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My ADHD Child Needs To Gain Weight: How Can I Help?

November 1, 2022
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    Children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might experience weight loss due to a multitude of factors. The most common reason a child would lose weight or have a diminished appetite is because of ADHD medications.

    Children with ADHD also experience hyperactivity and impulsivity, meaning they are on the go all day long and have little motivation to sit down or take a break, let alone eat something. 

    This article will explore the myths with regard to ADHD children and weight loss, as well as various ways to help your ADHD child gain weight. 

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    Does ADHD Medication Cause A Loss Of Appetite?

    The disorder of ADHD itself does not cause loss of appetite, but rather the use of medication to manage ADHD symptoms sometimes does. 

    Some studies have found that 30% of children with ADHD experience reduced appetite while on methylphenidate and amphetamine products, also known as stimulants. These medications include:

    • Concerta
    • Ritalin
    • Focalin
    • Adderall 
    • Vyvanse

    Some studies indicate that 60% of children on stimulant ADHD medications experience loss of appetite, 40% of children report abdominal pain, and 20% of children report headaches. 

    Non-stimulant medications for ADHD, like atomoxetine and guanfacine, are much less likely to cause appetite suppression, though they may still cause some nausea. 

    Not every child will react the same to adhd medications, therefore, consider writing down the side effects that your child is experiencing to discuss with your child's pediatrician or another health care professional. If concerns continue, it is crucial to seek our professional medical advice. They may advise that your child be put on an appetite enhancing medication to promote healthy weight gain.

    A 2014 study found that body mass index (BMI) growth in early childhood was slower in children who were prescribed stimulant medications than in those children who were not. However, in adolescence, children or teens who took stimulant medication for ADHD had a higher BMI than those who had no history of ADHD. 

    One study found that children taking a methylphenidate product consumed an average of 294 fewer calories per day than children who were within a control group.

    Additionally, children with ADHD might also have sensory issues, which can interfere with their eating habits. Some children find that some foods with certain smells or textures might turn them away and avoid that specific food altogether. 

    Maintaining a healthy weight can be challenging while taking stimulant medications. There are a variety of strategies parents can adapt to make meal time more successful and even fun for your child! Keep reading to learn more.

    How To Help An ADHD Child Gain Weight

    Helping your child with ADHD gain weight can be challenging, but there are a number of strategies that can be adapted to you and your child’s lifestyle to help. This can include sticking to nourishing foods whenever possible, incorporating high-calorie foods, setting up a schedule for meals, making food more enjoyable for your child, and if needed, visiting a dietician for that extra help.

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    Stick to Nourishing Foods

    It might be more enjoyable for your child to eat cookies and candy, however it is important that your child is getting adequate nutrition. Foods that contain iron, zinc, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids can have beneficial effects on symptoms of ADHD. 

    Foods rich in protein such as lean beef, ground turkey, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, beans, and soy are also linked to beneficial neurotransmitter production in the brain. Foods rich in protein and fat should be eaten for breakfast, with or before stimulant medication, in order to provide adequate calories for the increased energy demands experienced with stimulant medications. Fat and protein rich foods will stick with a child throughout the day, even when appetite suppression peaks in the afternoon. Foods higher in carbohydrates will provide a quick energy fix but may lead to a “crash” in the afternoon for these children.

    High-Calorie Foods 

    Adding high calorie foods to your ADHD child's diet if they are underweight is another strategy for promoting healthy weight gain. Consider adding the following foods to your child's diet:

    • Eggs
    • Nuts
    • Peanut butter and other nut butters
    • Chicken
    • Hamburger
    • Turkey
    • Milk
    • Yogurt
    • Potatoes

    While there are an abundance of high calorie foods out there, make sure to choose foods that are nourishing and provide your child with the nutrients they need.

    Try the following tips for helping your child gain weight:

    • Adding butter to pasta, rice, and breads in generous amounts
    • Substitute milk or cream in recipes that ask for water
    • Use yogurt-based fruit dips as an addition to fruit

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    Set Up a Schedule for Meals 

    Children with ADHD thrive when they have structure and schedules within their daily lives. This is true when it comes to meal times as well, especially if your child is struggling to eat a balanced diet. 

    Children, whether they have ADHD or not, should be consistently eating three meals a day, with one or two snacks in between meals to maintain a healthy weight. For example, a meal and snack schedule can look like this:

    • 7:30am breakfast
    • 10:30am snack
    • 12:00/12:30pm lunch
    • 3pm snack
    • 5:30/6pm dinner

    While these schedules can be adapted to your family's schedule, it is crucial to ensure that your child is getting the proper nutrition they need. Having a structure also creates predictability and reminds your child to eat.

    When taking stimulant medications, breakfast is incredibly important because appetite suppression has not yet kicked in and it may be evening before they feel like eating much again. Your child may not have much appetite during the later morning and afternoon, but try to encourage at least a few small meals or snacks and then provide adequate calories with a balanced dinner when the medication wears off in the evening. Make sure food options offered in the evening are filling and balanced, so as to avoid binging on junk food late into the evening. 

    Make Food Fun

    Children who experience reduced appetite might also get bored with meals and snacks that they have had consistently. Change it up! Offer your child with dips and sauces that dress the meal up a little more, cut sandwiches into shapes using cookie cutters, or arrange their food into shapes on the plate. 

    These tips might help your child take more of an interest in eating meals and developing consistent eating habits. 

    Visit A Dietician

    Meal planning and ensuring that your child is getting the proper nutrition that they need to maintain a healthy weight can be challenging and even stressful at times. Visiting a dietician to obtain tips and gain knowledge about nutrition will only help your child in the long run. 

    Not only is it beneficial for your child, but it might also be helpful for you, as a parent, to discuss your child's eating habits with a trained professional, to better understand how to increase your child's weight and instill healthy choices that last. 

    The Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) offers a cookbook, available online, with recipes that are healthy and geared towards those with ADHD. 

    If you become concerned that your child is not maintaining a healthy weight or is losing weight rapidly, it is imperative that you check with your child's health care provider. 


    Decreased appetite and weight loss are common side effects associated with the use of stimulant medications, or medications that are generally prescribed for the treatment of ADHD. 

    These side effects are generally temporary and manageable with the use of various strategies such as instilling scheduled meal times, timing medications around meals, and encouraging high calorie foods. Encouraging your child to eat on a consistent basis and at scheduled times will only help them in the long run and build habits that are bound to stick. 

    Your child’s weight should be monitored closely by the healthcare provider managing their medication. If your child loses too much weight or is not gaining consistently enough, adjusting medication doses or changing to a non-stimulant medication may be in your child’s best interest.


    Sarah Schulze MSN, APRN, CPNP

    Sarah is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with a specialty certification in pediatric mental health. She works at a clinic in Champaign Illinois, providing care to children and adolescents with mental health disorders. She obtained her bachelor's in nursing from Indiana State University in 2011 and completed her master's in nursing from University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. She is passionate about helping children create a solid foundation on which they can grow into healthy adults.


    Sarah Schulze MSN, APRN, CPNP

    Sarah is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with a specialty certification in pediatric mental health. She works at a clinic in Champaign Illinois, providing care to children and adolescents with mental health disorders. She obtained her bachelor's in nursing from Indiana State University in 2011 and completed her master's in nursing from University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. She is passionate about helping children create a solid foundation on which they can grow into healthy adults.