significantly reduces obesity risk.
While there is little specific guidance currently available for parents of kids with ADHD around obesity prevention, targeting factors that may underlie the connection between ADHD and obesity is a good place to start. Helping your child learn to regulate his or her appetite and eating habits, develop healthy sleep patterns, and become physically active will make it much easier for him or her to engage in a healthy lifestyle as adults. For kids who respond well to stimulant medications, including medication in their ADHD treatment plan may also be an effective preventative measure.
Making lifestyle changes to support your child’s eating, sleeping, and physical activity habits can be challenging, and it can be hard to know where to start. In general, it’s best to start small and target one or two areas at a time. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
If making any of these changes feels overwhelming, or your child shows persistent difficulties with eating, sleeping, or engaging in physical activity, reach out to your pediatrician and ask for extra support. Even small steps that you take now will go a long way in helping your child develop healthy lifestyle habits that will benefit him or her throughout his or her lifetime.
For a summary of the latest research on the link between ADHD and Obesity, check out the following article:
Cortese, S. & Tessari, L. (2017). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Obesity: Update 2016. Current Psychiatry Reports, 19, ePub. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-017-0754-1
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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