ADHD and Eating Disorders
Eating disorders can be a serious problem for individuals with ADHD. Over the last decade, researchers have begun making connections between ADHD and various eating disorders, including:
- Anorexia nervosa – Inadequate food intake leading to a weight that is too low.
- Binge eating disorder (BED) – Frequent episodes of consuming very large amounts of food but without behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting.
- Bulimia nervosa – Frequent episodes of consuming very large amount of food followed by behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting.
The eating disorder that overlaps most with ADHD and is the most common is BED. This condition affects around 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men in the U.S. An estimated 30 percent of them also have ADHD. Researchers believe that ADHD symptoms like impulsivity and inattention play a role.
The Link Between ADHD and Eating Disorders
There are multiple potential factors potentially at work in the link between ADHD and eating disorders. Many of the characteristics of ADHD are known to influence some disordered eating behaviors. These include:
- Sensory processing problems – Individuals with ADHD often exhibit problems with how the brain interprets signals and cues from the rest of the body. This includes cues about thirst, hunger, pain, etc, which may be distorted. These misinterpreted signals about the body’s basic needs can lead to abnormal eating behaviors. For example, a child who is unable to recognize when they are hungry and full may under-eat, overeat or develop food aversions.
- Food allergies and sensitivities – Individuals with ADHD can be highly sensitive to scents, textures, flavors, and foods. As a result, they may not readily accept certain foods, and these behaviors can manifest as restricting, rejection, etc.
- Inattention and impulsiveness – These are common characteristics associated with ADHD. They can make it difficult for the affected individual to maintain a healthy diet or eat adequately. For example, a child who is restless at the dinner table may avoid eating out of anxiousness or restlessness.
- Heightened brain reward response – The dopamine system may be implicated in ADHD, obesity, and binge eating. The dopamine system may be implicated in ADHD, obesity, and binge eating.
- Comorbidities – Psychological comorbidities, such as anxiety and depression, may also account for eating behavior.
- ADHD medications – Medication for ADHD can also be a factor in eating disorders. While it helps improve self-control, it also often has the side effect of reducing appetite.
Treatments for Eating Disorders
There are a number of options for treating eating disorders associated with ADHD. These can be used in conjunction with traditional treatment plans that include medication, therapy and coaching.
- Avoid dieting, unless medically supervised – Strict diets can end up triggering binge episodes, especially for people with ADHD who already struggle to stick to normal routines.
- Keep nutritious snacks and low-effort meals on hand – With ADHD, you often gravitate toward the option with the fewest steps. That usually means heavily processed snacks or microwavable food that’s low in nutrients and, therefore, not as filling, making you prone to binging. Instead, prepare some simple, nutritious foods ahead of time that are always available when the eating impulse strikes.
- Join a support groups – A binge eating support group can help you address and manage your binge eating behaviors.
- Use timers – For each meal, set timers on your phone to go off every day. When a timer goes off, fix one of your low-effort meals. If that sees to difficult, have a generous portion of a nourishing snack.
Be aware that eating disorders are a serious medical condition. Roughly 15 percent of males and females with eating disorders will lose their life to this illness, often through cardiac arrest or suicide. ADHD can complicate the recovery process, so make sure yo have the right team of professionals working with you. In addition, there are steps that you can take on your own to help overcome eating disorders.