Children with ADHD often struggle with appetite. Learn why children with ADHD lose their appetite and what you can do about it.
Kids with ADHD often experience loss of appetite due to the use of medications. In fact, ADHD medication and weight loss is not uncommon in the pediatric population.
It’s one thing for your child to lose his appetite, but another when it’s compounded by weight loss and an underweight status.
Is this you? Are you watching your ADHD child lose weight? State he’s not hungry? Have no appetite?
In this article, you will learn:
- why children with ADHD experience a loss of appetite,
- how to increase appetite,
- and how to help your child gain weight.
Tyler had ADHD. He didn’t have much of an appetite.
“He never seems very hungry,” his mother told me. “He picks at breakfast and lunch. After school, he’s hungrier, but doesn’t eat very much until the evening rolls around. Then, he starts eating and never stops!”
His mom told me he was particular about what he wanted to eat, gravitating toward quick energy, low nutrient foods like crackers and sweets.
She also said he started having a loss of appetite when he started ADHD medications. She worried that he wasn’t getting the right nutrition. He was experiencing weight loss and becoming underweight.
Does ADHD Cause Loss of Appetite?
The condition of ADHD itself does not cause loss of appetite. However, the medical management of it may alter appetite. When kids have ADHD, the optimal path for managing it depends on the child. Your healthcare team will look at the whole picture.
For example, if you have a young child, behavioral management training of parents may be the treatment of choice. For a school age child, a combination of medication and behavior training may be most optimal.
Some parents look to adjustments in the diet as the primary treatment mode (and an alternative to starting medicine). While a healthy ADHD diet is certainly beneficial, there isn’t evidence that it is an effective stand-alone mode of treatment.
A nutritious diet for ADHD is considered a complementary treatment to medication and behavioral management.Nutrition is a complementary treatment for ADHD. It helps medication and behavioral management be more efffective. #ADHDdiet #healthyeating #brainfood Click To Tweet
ADHD and Sensory Issues
Some children with ADHD also have sensory issues and this can compromise their eating. They appear to have picky eating on the outside, but the characteristics of food, such as smell and texture, can send their sensory systems in overdrive.
If your child is picky and it’s interfering with his appetite, eating, weight and overall growth, you may need to engage with feeding therapy. Check out my parent guide on extreme picky eating and how you can find more help.
Does ADHD Medication Cause Weight Loss?
When children receive ADHD treatment, they often start on medications to reduce their impulsivity and improve attention during their time in school. While there are a myriad of medication options for ADHD, some of them carry side effects.
Specifically, ADHD medication side effects include reduced appetite, abdominal pain, and/or headaches.
Some studies indicate 30% of children experience reduced appetite on methylphenidate products (Concerta, Ritalin, Focalin, etc) and amphetamine products (Adderall, Vyvanse, etc).
Fifteen percent of children on atomoxetine (Strattera, Intuniv) experience no appetite.
Other research suggests up to 60% of children on medications experience loss of appetite, while 40% report abdominal pain, and 20% complain of headaches.
Any of these symptoms can lead to poor appetite, inadequate eating and weight loss.
How to Gain Weight on ADHD Medication
The first thing is to think about ways to increase appetite.
One of the ways I teach my clients to do this is to get on a schedule for feeding meals and snacks. For example, set regular times for meals and snacks so they occur about every 2 to 3 hours for the toddler/preschooler, and every 3 to 4 hours for the school-age child.
One of the benefits of following a schedule for meals and snacks is that you are training your child’s body to experience the sensations of fullness and emptiness (hunger).
When a child eats, his belly fills up. After 3 or 4 hours, his digestive system has cleared the way for more food, and the hormones that tell the brain “I’m hungry!” kick in. As a result, your child feels hunger.
When your child grazes all day, not only does he miss out on the opportunity to build an appetite and thus learn how to regulate his appetite and eating, he is more likely to eat foods of poor nutritional quality.
Another nuance: The framework of scheduled meals and snacks are opportunities for your child to eat. They aren’t “have to eat” times.
However, getting your child to the table, whether he eats or not, is a primary goal. It establishes a rhythm and routine for the day and for food.
Along with creating a schedule for meals and snacks, you want to establish boundaries that help reinforce your schedule. One that comes to mind is The Kitchen is Closed policy.
In brief, it’s simply closing the kitchen between meals and snacks which helps to create those breaks when your child isn’t eating.
My ADHD Child Needs to Gain Weight
When kids with ADHD are underweight, the goals are a bit different. For one, helping your child gain weight is a top priority. Why? Because when kids are at an optimal weight, they grow well, and we can assume they are getting the energy they need to function well.
However, just because your child is getting enough energy to gain weight doesn’t mean those calories are ideal. We know that children with ADHD have nutrients that are at risk in their diet.
Elements like magnesium, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. I take a deep dive into this in my online program called The ADHD Diet for Kids.
Bottom line: You want to correct an underweight status by helping your child gain healthy weight. In other words, the type of weight gain that contributes to overall functioning and health at the same time.
I have a few tips that I think you’ll find helpful. Add these to the scheduled meals and snacks recommendation and ‘Kitchen is Closed’ policy above.
Certain foods are high calorie and nutritious. Work some of these into your child’s daily diet.
Favorite Weight Gain Foods for ADHD
- Beans, especially in dips (hummus), soups (black bean or chili) or mixed into dishes (pasta, rice)
- Peanut butter and other nut butters
- Nuts (offer age-appropriately as these can be a choking hazard for young children)
- Chicken drumsticks and thighs (with skin)
- Turkey (dark meat from thighs or legs)
- Deli meats
- Cheese (slices, sticks, cubes, shredded, etc)
- Milk (whole or 2%)
- Full fat yogurt
- Cottage Cheese
- Canned fruit
- Dried fruit
- Sweet potato
- Black olives (and others)
- Filled pastas such as tortellini, ravioli and gnocchi
- Fruited bread like raisin bread
- Granola (bars, bites, etc)
- Some ready-to-eat cereals (with clusters or dried fruit)
- Plant oils such as olive and vegetable
- Sour cream
- Cream cheese
- Tapenade (olive dip)
- Salad dressing
- Jelly and jams
Take care to watch for excessive food colors and dyes in the foods you feed your child with ADHD. For some children, these can aggravate behavior.
Add More Calories to Foods When Your ADHD Child is Underweight
Boosting calories in the foods your child already likes and eats is another approach to increase the overall caloric content of the diet and promote weight gain.
Try These Tips:
- Add butter to vegetables, pasta, rice, and breads in generous amounts.
- Substitute whole milk, half and half, or cream in recipes calling for water or milk.
- Double dress pasta by draining first, adding olive oil to coat, then add sauce, butter, cheese.
- Use fruit dips or whole milk yogurts as a high calorie dip for fresh fruits.
You can find more calorie-boosting suggestions in my article about helping toddlers gain weight.
Learn what it takes to nourish a child with ADHD.
Need More Help with ADHD and Appetite?
The ADHD Diet for Kids is a program for parents of children with ADHD. Learn how to choose the right foods, the ideal balance of nutrition, and fill in the nutrient gaps.
Master positive feeding including structure, boundaries and choice, while setting your child up for healthy choices down the road.
Check out my other ADHD resources for families.