Do Obesity and ADHD Share Common Risk Factors?

Childhood obesity is becoming an epidemic in North America. Children are getting heavier with each decade, increasing the risk for physical problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Obesity also makes children more vulnerable to negative psychological outcomes from bullying behaviors, isolation, and self-esteem issues. Self-regulation deficits are believed to play a key role in the development and maintenance of obesity, similar to how it affects behaviors in other conditions, including anorexia, bulimia, and attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD). Eating and food issues are thought to be partially influenced by self-regulatory processes. Impulse control, a primary impairment in ADHD, also appears to impact eating behaviors in overweight people and those with other eating issues. Because of this overlap, some research has suggested that decreased emotional regulation is a common risk factor for both obesity and ADHD, although this has yet to be clearly established.

To explore this issue further, Zia Choudhry of the Department of Human Genetics at McGill University in Montreal, Canada recently conducted a study assessing the neurocognitive processes, behavioral motivation, and motor activity of 284 children with ADHD ranging in age from 6 to 12. The socioeconomic status (SES) of the children was also considered as those from poorer neighborhoods may not have access to physical outlets such as team sports or safe playgrounds and may have poorer diets than those from higher SES. The results of the study showed that the children with ADHD fell into two categories: obese and overweight. Although all of the children did have some emotional regulation deficits, this was not a predictor of obesity.

Choudhry did find, however, that SES directly predicted which children with ADHD would be obese. In fact, the ADHD children from low SES had a much greater risk of obesity than those from higher SES environments. Aside from providing access to physical outlets, increased SES also impacts diet. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and other nutrient dense foods are more expensive than prepackaged, high fat choices and may not be affordable to people of limited financial means. Overall, this study shows that self-regulatory processes do not directly increase the risk of obesity in children with ADHD, but SES does. Choudhry added, “Consequently, changing unhealthy life style amongst low SES children should receive more attention in future research, particularly those aiming at preventing childhood obesity amongst children with ADHD.”

Choudhry, Z., Sengupta, S.M., Grizenko, N., Harvey, W.J., Fortier, M-È., et al. (2013). Body weight and ADHD: Examining the role of self-regulation. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55351. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055351

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  • Gerri

    April 22nd, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    Utterly sad that what’s defeating these children is not their disorder but instead poverty. So not only do these angels have to suffer the disorder but also the effects of poverty. And all that is going to sum up to obesity and possible bullying and a host Of health issues! God this is so bad!

  • rupert r

    April 22nd, 2013 at 10:23 PM

    surprised to see emotional regulation does not play a role in obesity.but also a positive in that it can be helped with training and teaching the children.

  • zac

    April 23rd, 2013 at 3:47 AM

    It almost feels sometimes like the kids who have one thing stacked against them, they have the whole world stacked against them!

    Kind of makes you stop and rethink things for a minute, and realize that perhaps environmental factors are so much more important in the development of diseases than we may have been giving them credit for.

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