What ADHD Means for Early Childhood Eating Habits

ADHD is a mental health condition that can have implications for physical health. Symptoms such as having less self-control or prioritizing short-term rewards can have direct implications for health-related behaviors, including dietary habits.

Previous studies have repeatedly linked ADHD to obesity in both children and adults. Now, newly published research is highlighting specific changes in eating behaviors that tend to arise early in life among people with ADHD.

CupcakeIn a study published in the journal Pediatric Obesity, researchers in Virginia and North Carolina tracked ADHD symptoms and eating behaviors in 470 young children with an average age of four years.

The researchers identified several types of eating behaviors linked to obesity that were more prevalent among young children with ADHD. In particular, kids with more inattentive and hyperactive symptoms tended to score higher on the following traits:

  • Food responsiveness: A tendency to react to encountering food with a desire to eat it
  • Emotional overeating: A tendency to try and manage emotions by eating

Looking at how the relationship between ADHD symptoms and eating behaviors tended to play out over time, the researchers found that ADHD symptoms tended to predict subsequent changes in how children gauged the appropriate amount of food to eat and whether they were susceptible to emotional eating. However, the reverse was not true. That is, eating behaviors did not predict subsequent changes in ADHD symptoms, suggesting that ADHD symptoms may have influenced eating behaviors rather than the other way around.

We know from previous research that the link between ADHD and weight gain seems to hold even after taking comorbid conditions into account. In other words, it may be something about ADHD symptoms specifically that increases ADHDers’ risk of overweight and of unhealthy eating habits.

One potentially relevant symptom that the authors of the study on early childhood eating habits point out is impairments in self-regulation. If children with ADHD are more responsive to short-term rewards in the form of food, and if they have a harder time intentionally controlling their eating behavior, that would seem to make them more susceptible to having an unhealthy diet.

The results of this study are a good reminder to parents and doctors that unhealthy eating behaviors related to ADHD can start to show up early in childhood. More generally, they’re a good reminder to all of us that promoting healthy eating means addressing psychological factors like self-regulation deficits and expanding access to ADHD treatment.

Image: Flickr/Charlotte

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