Does ADHD Medication Cause Unintentional Weight Loss?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity. ADHD symptoms typically begin in childhood and persist into adulthood for about 60% of people with ADHD.

ADHD can manifest differently in children than in adults, with children more likely to experience hyperactive symptoms. Despite this, both adults and children with ADHD tend to respond well to the same classes of medication. First-line treatment typically involves the psychostimulants Ritalin or Concerta (methylphenidate) or Adderall (dextroamphetamine-amphetamine).

Ritalin is the most commonly used drug prescribed for ADHD globally and has been in use for more than 50 years.

While stimulants such as these have been shown to be effective at treating ADHD, they can have side effects, including a loss of appetite. This article will discuss the effects of ADHD medications on appetite and weight.

A young boy sits at the kitchen table looking at a bowl of food with disinterest.

Lourdes Balduque / Getty Images

Side Effects of ADHD Medication

Side effects of stimulant medication used to treat ADHD in children can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Headaches
  • Decreased appetite/weight loss
  • Sleep problems
  • Fatigue

Side effects are similar in adults and generally not severe.

Weight-Related Side Effects

Reduced appetite, which sometimes leads to unintentional weight loss, is a common side effect of stimulants in children. Some studies show this can cause a delay in growth in some children. This delay typically occurs within the first two years of taking stimulants, and most children catch up over time.

A 2014 study found that initially, body mass index (BMI) growth in early childhood was slower in children taking stimulants than in those who were not, but a rebound occurred in adolescence. In later adolescence, children who took stimulants for ADHD had a higher BMI than those who had no history of ADHD or stimulant use.

While long-term impacts on growth are unlikely, it's a good idea to measure the height and weight of children taking ADHD medication every six months in order to monitor growth.

ADHD medication should never be used for intentional weight loss unless advised by a healthcare provider.

Children With ADHD and Appetite

Appetite suppression is a common side effect of stimulants in children. One study showed that children taking methylphenidate-ER (METH-ER) for approximately 28 months consumed an average of 294 fewer calories per day than children in the control group.

Stimulants can give children the feeling of being full. They can also increase their metabolic rate, which burns more calories.

How appetite is affected can depend on the dosage of the medication and how often the child takes it. Many children taking medication for ADHD experience only a mild or temporary loss of appetite.

Some children with ADHD have deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, such as zinc and iron, and a lower intake of vitamins. This may be due to the changes in appetite from ADHD medications.

If your child is taking ADHD medication, it may be worthwhile to ask your healthcare provider to check their vitamin and mineral levels.

Adults With ADHD and Weight Loss

Stimulants can also cause reduced appetite and weight loss in adults, but this is less common than in children.

If you do find your appetite is affected and you are unintentionally losing weight, check in with your healthcare provider.

How to Gain Weight on ADHD Medication

Some ways to counteract the appetite changes from stimulants include:

  • Plan medication around mealtimes: Try administering medication after your child has had a filling, nutritious breakfast so they are hungry enough to eat. Plan for them to be hungrier in the evening when their medication is wearing off, and provide enough food to make up for the lunch they may not have eaten.
  • Make the food they eat count: Provide them with a variety of nutritious, high-calorie, nutrient-dense food choices.
  • Don't force them to eat: Instead of forcing your child to eat when they don't have an appetite, schedule eating around when they tend to be hungry.
  • Offer snacks: If they didn't eat lunch but they are hungry after school, offer them a nutritious snack. Keep snacks around for your child to grab when they feel hungry throughout the day.
  • Adjust medication if necessary: If the decreased appetite is causing too many problems for your child and not improving after they have been on the medication for a while, some adjustments may need to be made. This might include taking breaks from medication on weekends or in the summertime, changing the medication dose, or trying a different medication. Discuss medication changes with your healthcare provider before making adjustments to your child's treatment plan.

For adults with ADHD, meal planning and cooking can be stressful and lead to reaching for convenience food over nutritious food. The organization Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) offers a cookbook, which is available online, with healthy recipes geared toward people with ADHD.

Adults and older children with ADHD may find the recipes and tips inside this cookbook can help make it easier to eat well, whether or not their appetite is affected by medication.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

A weight loss of 5 to 10 pounds, or 10% of body weight, over the course of a few weeks to a month is a reason to check in with your child's healthcare provider.

Even if weight loss isn't significant, if the loss of appetite persists after they have been on the medication for a few weeks, or you have concerns about your child's nutrition or growth, see your healthcare provider.

Summary

Decreased appetite and weight loss are common side effects of the stimulants used to treat ADHD, especially for children.

These effects are usually temporary and manageable with measures such as timing medications around meals and offering healthy foods when your child is hungry. If the decrease in appetite and/or weight loss are persistent or causing concern, see your healthcare provider.

Stimulants should never be used for intentional weight loss unless advised by a healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

If you or your child are taking medication for ADHD, it's a good idea to monitor for decreased appetite and unintended weight loss. While these tend to be minor and temporary, they can lead to problems if too much weight is lost or there are nutrition deficits.

See your healthcare provider if you have concerns about how ADHD medication is affecting you or your child's eating habits.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can ADHD change your eating habits?

    ADHD can change eating habits in several ways. ADHD symptoms can make meal planning and cooking difficult, leading to less nutritious food choices.

    ADHD medications can cause decreased appetite, especially in children.

  • Does ADHD cause weight loss?

    ADHD itself is not typically associated with weight loss, but the stimulant medications that are often prescribed to treat ADHD can cause a decrease in appetite that may lead to unintentional weight loss.

  • Will ADHD medication change your personality?

    When at the right dosage, ADHD shouldn't change personality. Starting at the lowest dose and gradually increasing as needed can help achieve this. If you notice changes in emotion or affect, discuss the possibility of a dose adjustment with your healthcare provider.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.