My Child Has No Appetite
Tyler had ADHD. He didn’t have much of an appetite. “He never seems very hungry,” his mother told me. “He picks at breakfast and lunch. After school, he’s hungrier but doesn’t eat very much until the evening rolls around. Then, he starts eating and never seems to stop.”
His mom told me he was particular about what he wanted to eat, gravitating toward quick energy, low nutrient foods like crackers and sweets.
She also said he started having no appetite when he started ADHD medications. She worried that he wasn’t getting the right nutrition, and was becoming underweight.
The concern about no appetite comes up often when I work with kids who have ADHD. Parents worry and complain about lack of appetite.
It’s one thing for your child to lose his appetite, but another when it’s compounded by weight loss and an underweight status.
Is this you? Are you watching your ADHD child lose weight? State he’s not hungry? Have no appetite?
This article will help you understand why children with ADHD may experience a loss of appetite, while showing you how to increase appetite and help your child gain weight.
When kids have ADHD, the optimal path for managing it depends on the child. Your healthcare team will look at the whole picture.
For example, if you have a young child, behavioral management training of parents may be the treatment of choice. For a school age child, a combination of medication and behavior training may be most optimal.
Some parents look to adjustments in the diet as the primary treatment mode (and an alternative to starting medicine). While a healthy ADHD diet is certainly beneficial, there isn’t evidence that it is an effective stand-alone mode of treatment.
A nutritious diet for ADHD is considered a complementary treatment to medication and behavioral management.Nutrition is a complementary treatment for ADHD. It helps medication and behavioral management be more efffective. #ADHDdiet #healthyeating #brainfood Click To Tweet
What Causes Loss of Appetite?
When children receive ADHD treatment, they often start on medications to reduce their impulsivity and improve attention during their time in school. While there are a myriad of medication options for ADHD, some of them carry side effects.
Specifically, ADHD medication side effects include reduced appetite, abdominal pain, and/or headaches.
Some studies indicate 30% of children experience reduced appetite on methylphenidate products (Concerta, Ritalin, Focalin, etc) and amphetamine products (Adderall, Vyvanse, etc).
Fifteen percent of children on atomoxetine (Strattera, Intuniv) experience lack of appetite.
Other research suggests up to 60% of children on medications experience loss of appetite, while 40% report abdominal pain, and 20% complain of headaches.
Any of these symptoms can lead to no appetite and inadequate eating.
How to Increase Appetite
One of the ways I teach my clients to increase appetite is to get on a schedule for feeding meals and snacks. For example, set regular times for meals and snacks so they occur about every 2 to 3 hours for the toddler/preschooler, and every 3 to 4 hours for the school-age child.
One of the benefits of following a schedule for meals and snacks is that you are training your child’s body to experience the sensations of fullness and emptiness (hunger).
When a child eats, his belly fills up. After 3 or 4 hours, his digestive system has cleared the way for more food, and the hormones that tell the brain “I’m hungry!” kick in. As a result, your child feels hunger.
When your child grazes all day, not only does he miss out on the opportunity to build an appetite and thus learn how to regulate his appetite and eating, he is more likely to eat foods of poor nutritional quality.
Another nuance: The framework of scheduled meals and snacks are opportunities for your child to eat. They aren’t “have to eat” times.
However, getting your child to the table, whether he eats or not, is a primary goal. It establishes a rhythm and routine for the day and for food.
Along with creating a schedule for meals and snacks, you want to establish boundaries that help reinforce your schedule. One that comes to mind is The Kitchen is Closed policy.
In brief, it’s simply closing the kitchen between meals and snacks which helps to create those breaks when your child isn’t eating. You can read more in depth here.
What if My Child is Underweight?
When kids with ADHD are underweight, the goals are a bit different. For one, helping your child gain weight is a top priority. Why? Because when kids are at an optimal weight, they grow well, and we can assume they are getting the energy they need to function well.
However, just because your child is getting enough energy to gain weight doesn’t mean those calories are ideal. We know that children with ADHD have nutrients that are at risk in their diet.
Elements like magnesium, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. I take a deep dive into this in my online program called The ADHD Diet for Kids.
Bottom line: You want to correct an underweight status by helping your child gain healthy weight. In other words, the type of weight gain that contributes to overall functioning and health at the same time.
How To Gain Weight Tips
I have a few tips that I think you’ll find helpful. Add these to the scheduled meals and snacks recommendation and Kitchen is Closed policy above.
Certain foods are high calorie and nutritious. Work some of these into your child’s daily diet.
My Favorite Weight Gain Foods
Beans, especially in dips (hummus), soups (black bean or chili) or mixed into dishes (pasta, rice)
Peanut butter and other nut butters
Nuts (offer age-appropriately as these can be a choking hazard for young children)
Chicken drumsticks and thighs (with skin)
Turkey (dark meat from thighs or legs)
Cheese (slices, sticks, cubes, shredded, etc)
Milk (whole or 2%)
Full fat yogurt
Black olives (and others)
Filled pastas such as tortellini, ravioli and gnocchi
Fruited bread like raisin bread
Granola (bars, bites, etc)
Some ready-to-eat cereals (with clusters or dried fruit)
Plant oils such as olive and vegetable
Tapenade (olive dip)
Jelly and jams
Add Calories to Foods
Boosting calories in the foods your child already likes and eats is another approach to increase the overall caloric content of the diet and promote weight gain.
Try some of these tips:
Add butter to vegetables, pasta, rice, and breads in generous amounts.
Substitute whole milk, half and half, or cream in recipes calling for water or milk.
Double dress pasta by draining first, adding olive oil to coat, then add sauce, butter, cheese.
Use fruit dips or whole milk yogurts as a high calorie dip for fresh fruits.
You can find more calorie-boosting suggestions here.
Need More Help?
The ADHD Diet for Kids is a program for parents of children with ADHD. Learn how to choose the right foods, the ideal balance of nutrition, and fill in the nutrient gaps. Master positive feeding including structure, boundaries and choice, while setting your child up for healthy choices down the road. Sign up today!