Many parents become worried when they notice their children with ADHD start to lose weight. On the other hand, other children and adults experience obesity or being overweight. Can ADHD cause weight loss or weight gain? Read on, as we’ll review in this article the connection between ADHD, ADHD meds, and weight changes, plus solutions to maintain optimal weight.
Does ADHD cause weight loss or weight gain?
ADHD seems to be more likely associated with excess weight, although those on stimulant ADHD meds may experience weight loss during the treatment, and gain weight after treatment stops.
An extensive review/ meta-analysis of 42 studies involving over 700,000 participants found evidence for a significant association between ADHD and obesity or being overweight. The research found that ADHD is highly prevalent among obese individuals and highest in those with extreme obesity.
Obesity is defined as a BMI between 30-39.9 while extreme obesity is diagnosed when the BMI is over 40. An overweight person has a BMI between 25.0–29.9. Ideally, a person should have a BMI between 18.5–24.9. Underweight is defined as a BMI below 18.5.
ADHD is in fact emerging as a risk factor for obesity. Several factors may play a role. Western-type diets (filled with processed foods) correlates with both ADHD and obesity/overnight. Stress, depression, binge eating, and eating disorders, sleep disorders are frequently associated with ADHD and these conditions can contribute to excess weight. Genetics may play a role, too, according to some studies, while others found connections between executive function impairments and increased weight.
ADHD meds and weight loss (followed by weight gain)
A well-known and common side effect of ADHD stimulant drugs like Ritalin and Concerta has decreased appetite, leading to weight loss and decreased growth.
Typically these drugs cause more weight loss at the beginning of the treatment. Some children may get back to normal weight, but many will continue to experience decreased weight.
Research studies evaluated how these drugs work in young children and how their weight changes over time. They found that children with ADHD who did not take ADHD drugs started to grow larger than the children without ADHD starting around age 10.
Things changed when ADHD stimulants were used. Those who were taking stimulants started to lag on the normal growth charts being about two points smaller (on body mass index- BMI- measurements) compared with those who weren’t taking these drugs.
However, as children got older and stopped using stimulants (around age 15-18) they started to be larger by an average of 1-2 BMI points, compared with those who didn’t take these drugs. For an average 5’7’ teenager, this means a 6-13 pound weight gain.
How to gain weight in a healthy way (if you need to)
- Talk to the doctor if weight loss becomes a concern. Being underweight causes malnutrition and severe multiple nutrient deficiencies that further lead to anemia, bone loss, increased risk of infections and various diseases.
- Firstly, check the BMI, and aim for an ideal one between 18.5–24.9. Here is the BMI calculator for adults, and click here to get the BMI calculator for children and teens. Although the BMI may not be the most accurate way to assess the best/healthiest weight, it can give an idea of the following steps you need to take.
- The doctor may change the dose of the drug, or switch to another class of drugs that is less likely to cause appetite loss. Medical tests can also reveal other causes of weight loss like overactive thyroid, diabetes, eating disorders or infections.
- Eat healthy, nutrient rich snacks and make sure you have them available at home. High calorie and healthy foods include avocados, nuts and nut butters, lean proteins, and full fat yogurt. Healthy carbs include quinoa, oats, root vegetables like yam, sweet potatoes as well as fruits. Vegetables from all colors should be included in the diet on a daily basis. On the other hand, reduce or even eliminate processed foods, as various artificial colors and preservatives and high fructose corn syrup have been associated with ADHD symptoms and they may make even a child without ADHD hyperactive.
- Regular strength training. Exercise helps build muscles and thus gain weight. It also increases appetite. Protein shakes or bars, nuts and bananas are great snacks after a workout.
How to lose weight (if needed)
- Talk to your doctor if you have excess weight. Being overweight or obese significanly increases your risk for insulin resisitance/diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure and heart diseases, fatty liver, sleep apnea, depression, body pains, limited mobility, decreased quality of life (and lifespan) and many cancers.
- Although healthy oils and carbs, as well as lean proteins should be part of the diet, try to eat plenty of nutrient rich, low calorie foods like green leafy vegetables, celery sticks, salads, cruciferous vegetables and berries.
- Exercise, particularly aerobic and high intensity training promotes weight loss. Stick to a low calorie protein shake like whey isolate (without artificial colors or flavors) and a sugar free drink with electrolytes after your workout.