ADHD Kid Won’t Eat? It’s all about Handling Appetites

handling appetites

If you choose to use ADHD medications with your child, OR you are avoiding medication because of concerns about eating and weight, then this article is for you!

While the use of medication is one piece in the comprehensive management of ADHD for some families, it often comes with challenges around appetite.

What happens? And what can parents do about it?

ADHD Medications And Appetite

ADHD is all about having an insatiable appetite. We often joke about the notoriously short (or constantly shifting) attention span of ADHD folks. In reality, what’s happening is that they have an appetite for everything! That bird out my window is cool, oh, look at that car driving by, I wonder what Mom’s making for dinner, oh, hey, the bird’s back…. ADHD kids are curious about the world around them, and everything is interesting and compelling. In other words, they have a huge appetite for stimuli. And it’s these “stimulation-seeking” behaviors that often get kids with ADHD – and adults – into trouble.
People with ADHD struggle with self-regulation. In the grand scheme of managing ADHD, we are trying to help them cope with their enormous mental appetites. Think about it: impulsivity, distractability, emotionality – it’s all different aspects of managing what people “want.” And they want it Right Now!

ADHD medications are designed to slightly depress and redirect natural appetites. Which means it can also have an effect on physical appetites.

That’s why a common side effect of stimulant medication is appetite suppression. There tend to be two patterns that we see as a result:

  • Many kids take their medication in the morning and then do not feel hungry all day. Their bodies, lacking the nutrients and fuel they need, go into “starvation” mode. In the evening, the medication wears off, the kids are extremely hungry, and they binge. Their brains tell their bodies: “Better eat up. This might be the only chance you’re going to get.” Often, they over-consume, go to bed, and start the cycle the next day. In this way, lack of appetite can cause weight gain.
  • Other kids just never get hungry. They do not feel like eating, and parents might see a precipitous – and scary – drop in weight.

In either of these scenarios, it’s important to keep open communication with your child’s doctor. Either scenario, left unaddressed, can lead to larger problems.

Systems And Structures To Manage Appetite

Seeing your kids try to cope with appetite changes can be difficult, and food becomes a “hot-button” for many families. I hear clients telling me all the time that they are constantly struggling with their kids about food.

So here are a few steps you can take to help your family eat regularly and healthily.

  • Make breakfast a priority. Fill up their tanks first thing in the morning, before they get their medications. Skip the carbs (e.g. breakfast cereal) and go for protein-rich options like eggs, turkey, cheese, tofu, yogurt, and milk.

    Protein increases alertness and prevents fluctuations in blood sugar levels. An old adage is that you should eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch, and a pauper at dinner. A big, higher calorie meal in the morning can help offset the side effects of medication.

    I know a mom who makes a crockpot meal every night, and that’s what her kids eat in the morning: dinner for breakfast. It’s a fantastic idea.

  • Encourage snacking throughout the day. This can keep kids from getting so hungry later that they binge, and it ensures they have the nutrients they need to function – both body and mind. If your kids absolutely refuse to eat, try a nutrition shake (You can find recipes online and make a big bulk batch).

    When our kids were toddlers, we used to carry snacks for them everywhere. Going to the playground: here’s the peanut-butter crackers. Going to the movies: grab some apple slices. Your kids still need that type of support. Carry a few healthy options in your purse or leave them in the car. Make sure they always have “bars” in their backpacks at school, and especially in their sports bags.

  • Exercise time before meal time. Does your child’s school give the kids recess and then lunch? There’s a reason: physical activity speeds the metabolism and can spark appetite. Try incorporating play or exercise before meals.

Making Healthy Choices

As coaches and members of chaotic, creative, challenging, and loving ADHD families, we are committed to empowering parents to make healthy decisions for your families – choices on your terms that fit your needs and those of your children.

If changes in appetite and weight present too much of a problem, you may make the decision not to use medication, or choose non-stimulant options. Talk to your doctor about your concerns, especially before making the decision to discontinue medication.

As parents, we need to be aware that appetite is at the source of our child’s challenges with ADHD, and that means putting coping systems and structures into place. You can do it. You may have to carry beef jerky and carrot sticks around with you for a while, or be extra-conscious of what your child consumes, but with your support, your kids can get the fuel they need.

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