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 their appetite and eating habits, develop healthy sleep patterns, and become physically active will make it much easier for them 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:
- Help your child regulate their appetite and eating habits. Help your child regulate their appetite by providing meals and snacks on a consistent schedule (on both weekdays and weekends). This will help ensure that your child is hungry when mealtimes come around. They will eat more of the healthy foods on their plate and will develop an improved awareness of their body’s hunger cues. Avoid letting your child graze on food throughout the day or engage in “mindless eating” while they’re watching TV or playing videogames.
- Encourage your child to eat (and enjoy) a range of foods. Kids will be more likely to be on board with broadening their meal options if they are involved in choosing which foods they will eat, and in preparing their meals. If your goal is to have your child eat more vegetables, allow to choose from 2 or more veggie options, and/or a selection of relatively healthy sauces that they can add to enhance the flavor. Involve them in meal prep activities when time allows, and plan some fun cooking and healthy baking activities during weekends and school breaks.
- Encourage physical activity through participation in sports. Kids, teens, and adults are more likely to be physically active if they are participating in athletic activities that they enjoy. Help your child find a sport that they love and provide them with the opportunity to participate regularly. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a team sport or an individual sport, as long as it’s something they look forward to doing. They’ll be building skills that they can apply to other athletic pursuits as they grow, and they’ll develop a positive association with exercise that will stay with them as they grow into adults.
- Prioritize sleep. Sleep can be a real struggle for many kids with ADHD. With busy schedules, it can be easy to allow kids to stay up late and get less sleep than they really need. But the cost of insufficient sleep is high for kids with ADHD – it makes their symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity worse in the short term, and can interfere with their ability to regulate their emotions and appetite now and in the future. So, make your child’s sleep a priority by creating a sleep schedule and sticking to it.
- Be a good role model. Kids will have the most success with regulating their eating habits, activity levels, and sleep patterns if they see their parents engaging in these healthy behaviors too!
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 them throughout their 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