This is a guest post by Jill Castle, a registered dietitian, childhood nutrition expert, and blogger/podcaster over at The Nourished Child. You can learn more about nutrition for kids with ADHD in her online program, The ADHD Diet for Kids: Feed Your Child for Better Attention, Behavior and Growth.
If you have a child with ADHD, you may notice he (or she) isn’t as hungry as usual, especially when on ADHD medication. Some kids with ADHD experience a loss of appetite. This happened with eleven-year-old, Annie.
Annie rarely complained of being hungry. She’d get up in the morning and feel nauseous, so she wouldn’t eat anything before school. She didn’t eat much at lunch because she still wasn’t very hungry and didn’t like what the school offered. She also worried about eating in front of other students. After school, Annie would manage to eat half a granola bar or other light snack before hitting the lacrosse fields.
You can imagine that Annie was very hungry when she returned home at the end of the day for dinner. In fact, she was exhausted…and emotionally fragile. Irritability, impatience, and the occasional meltdown were normal for her. And, she was too thin and wasn’t growing well.
I’ve seen many kids with ADHD like Annie struggle with eating and loss of appetite. It’s one of the most common concerns I hear from parents.
Loss of appetite, poor eating, and inadequate nutrition will almost always affect the child with ADHD, from their ability to focus and learn in the classroom, to their behavior and general sense of well-being.
ADHD Medication: The Big Reason Kids with ADHD Aren’t Hungry
Certain ADHD medications are known to cause a loss of appetite. Studies tell us the overall rate of appetite reduction is about 60% in children who take an ADHD medication. The good news? Typically, the reduction in appetite is not significant enough to discontinue medications, however, it may warrant discussing a change in ADHD medication dosage with your doctor and/or the format of delivery to minimize the effect on appetite.
Specifically, studies on methylphenidate products such as Concerta, Ritalin, and Focalin have shown that about 30% of children experience reduced appetite while taking them. Amphetamine products such as Adderall and Vyvanse have been shown to have the same effect on appetite. Additionally, nearly forty percent of children on ADHD medication will experience abdominal pain, which can interfere with their willingness to eat.
Another reason kids with ADHD may not have an appetite is that they simply get used to not eating, or eating sporadically. This was happening with Annie. Her lack of eating had trained her body and mind to disregard feelings of hunger.
Think about it: When kids go for hours without eating, their appetite gets dulled, and they experience erratic hunger signals to eat. They aren’t hungry for hours, then they’re starving and out of control. And the whole cycle repeats. It’s almost as though kids get programmed to eat less simply through the habits they develop around eating.
The Impact of Low Appetite in Kids with ADHD
When children lose their appetite, they are at a higher risk for nutrient deficiencies, weight loss (or lack of weight gain), and growth problems. When this happens, their ADHD medication may not be as effective.
One of the most important aspects of successfully managing a child with ADHD is to have your eye on nutrition. Yet, nutrition is often the last factor considered. Good nutrition will not only help your child feel good and function well, it will support your child’s ADHD medication management while encouraging optimal nutritional status and growth.
I think we can all agree that good nutrition is important. The question is: How do we help our kids with ADHD eat better? I’ve got you covered.
3 Simple Tips for Helping Kids with ADHD Eat Better (Even if They Aren’t Hungry)
1. Set up a Schedule for Eating
Ideally, all children should be eating three meals a day, and one or two snacks between meals, depending on their age. I like to call these “opportunities” for your child to eat and get proper nutrition.
- 7 am breakfast
- 10 am snack
- noonish lunch
- 3 pm snack
- 6 pm dinner
These are not times to force your child to eat. Rather, they are regular times throughout the day for a dose of nutrition. Keep in mind this scheduled approach to offering food can help build your child’s appetite. Encourage your child to eat and work with him or her to select foods that are nutritious and easy to eat (see #2 below).
If you have a child who will pass on food, that’s okay. Making an offering of food fulfills your job as parent and affords your child an opportunity to eat.
2. Select Nourishing, Wholesome Foods
Kids with ADHD are known to miss out on several nutrients in their diet. As such, you want to be cognizant of those nutrients when planning meals and snacks. For example, iron, zinc, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids are some of the nutrients at risk in kids with ADHD.
Other elements in food, such as artificial food colors and preservatives may trigger undesirable behavior in children with ADHD. These can be avoided with careful planning.
When you keep nutritious and wholesome food front and center, you’ll trend towards meeting your child’s nutrient requirements and avoid his or her potential triggers.
3. Add a Bedtime Snack to Your Child’s Routine
If your child isn’t eating enough or struggles to gain weight, I recommend a regular bedtime snack. Keeping it wholesome and nutritious is the key! A slice of peanut butter toast, a bowl of low sugar cereal and milk (or non-dairy substitute), half a nut butter and jam sandwich, or a fruit and veggie smoothie are all good options.
When kids have a bedtime snack, they get the benefit of extra calories that won’t be burned off by running around. They may also sleep better!
Want More Help?
Confidently feed and nourish your child with ADHD for better attention, behavior and growth with my solid nutrition and feeding plan for kids with ADHD: backed by science and steeped in practicality. The ADHD Diet for Kids helps you balance food, eliminate food sensitivities, target inadequate nutrients, and feed with love and limits so your child improves in all areas, including attention, behavior, learning, growth and overall health. Learn more here.
What has helped your child eat when he’s not hungry? Share in the comments below!