Could Stimulant Use in Children with ADHD Contribute to Later Obesity?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • In several past studies, ADHD has been associated with a higher risk of obesity in children. Some experts wondered if lack of impulse control played a role in obesity. Children with ADHD might have a more difficult time with self control and impulsively snack on food, eat more unhealthy foods or eat larger portions of both health and unhealthy foods. Some might find food helps calm them when agitated or hyperactive.


    A study completed at the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health at the University of Toronto found that women who were obese had a difficult time keeping accurate records and planning and preparing meals. Interestingly, the researchers found that over 26 percent of the obese women in the study had ADHD, as compared to between 3 and 5 percent of the general population. The researchers questioned whether the symptoms of ADHD were contributing to the women’s difficulty in sticking to a diet and losing weight.

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    If the symptoms of ADHD contribute to obesity through impulsive eating, poor record keeping and difficulty planning and preparing nutritious meals, then treating ADHD should help to reduce the problem, or so scientists believed. However, a new study, completed at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found just the opposite. That children treated with stimulants had a higher risk of developing obesity than those who were not treated.


    Researchers looked at the medical records of over 160,000 children between the ages of 3 and 18 years of age, equally divided between boys and girls. A total of 13,789 (8.4 percent) of the children had a diagnosis of ADHD and around 11,000 had a prescription for stimulant medications. Additionally, close to 2,000 children had a  prescription for stimulant medications for other health reasons and were not diagnosed with ADHD.


    Your body mass index is a measure of body fat based on your height and weight. While it doesn’t measure the exact percentage of body fat, it is useful in determining whether you are at risk of obesity. Body mass indexes were looked at for several groups:

    • Those with a diagnosis of ADHD but did not take stimulant medications
    • Those who took stimulant medications for other reasons
    • Those who had a diagnosis of ADHD and a prescription for stimulant medications

    The researchers found that the third group, those with both a diagnosis of ADHD and a prescription for stimulant medication has a slower rate of BMI growth in early childhood. This would be consistent with previous research and is a main concern of parents of young children taking stimulants. Surprisingly, however, this group had a rapid BMI growth during adolescence, higher than that of the other groups. The data also suggested that the early a child began taking the medication and the longer a child was on stimulant medications, the greater the degree of delayed BMI growth and the rate of BMI growth in the teenage years. For the children who were diagnosed with ADHD but did not take stimulant medication, there was a rapid BMI growth after the age of 10 but it was small and not significant.


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    The researchers believe that stimulant medication played a role in the rapid BMI growth. According to Dr. Schwartz, lead author of the study, “This is an unintended consequence of stimulant use in childhood.”


    While the study doesn’t explain why there was a rapid rate of BMI growth, however, it is important for parents to understand both the benefits and risks involved in taking stimulant medication as well as to take positive steps to alleviate any potential problems. Working with children and teens on eating healthy may need to be included in overall treatment goals. 

Published On: May 05, 2014