If your son has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) he may be at increased risk of obesity as an adult, according to a May 20 study in Pediatrics—even if he’s outgrown ADHD by then. But it’s not inevitable. Other ADHD research has found that getting children the right kind of help for impulsive thoughts and actions can help them control their weight as well.
The new study started 33 years ago, when a group of doctors at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City enrolled 200 boys diagnosed with ADHD. Average age: 8. The researchers did follow-up interviews with them at ages 18, 25, and 41, comparing them with a group of men who did not have childhood ADHD. The research was only done in boys, so it’s not known yet whether it’s also a problem with girls who have ADHD.
Boys to Men: Why Overweight Issues Persist
At 41, the men who had had ADHD as boys were twice as likely to be obese as those who didn’t. The doctors ruled out other causes for the increased obesity risk, such as different economic statuses or other mental health problems. They also found that the increased risk for obesity was as strong whether or not the men still had ADHD as adults. While researchers don’t know for certain what causes the increased obesity risk, they point to a couple of possible factors:
- Impulsivity. Children with ADHD are typically more impulsive than children who don’t have ADHD. They often act before they think. “Impulsivity may lead to eating behaviors including binge eating, and what we call ‘external eating’ which means eating even if you’re not hungry in response to emotional situations or food-related stimuli,” says Samuele Cortese, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the study.
- Biological differences in the brain’s reward system. People with ADHD and people who are obese both have problems with the way their bodies process the “feel-good” brain chemical dopamine. Researchers call this “reward deficiency syndrome.” People who have reward deficiency syndrome may not make enough dopamine, or have inadequate or improperly functioning receptors in the brain. So they don’t fully experience the feeling of well-being and satisfaction that dopamine can produce. As a result, they try to do things that boost dopamine levels. “This leads to the use of ‘unnatural’ immediate rewards such as substance use, gambling, risk taking and inappropriate eating,” says Dr. Cortese.
Preventing Obesity in Kids With ADHD
If your child has ADHD, you can take steps now to increase the chances that he or she will have a healthy weight now and throughout life:
- Make sure he or she is getting the help he needs to manage his ADHD. Consult a child psychologist or psychiatrist in your area who works with children with ADHD.
- Medication for ADHD may help some children by normalizing the way their bodies process dopamine. (One new study in adults finds that an ADHD drug, Vyvanse, which is also prescribed for children, helps curb binge eating disorder.)
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), a talk therapy that focuses on how to develop new thinking patterns to help manage behaviors better, may be particularly effective in helping your child eat less impulsively. Research shows that cognitive behavior therapy can help children with ADHD improve their eating patterns and maintain a normal body weight.
- Set a good example of healthy eating yourself, and try to establish regular meal times as much as possible. Since lifelong eating patterns often begin in childhood, keep healthy snacks, such as apples, berries, oranges, carrots, almonds, low-fat low-sugar yogurt, and air-popped popcorn readily available to get your kids in the habit of reaching for nutritious options when they want a snack.
- Leverage your child’s ADHD tendencies to promote a healthier lifestyle. If your child loves to be outside doing physical activity—as many kids with ADHD do—encourage outdoor activity and movement as much as possible. Whenever possible, play outside with your child. Studies find that spending time in nature can improve focus and mood in children with ADHD, so maximize these opportunities to get healthy exercise.
“There’s a lot you can do as a parent to promote healthy eating and lifestyle habits and that’s really important, but that may not be enough for some children who have ADHD,” says Dr. Cortese. “It’s really worth consulting an ADHD specialist to develop a strategy for the best way to treat ADHD in your child.”
Related Link: 9 Signs Your Child May Have a Mental Health Problem
Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based writer who specializes in health and parenting topics.