Research Shows Association between ADHD, Eating Disorders, Adult Obesity: What can you do to avoid disordered eating?
By Melissa Gonzalez, Psy.D.
Did you know that your ADHD places you at greater risk for developing an eating disorder?
An increasing body of literature is showing a strong association between ADHD and disordered eating. A 2007 study out of HarvardMedicalSchool showed ADHD girls to be almost four times more likely to develop an eating disorder than their non-ADHD peers. Research has repeatedly linked ADHD with adult Binge Eating Disorder (BED), Bulimia Nervosa (BN), and also obesity. A more recent study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that children with ADHD were an astonishing 12 times more likely to develop Loss of Control Eating Syndrome (LOC-ES) – which is similar to BED – as compared to children without ADHD.
So what is it about people with ADHD that places them at risk? Is it all about impulse control?
While poor impulse control and disinhibition (hallmarks of ADHD) can lead to episodes of overeating, other key features such as poor executive functioning and emotional dysregulation can lead to eating disorder symptoms. For example, poor planning for meals may lead to rushed choices once hunger sets in. Individuals may opt for the quicker, more readily accessible food choices or those that are higher in sugars and fats (e.g. fast foods or snack foods). Meals such as breakfast may also be skipped due to poor time management. In other words, there isn’t enough time left to eat. Alternatively, if someone with ADHD becomes hyperfocused on TV, games, or work they may forget to eat altogether. These missed meals may lead to overeating at a later time.
Emotional eating or self-soothing with food often becomes an unhealthy means of regulating emotions – a complex task that many with ADHD have trouble doing. After all, there is a reason why we call certain foods “comfort foods.” This may become especially apparent in ADHD individuals who feel inadequate or who experience anxiety because of their ADHD. Eating can also serve as stimulation in times of boredom and those with ADHD often complain of boredom. Furthermore, it’s very easy for children and adults with ADHD to miss their body’s internal cues for satiety or fullness. They may eat wile watching TV or playing on their cell phones and fail to pay attention to their body, again, leading to overeating. However, we cannot assume that all ADHD-related problems with eating involve eating too much. Links between Anorexia Nervosa (AN) and ADHD are also emerging. Over-control of food may reflect an “all-or-nothing” approach to decision making that is commonly seen in ADHD individuals. Additionally, if the ADHD world feels chaotic one may attempt to exert strict control over what they are eating if they can’t do so in other areas of their life.
What can I do?
Proper understanding and management of your ADHD is a critical first step to avoiding the devastating implications of eating disorders. Therapy and medication are often part of the treatment plan. But it’s important to note that we’re not just looking for the potentially appetite suppressing effects of ADHD medication. My approach strives to achieve greater impulse control, increase focus and attention, improve executive functioning, develop self-management skills, and enhance positive emotional regulation. Learning about nutrition and developing healthy eating habits such as mindful eating may also help prevent the development of obesity or disordered eating.