The link between ADHD and compulsive eating

A common under-addressed symptom of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is its impact on eating behaviours. Studies show one in five obese adults exhibit symptoms of ADHD. An increasing number of healthcare professionals now screen adults with chronic weight issues for ADHD.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the executive function of the brain. Included in these functions are self-regulation, planning, organisation and prioritisation. Complications with executive functioning can in turn affect decisions regarding what, when and how much to eat.

More than a full plate 
ADHD-related challenges include impulse control – this can lead individuals to indulge either in unhealthy foods or overeating in general.

Untreated ADHD and associated stress and frustration can also make it more difficult to make sensible meal and snack choices amidst a stressful day. An eating plan might be abandoned due to an impulsive decision to purchase unhealthy foods.

Dining with distraction
Individuals with ADHD tend to be distracted eaters. This might be eating while watching TV, playing computer games or just completing daily tasks. This kind of unconscious eating can increase calorie intake as there’s a lack of awareness of portion size, or continual snacking throughout the day.

Stress, anxiety, depression and other conditions which can exist alongside ADHD might further encourage those living with the condition to turn to food as a comfort.

The inability to plan ahead – which is common amongst adults with untreated ADHD – means meal preparation can fall by the wayside, or is left completely unconsidered. Foods might be purchased with convenience in mind, to satisfy immediate hunger, as opposed to those more beneficial and nutritious choices.

The food challenge 
Self-care is another challenge for individuals with untreated ADHD. They can become bored and frustrated quickly, which could implicate meal plans. Grocery shopping, meal preparation, sufficient sleep and daily exercise can be overwhelming and difficult to maintain.

Maintaining healthy eating habits 
With the correct treatment plan, however, compulsive eating and the conditions associated with it can be better controlled. If you’re showing the symptoms of ADHD – impulsivity, hyperactivity or inattention – it’s best to consult your healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis.

If you’ve already been diagnosed with ADHD, ensure your treatment is working to control the symptoms. Regular exercise – even gentle exercise such as walking or swimming – can help to lift moods, keep days in balance and leave you feeling energised.

Boredom and restlessness as a result of ADHD might be exacerbating your negative eating patterns. Set small goals and tasks that engage the brain, and make it a point to do some before your meal, and some after. This might decrease reliance on the meal itself to reduce boredom.

When eating, switch off the TV, put down your smartphone and focus solely on the task of eating itself. Eat slowly, chew food properly and take note of when you feel full. You could even set a timer during your meals to remind you to stop, take a breath and gauge whether you’re feeling full.

And if you really can’t bring yourself to institute healthier eating patterns, consult a dietitian or nutritionist to help guide you, together with ADHD treatment from your doctor. With the right support and motivation, anyone with ADHD can manage compulsive eating and set in motion a more balanced and peaceful routine.