Evidence suggests attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obesity share overlapping genetic pathways and hereditary factors, but executive dysfunction, ADHD medications, and individual temperament may also play a role.

Neurodevelopmental disorders are conditions that result from disruption during the brain’s development. They can have a variety of symptoms, including challenges with communication, interpersonal relationships, and learning, that often persist into adulthood.

ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders diagnosed in childhood. It features symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention.

Many people living with ADHD experience co-occurring (comorbid) conditions, which are separate health concerns existing simultaneously with ADHD. Overweight and obesity are common ADHD comorbidities.

ADHD and obesity commonly co-occur, but no direct cause-and-effect relationship has been established. This means ADHD does not directly make you gain additional weight, and having obesity does not mean you’ll develop ADHD.

A narrative review from 2019 notes that adults living with ADHD have a 70% higher likelihood of obesity than adults who don’t have ADHD, and children living with ADHD have a 40% higher likelihood of obesity than children without ADHD.

Overall, the chance of obesity in ADHD appears to increase over time, becoming more significant in adulthood than in childhood.

The relationship between ADHD and overweight or obesity may involve a complex interplay of genetic pathways, hereditary factors, personal temperament, and altered executive function.

Genetics and heritability

A growing body of research suggests a genetic overlap between ADHD and a higher body mass index (BMI) may be one of the primary driving factors behind this comorbidity.

A 2021 study, for example, found evidence of a two-way relationship between ADHD and obesity-related traits: Shared genetic pathways increased the chances of developing either condition, and the symptom subtype had no impact on the association.

In other words, regardless of ADHD type, living with a genetic predisposition for ADHD might naturally indicate a genetic predisposition for higher BMI and vice versa.

The same study also found an association between high maternal BMI and an increased chance of ADHD in children, suggesting a heritable factor between ADHD and overweight or obesity.

A 2020 review of research that looked at more than just genetics also found a significant association between high maternal BMI and ADHD in children.

According to that research, however, the link was likely influenced by factors within the family dynamic, like family diet habits and physical activity levels.

Personal temperament

“Temperament” is a broad term that encompasses all your inherent psychological and behavioral responses to the world around you. It’s a part of your overall disposition, or the traits that define your manner, outlook, and predominant nature.

According to a 2022 study with 100 people, certain temperament dimensions in ADHD may make you more likely to experience overweight or obesity.

For example, in the research, scoring high in harm avoidance (fearing uncertainty) and reward dependence (tendency to respond to signals of reward, such as social approval) was associated with a higher chance of overweight or obesity in ADHD.

Study authors suggest the findings have to do with how traits like reward dependence can lead to behaviors of overeating or disordered eating in ADHD.

Reward dependence describes the experience of altered reward processing in ADHD. You might be more likely to seek instant gratification, for instance, or may gravitate toward immediate, smaller rewards over delayed incentives when living with ADHD.

Altered executive function

ADHD affects parts of your brain responsible for executive function, which are the core processes involved in memory, learning, cognitive flexibility, and emotional regulation. This is why symptoms of ADHD feature challenges with attention, impulsivity, and behavioral regulation.

A 2019 review indicates certain deficits in executive function can contribute to overweight or obesity.

In ADHD, altered executive function can cause challenges that may lead to a higher BMI, such as:

  • disordered eating, such as binge eating disorder
  • skipping breakfast
  • late-night snacking
  • low physical activity
  • disrupted or irregular sleep patterns

According to the 2019 review, the link between executive function and obesity may also work in the opposite direction: Chronic inflammation from obesity may alter executive function, leading to ADHD symptoms.

More large-scale, long-term studies are necessary to explore this theory, however.

ADHD medications

Many medications have side effects related to weight. ADHD medications are no exception.

A 2021 study found antipsychotics, antidepressants, and alpha-agonists used in ADHD treatment all contributed to weight gain over a 3-year period.

Stimulants, the most common medications used in ADHD, were associated with weight loss.

The connection between ADHD medications and weight gain remains unclear, though.

Older research, such as a study from 2014, suggests taking stimulant medications is associated with a higher BMI later in life when compared with no history of taking stimulants or having ADHD.

Not everyone living with ADHD experiences overweight or obesity. If you do have overweight or obesity and ADHD, the below approaches may help you manage your weight:

  • Make universal lifestyle changes: Certain lifestyle strategies increase the chance of obesity — for everyone. Adjusting your diet, exercise, sleep, and substance use habits can be an important first step toward weight management.
  • Work with your eating habits: Set yourself up for success by working with your eating habits rather than against them and trying to force a major change. For example, if you enjoy late-night snacking, incorporate healthier alternatives to processed snacks.
  • Set small, attainable goals: If weight loss is a goal, it can take time. This can be difficult for people with ADHD. Setting small goals can help you stay on track. For example, instead of trying to plan a week’s worth of meals, start by creating a daily plan.
  • Partner with a professional: Losing weight isn’t always straightforward. Working with a professional trainer or dietitian can help you make sure you’re balancing your nutrient and calorie intake. Working with a professional also adds a level of accountability to your efforts.
  • Get support: Motivation is important when you’re trying to lose weight. Many people living with ADHD struggle with staying motivated. Joining support groups or peer groups is a great way to be inspired by the success of others in similar situations.
  • Seek ADHD treatment: While the relationship between ADHD and obesity may be partially related to shared genetics, treating ADHD may help improve symptoms that can contribute to weight gain.
  • Keep up with doctor visits: If you’re concerned about your weight, speaking with your doctor can help you rule out medication causes or underlying conditions, like a sleep disorder, that might be contributing to weight gain in ADHD.

Living with ADHD may make you more likely to experience overweight or obesity.

While there’s no evidence of a direct cause-and-effect relationship, research suggests these conditions may be linked through factors like genetics and executive dysfunction.

Making universal lifestyle changes and setting attainable goals can help you manage your weight when living with ADHD. Working with professional dieticians, fitness coaches, and mental health experts can help you stay on the right track.