Kids With ADHD at Higher Risk for Eating Disorders

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Recent research has suggested a connection between attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and adult binge eating disorder. Now, a new study from Johns Hopkins University shows that there may also be a connection between childhood ADHD and loss of control eating syndrome (LOC-ES).

Loss of control eating syndrome is a proposed diagnostic category for children between the ages of 6 and 12. It shares many of the same diagnostic criteria as binge eating disorder, which is typically diagnosed in adults. Both conditions are characterized by times when individuals lose control over their eating and are unable to stop. 

Previous studies have found that children with ADHD are more likely to be overweight or obese, and that children who are given stimulant drugs to treat their ADHD often lose weight. Experts have speculated that children with ADHD are highly impulsive when it comes to eating and more likely to lose control over how much they are eating.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins set out to test the theory that ADHD is linked to out-of-control eating in children. The team was led by Dr. Shauna Reinblatt, assistant professor in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Much Higher Risk of Loss of Control Eating Syndrome

The researchers assessed 79 children aged 8-14 from the greater Baltimore area through in-depth interviews, objective testing and parental reports in order to determine whether diagnoses for LOC-ES, ADHD or both could be made. The team also administered neurological tests to the children in order to determine how well they were able to control their impulses.

The results of the study showed that children who met the diagnostic criteria for ADHD were 12 times more likely to also meet the diagnostic criteria for loss of control eating syndrome. Furthermore, children who were overweight or obese and met the diagnostic criteria for LOC-ES were seven times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than children who were overweight or obese but did not have LOC-ES.

The neurological impulse control tests also confirmed the connection between lower impulse control and LOC-ES. The researchers noted that incremental decreases in impulse control corresponded with incremental increases in the likelihood that a child could be diagnosed with LOC-ES.

Connection Between the Two Conditions Still Unclear

However, the researchers note that there are several possible explanations for the relationship that they observed between ADHD and LOC-ES. One explanation is that ADHD directly increases a child’s risk of uncontrolled eating. It is also possible that children who meet the diagnostic criteria for both conditions may suffer from a more severe form of ADHD in which even higher levels of impulsivity are seen. Children who suffer from both conditions may also have a genetic predisposition to high impulsivity, which is the true underlying cause of both the ADHD and the LOC-ES.

While research is necessary to clarify the relationship between these two conditions, Reinblatt says that clinicians may want to screen for both conditions when they are evaluating patients for ADHD. Future research could also reveal treatment strategies that are effective for both conditions.

The results of the Johns Hopkins study were published in April 2015 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. The research was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

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