Alleged Obesity Villains: ADHD and ACEs

The Minnesota Study Survey is said to be the longest-running youth survey in America, and there is no reason to doubt it. How many institutions can offer evidence collected from 105,000 subjects? A University of Minnesota study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, looked at the phenomenon of adversity trauma, the tendency of children and teens to put on weight in reaction to traumatic events.

The kids whose histories were consulted came from both urban and rural backgrounds, either in poverty conditions or not. The survey…

[…] allowed the researchers to assess the students’ exposure to six adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs: psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, family substance abuse, domestic violence and parent incarceration. Being male, older, living in a rural area and living in poverty were all associated with having a higher BMI. Being female, living in a rural area and living in poverty were all associated with a higher number of ACEs.

The researchers found…

[…] that the greater the number of adverse experiences in children’s lives, the stronger the likelihood they will be overweight or obese.

This might be interpreted as another example of deprivation amplification, the habit that bad conditions have of worsening. In most times and places, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, until some cataclysmic event interrupts the cycle. Maybe, for the individual, it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe the right intervention at the right time could bring about miraculous results.


This all-too-familiar abbreviation of course signifies Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and in the layperson’s mind, it is all to easy to assume that hyperactivity would imply the burning of calories, and thus a slim figure. But no. A tenuous connection between ADHD and obesity was spotted as far back as 2013, when a study from the University of Illinois connected some dots — at least among laboratory rodents — between memory-dependent learning disabilities and a high-fat diet.

The researchers learned that a diet that derived 60 percent of its calories from fat affected the dopamine metabolism in the mouse brains, making them anxious and learning-deficient. Prof. Gregory Freund noted that increased dopamine metabolites appeared to cause anxiety behaviors in children too. Phyllis Picklesimer wrote,

Freund knows from other studies that brain biochemistry normalizes after 10 weeks as the body appears to compensate for the diet. At that point, brain dopamine has returned to normal, and mice have become obese and developed diabetes…

They saw evidence that a high-fat diet initiates chemical responses that are similar to the ones seen in addiction, with dopamine, the chemical important to the addict’s pleasurable experiences, increasing in the brain.

In the following year, pediatrician Dyan Hes wrote that children may tend to graze in the kitchen all day because of undiagnosed ADHD.

In 2016, Mayo Clinic researchers concluded that ADHD in females is associated with obesity during childhood and young adulthood. Their risk of adult obesity, in fact, appeared to double with a childhood ADHD diagnosis. While boys express their hyperactivity by actually moving around a lot and, as might be expected, burning calories, it appears that girls use their extra energy to eat more food.

In the following year, researchers associated with the UK’s University of Southhampton, Italy’s University of Padua, and New York University’s Child Study Center addressed the mixed findings produced by various studies of the relationship, if any, between obesity and ADHD. They found that, while controlling for confounding factors, meta-analytical evidence still supports “a significant association between nontreated ADHD and obesity.”

But why and how? Factors underlying the links might include any or all of the following:

[…] abnormal (dysregulated) eating patterns, decreased physical activity, sleep disruption, and psychiatric comorbidities, including conduct disorder. Preliminary evidence has also revealed possible common genetic underpinnings.

Importantly, longitudinal studies have been published that show how ADHD may be a risk for the future development of obesity, although the reverse causal link cannot be ruled out… This line of research has ultimately the potential to improve the clinical management and, as a consequence, the quality of individuals with both ADHD and obesity.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “U of M study links adversity in early life to childhood obesity,”, 01/08/2019
Source: “Is there a link between childhood obesity and ADHD, learning disabilities?,”, 02/19/13
Source: “What I Wish Everyone Knew About Childhood Obesity: A Pediatrician Explains,”, 03/24/14
Source: “Childhood ADHD Linked to Obesity in Female Adults,”, 02/07/16
Source: “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Obesity: Update 2016,”, 01/19/17
Photo credit: flippinyank on Visualhunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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