ADHD and Obesity: What's the Connection?

American kids are getting heavier. In 1980, just 7 percent of children aged 6 to 11 were overweight, but that number had risen to 16 percent by 2002, according to the journal Pediatrics. And the number of overweight teens more than tripled, going from 5 to 16 percent in the same time period. Surprisingly, one group of kids at risk for obesity appear to be those with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Kids with ADHD might seem to be one of the most unlikely groups around to be obese. Many take stimulants that help them focus but at the same time tend to decrease their appetites, right? Yet when not on medication, it appears these children actually are at high risk for becoming obese. In a large national study published in the journal Pediatrics, kids with ADHD who aren't medicated had 1.5 times the chances of being overweight (and those on meds had 1.6 times the odds of being underweight) when compared to young people without ADHD.

"It has been suggested that the impulsivity and poor behavioral regulation often found in youth with ADHD may lead to the development of eating patterns that put youth at risk for obesity," wrote Molly E. Waring, MA, and Kate L. Lapane, Ph.D., of Brown Medical School's Department of Community Health, the study authors.

Impulsivity, common in children with ADHD, can lead to excessive eating and self-indulgence, explains Andrew Adesman, MD, chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, NY. "Another conjecture is that kids with ADHD require more mental energy to focus, and this can lead to an increased appetite," Adesman says.

If your child has ADD/ADHD and you're concerned that he's at risk for obesity:

●Monitor his weight status, advise Lapane and Waring.

●If he has a weight problem already, ask for guidance from your child's health care provider about how to talk with your child about good nutrition. "Parents can learn to teach their child healthy food choices," says Christina Calamaro, Ph.D., CRNP, member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. "Since kids with ADHD are more impulsive, they may tend to choose the junk food first," she says. Making healthy foods easily available, and simply not buying unhealthy ones, can help your child form lifelong healthy eating habits.

●Encourage your child to exercise. Not only does this discourage excessive weight gain, Calamaro explains, but regular physical exercise can help kids focus better and generally feel better about themselves, she says. "When kids exercise, they test better and feel better about themselves," Calamaro says.



Waring, Molly E. and Lapane, Kate L., "Overweight in Children and Adolescents in Relation to Attention-Deficit/Hyperacttvity disorder: results from a national sample." July 2008. Pediatrics.

Graziano, PA et al. "Co-occurring weight problems among children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder: the role of executive functioning." (2011) 1-6. International Journal of Obesity.