ADHD, Diet, Body Image and Eating Disorders – How Are They Connected?

If you’re a woman with ADHD, ADD or autism, the statistical likelihood is that you, at some point in your life, have struggled with an eating disorder.1  If I were to ask you how you feel or have felt, about your body, the risk is even higher that you will tell me that you’ve lived a whole life in constant warfare with your body and eating behaviors. Over 50% of your ADHD sisters are likely to report the same. 

Many of you will also vividly and in detail be able to describe how you’ve used food and sugar to regulate energy levels, emotions and attention throughout your life.

What’s wrong with my brain?

Research also clearly shows that ADHD is more common among girls and women struggling with being overweight. And that the negative health consequences associated with overweight and obesity are more common among both children and adults with ADHD.2 

Considering what we know about how the ADHD brain works, this is perhaps not such a big surprise. We learned, for example, that ADHD is intimately linked to the brain’s dopamine balance. That in turn is closely tied to the regulation of hunger and satiety.

So, It’s quite safe to assume that, on a group level, living with ADHD is living with a sensitive dopamine system. Or in other words, living with an increased risk of getting hooked on things that give fast kicks or highs like alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, social media, or shopping. Unfortunately, sugar and other fast calories are no exception.

ADHD & Diet - what is the connection?

Core ADHD symptoms explain a lot

The impulsivity in ADHD makes it more difficult to resist the calorie-dense food we encounter on every street corner. And, inattention makes it harder to detect hunger in time if it’s been too long between meals, the body craves fat and sweets. 

In these situations, you would have to produce superhuman self-discipline to plan and prepare a well-balanced meal. Most of us probably reach for a bag of crisps or candy, a sandwich or some highly processed fast food. And just like that, hours of fasting are replaced by an abundance of carbohydrates and calories. Often far beyond the recommended daily intake.

Saving for times of uncertainty

Another thing that can make it even more difficult to establish regular and healthy routines with ADHD is sleep problems. 

Poor sleep quality can lead to weight gain for several reasons. 

When we’re stressed or not sleeping for other reasons, our bodies release more of the stress- and appetite-stimulating hormones cortisol and leptin. 

It’s a smart survival mechanism to store energy and increase the body’s fat reserves in times of uncertainty or crisis. But life with ADHD is a bit too often a life where stress and insomnia are the rules rather than the exception. Consequently, difficulties with constant hunger and the threat of increasing weight may be ever-present.

Eating up your emotions?

Maybe you get caught in an endless cycle of yo-yo dieting. Where you alternate between self-starvation and binge eating followed by a slow but steady weight gain. Perhaps you eat too quickly, and your brain struggles to perceive how much energy you’ve actually consumed.

Far too many women with ADHD can tell you how shameful it is not to have gained control over your eating habits even as adults. For many, their ADHD causes problems with understanding and managing emotions. So, turning to comfort eating or self-medicating with food might not be far off. 

Many probably believe that negative emotions like grief, shame or anger are the most common feelings behind binge or overeating. Few know in fact that it seems to be restlessness and boredom that are the most common causes among both children and adults with ADHD.

ADHD is not about knowing what to do – but doing what you know!

One of the most important messages here is that the problems with food, body image and eating disorders in ADHD have nothing to do with morals, character or poor judgment. Research clearly shows this. On the contrary, even if you know what’s right and moderate, it can be challenging to find balance and self-regulation.

Therefore, the journey towards healthy eating habits always starts with understanding how your particular ADHD brain works. And more so, finding the tools and strategies that work for you!

In the Letterlife app, we’ve gathered tips & tricks to help you on your way to healthier eating habits. Download it if you haven’t yet.

  1. Nazar BP, Bernardes C, Peachey G, Sergeant J, Mattos P, Treasure J. The risk of eating disorders comorbid with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Eat Disord. 2016 Dec;49(12):1045-1057. doi: 10.1002/eat.22643. Epub 2016 Nov 15. PMID: 27859581. ↩︎
  2. Cortese S, Tessari L. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Obesity: Update 2016. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2017 Jan;19(1):4. doi: 10.1007/s11920-017-0754-1. PMID: 28102515; PMCID: PMC5247534. ↩︎
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