ADHD And Eating Disorders

If you or your child have ADHD plus an eating disorder, you may think that these two conditions are unrelated. However, they are very much connected.  ADHD is often associated with other conditions including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, sleeping problems, and eating disorders, too. This article reviews in detail the link between  ADHD and eating disorders, as well as solutions to improve eating habits and maintain optimal weight. 

Types of eating disorders

Eating disorders are serious health concerns that involve abnormal,  persistent eating behaviors that have a negative impact on emotions, ability to function, and overall health. There is a lot of focus on weight, body shape, and food that influence eating behavior and habits, which ultimately may cause heart, digestive, bones, mouth, and other health problems. The top three most common eating disorders are bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge-eating.

  • Bulimia involves episodes of bingeing large quantities of food, followed by purging the food in a very unhealthy way: through forced vomiting, excess exercise or laxative abuse. There are a lot of emotions associated with bulimia including shame, guilt, fear of weight gain and harsh self judgement.  Although many people with bulimia have normal weight, or just some extra pounds, they have a negative perception of their body and weight.  
  • Binge eating disorder. Similar to bulimia, binge eating involves excess eating and lack of control over eating. These episodes occur weekly. Some may eat quicker than normal or larger quantities even after feeling full. There are also feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment  and desire to isolate and eat alone. Individuals with bulimia may be normal weight, overweight or obese. 
  • Anorexia nervosa can be life threatening as the body weight is significantly decreased to the point of starvation. There is very little food consumed, very restrictive,  low calorie diets,  excess exercise, laxative abuse. There is also a distorted perception of the body.  

ADHD and eating disorders

When looking at the connection between ADHD and obesity, researchers found that these two conditions also correlate with increased risk of mood disorders, oppositional defiant disorder  (ODD), conduct disorder, learning disorders, and binge eating. Teenage girls are at higher risk to have ADHD, obesity, and depression anxiety disorders decrease the risk of obesity and being overweight in children and teens with ADHD. 

Studies suggest that there is a strong, significant connection between ADHD and bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, but not with anorexia nervosa. Furthermore, eating disorders might be, at least in part, due to conditions affecting mental health like depression and personality disorders.  It is also possible that individuals with ADHD may eat in excess because the ADHD brain craves more stimulation. Executive functions like self-control and self-regulation are also altered in the case of ADHD. Inattention, lack of focus, and impaired dopamine pathways seen in both ADHD and eating disorders can further explain why these two conditions co-occur.  

Tips to overcome eating disorders

  • Get the right treatment. While ADHD meds and  antidepressants may help with self control and binge eating, psychotherapy is the main therapy that can help manage eating disorders. Children and teens can have the whole family involved, in so-called family based therapy or FBT. Cognitive behavior therapy is also useful to treat eating disorders, particularly for bulimia, binge eating and associated ADHD, stress and depression. 
  • Stress management strategies like yoga, mindfulness meditation, massage therapy, acupuncture and reflexology can help decrease stress levels. Stress is a well known trigger for ADHD symptoms and eating disorders as well. 
  • Join a support group. For in person meetings, check a support group in your area. There are many groups online that meet regularly. Click here to see the details. 
  • Mindfulness eating. The principles of mindfulness meditation can be applied to the act of eating. Mindfulness eating means that you are aware of the present moment when eating, using all your physical and emotional senses to enjoy the food on your plate. Eat slowly, chew well and observe the color of the foods, the texture, the taste and the smell. Your goal is to stop eating when you feel about 80% full. Drink water throughout the day, either plain or with a slice of lemon, orange or cucumber. Pay attention to its taste, drinking it slowly. Avoid skipping meals, as this makes you feel hungry and overeat when you have the next meal. Eat at regular hours, in modest amounts, using smaller plates.  If you write down on a paper your diet for the next day, along with the time for each meal, you are less likely to skip meals or overeat. 
  • Gratitude. Practicing gratitude has many benefits. Research shows that gratitude improves your emotional being and  self esteem, enhances your relationships, reduces depression and promotes better sleep. Simply find five things that you are grateful for in the morning. Think about  another five positive things that happened to you, when you go to bed. You can also incorporate gratitude when you eat. When you cook or eat, feel grateful and give thanks to everyone who made it possible to have the food available to you- the farmer, the truck driver that transported the food, the cashier from the supermarket, and of course thank  you, your partner,  your parents or whoever paid and cooked the food.