Understanding the Link Between ADHD and Obesity

New research examines the connection.

Posted Mar 09, 2016

Doctors have long known that there is a correlation between ADHD and obesity, both in childhood and adulthood, but a new study tightens the connection. In the latest research, researchers linked ADHD in childhood to later obesity in women, but not in men. This, taken in conjunction with other research and the clinical experience of hundreds of ADHD experts, suggests that ADHD is a risk factor for obesity, and that doctors should find ways to address that risk in their patients.

The Latest Research on ADHD and Obesity

To explore the connection between ADHD and obesity, researchers—who published their findings in Mayo Clinic Proceedings—combed through the medical records of 336 men and women born between 1976-1982. All had been diagnosed with childhood ADHD. They then compared this group to a group of 329 similarly matched participants who had no history with ADHD.

Women who had diagnosed with ADHD during childhood were twice as likely to be obese in either childhood or adulthood than those who had no history of ADHD diagnosis. Researchers did not find this correlation among men, and found no link to using stimulants and becoming obese—a connection some critics have argued is a reason not to prescribe stimulants. Given that more than a third of adults are obese, and more than two-thirds are classified as overweight or obese, this marks an extremely high level of obesity among people with ADHD.

Why is ADHD Linked to Obesity?

The current study did not directly explore the connection between obesity and ADHD, but prior research has. No single explanation can account for all cases of obesity, but some potential causes include:

-People with ADHD often struggle with impulse control, which can make it especially challenging to resist overeating.
-There is a correlation between ADHD and other mental health issues, including binge eating disorder.
-ADHD increases stress, thereby increasing the risk of mental health issues such as depression. Some people turn to food to cope with psychological pain.
-Obesity is at epidemic proportions in our country, which means everyone is at risk of becoming obese. Our food culture, the shame surrounding obesity, and inadequate access to knowledge about a healthy diet can all make people with ADHD more vulnerable to obesity.

Steps You Can Take to Reduce Your Obesity Risk

It's easy to tell people to eat less and exercise more, but the truth is that combating obesity is as much a psychological issue as a physiological one. To lose weight, or to reduce your risk of becoming obese, you must fundamentally alter your relationship with food. Some steps you can take include:

-Paying attention to how food marketing, the presence of food, and other people's food consumption habits influence you, then making adjustments to avoid your triggers for overeating.
-Seeking counseling for any psychological distress you experience, particularly if you use food to deal with it.
-Treating your ADHD; this may mean a combination of lifestyle changes, counseling, and medication.
-Remaining physically active; don't just focus on exercise. Instead, cultivate an active and engaged lifestyle that keeps you moving and stimulates your brain.

Does Treatment Moderate the Risk of Obesity in People With ADHD?

Results on the effects of ADHD treatment on future obesity are mixed. The most recent study suggests that medications used for ADHD do not increase the risk of obesity, but they also don't decrease it. Other studies have found conflicting results.

ADHD is a complex disorder, manifesting in slightly different ways in each person who has it. There's no one-size-fits-all approach, but a competent treatment team can help you find the best ADHD and obesity treatments for your needs and life.

References:

Adult obesity facts. (2015, September 21). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

Cara, E. (2016, February 04). Childhood ADHD may be linked to obesity--but only in women. Retrieved from http://www.medicaldaily.com/childhood-adhd-obesity-risk-women-372184

Cortese, S., & Vincenzi, B. (2011). Obesity and ADHD: Clinical and neurobiological implications. Behavioral Neuroscience of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Its Treatment Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, 199-218. doi:10.1007/7854_2011_154

Fleming, J., PhD. (n.d.). End impulsive overeating, lose weight, and avoid obesity. Retrieved from http://www.additudemag.com/adhd/article/7306.html