October 3, 2022
How ADHD Shapes Our Eating Habits
Written by Sara Lane
Common Eating Pattern Pitfalls for ADHD
Lifestyle Habits & ADHD
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is defined by experts as “a neurological/behavioral disorder characterized by inattention or hyperactivity and impulsivity, or combined symptomatology”.
ADHD On the Rise
In recent years, the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is on the rise. This is likely due to an improved access to healthcare and a decrease in cultural stigma surrounding the disorder.
As research continues to shed light on this prevalent issue, we have a better understanding of how it impacts lifestyle and habit formation – including unique eating habits.
Connection Between Eating & Hyperactivity
A 2014 study found that boys with ADHD (ranging from age 6-10) were more likely to:
- Eat less fruits / vegetables
- Miss important meal times
- Be more likely to snack at unorthodox times of the day
- Eat more sugary sweets and drinks
For many concerned parents, these unhealthy eating habits are not a parenting mishap. Rather, they’re an intrinsic side effect of living with ADHD. The positive news is that even though these eating issues are common, positive eating habits are possible.
Common ADHD Eating Habits
As new research continues to shed light on the most commonly shared experiences of people with ADHD, best practices are emerging on how to cope with disordered eating patterns.
While each person is unique, studies have shown that ADHD is often marked with common disordered eating patterns across the board. Some of the most common eating patterns associated with this diagnosis include:
- Poor awareness of internal cues of hunger and satiety, or fullness
- Difficulty following a meal plan
- Difficulty in judging portion size accurately
- Challenges with binging or purging
- Distraction by continual thoughts of food, weight, and body shape
- Increased desire to overeat, especially high calorie, “reward” type foods
- Poor self-esteem due to repeated failures of self-control
These disordered eating patterns can be increasingly stressful and discouraging as attempts to eat healthy meals aren’t achieved.
Moreover, increased stress eating and binge eating can result in weight gain. This further exacerbates feelings of alienation and poor self image in those with ADHD.
Brain Chemistry & Healthy Eating
One of the key players in the development of disordered eating in people with ADHD is brain chemistry. An important neurotransmitter that specializes in feeling satisfied may be at work in the minds of those experiencing ADHD.
Dopamine, commonly referred to as the “reward” neurotransmitter, is an essential part of the digestive system – indirectly that is. People with lower dopamine levels may feel the urge to indulge in behaviors such as overeating, substance abuse and other risk-taking behaviors to achieve the same reward others get from less harmful behaviors.
People whose brains are low in dopamine often self-medicate with high-caloric food because of its ability to activate dopamine in the common reward pathway.
In fact, people with low doses of dopamine are more likely to:
- act impulsively
- blurt out opinions
- burst out in anger and later feel regret
Battle of the Brains
While positive eating choices can go a long way in combating negative ADHD side effects, it is important to acknowledge the role of brain chemistry in the fight to maintain healthy eating routines. Oftentimes, people with ADHD desire to lead a healthy life, but the messages their brain is receiving compels them to gain nutritional sustenance in unhealthy ways.
Many of these common behaviors are due to an imbalance in neurotransmitters in the brain. These side effects can be modified through interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or medication to counteract the chemical imbalance.
Positive Lifestyle Changes that Work
Roberto Olivardia, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of ADHD and eating disorders, suggests that children with ADHD naturally operate on a “see food” diet: if they see the food, they eat the food.
The trick is to find a way to bridge the gap between the need for volume and positive nutritional intake.
Avoid Distracted Eating
One simple solution is to monitor where meals and snacks are eaten. Many people with ADHD can find themselves eating in front of the TV, watching Netflix, studying, driving, or playing video games. By practicing mindful eating, the brain has time to register that food is being delivered and the hunger response has an opportunity to slooooow down.
Stick to Routines
Alternatively, you may find that setting organized eating times prove successful in combating overeating. For example, sitting down for regular meal and snack times like below:
- Breakfast at 8 a.m.
- Snack at 11 a.m.
- Lunch at 1 p.m.
- Snack at 3 p.m.
- Dinner at 6 p.m.
- Snack at 8 p.m.
Seeing a box of Oreos on the counter may trigger an immediate “I’m hungry” response.
Make snacks hard to access by putting them away and out of sight.
During your next grocery shopping trip, try to choose foods that you won’t feel guilty indulging in later. These can be high protein, low-calorie snacks that offer more nutritional value without empty calories like sugary sweets and drinks.
Finding Your Solution
Most importantly, it’s important to find a solution that works for you. While these solutions have been helpful to other families in the past, it’s imperative to note that what works for one family may not work for yours.
With busy schedules, picky eaters, and the list of unique circumstances surrounding each case, a balance between ADHD and healthy eating is going to be as unique as you.
Moreover, if something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to throw it out and go back to the drawing board. Finding a healthy eating plan can be a process of trial and error, so be sure to give yourself much grace as you navigate healthy eating routines.
Whatever eating challenges you and your loved ones are facing, find support on the journey. Connect with other parents, siblings, and spouses to discuss tried and true methods that have worked…and ones to avoid. Share the pitfalls and wins with like-minded people who know firsthand the struggles of ADHD and its impact on lifestyle habits.
Do these eating habits sound familiar? Take this free online assessment to see if these eating patterns may be caused by ADHD.
Find Support Today
If eating challenges, parenting, or the side effects of ADHD have you bogged down, find support today. One of our friendly intake specialists are ready to match you with your personalized therapist and start the journey of recovery as you navigate these issues together.
You’re not alone.
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