By Leslie Rouder, LCSW Cht.
There has been a lot of research lately on the relationship between ADHD and eating disorders, as well as problems with obesity that would indicate that having ADHD may predispose individuals to difficulties regulating their weight. A study done in 2004, found that 10% of individuals with ADHD suffered from an eating disorder at some point in their life time compared to the general population of .6 to 4.5 %. In another study done at an obesity clinic in 2005, 58% of overweight teenagers were diagnosed with ADHD as opposed to 35.7% of the general population. In looking at these numbers one might ask, what are the reasons for these differences and what do we do about it? In answer to those questions, I have written the following article.
Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not act, but a habit.” However, when one has ADHD, developing healthy habits can be a big challenge due to problems with self-awareness, as well as self-regulation. The 3 biggest problem areas facing individuals with ADHD that would affect one’s ability to maintain a healthy weight are the following;
1. Difficulty with Planning and Organization
Eating healthy food requires planning, making the time to shop for the right foods, and making the time to prepare one’s meals. This can be tricky for someone with ADHD, due to difficulties with executive functioning, that could impair one’s ability to plan and organize one’s meals as well as one’s time in shopping and preparing them. Very often individuals are juggling work, family and other social obligations and find that it is just easier to eat on the run, which could lead to fast food and poor food choices.
2. Difficulty with Self Awareness and Regulation
Being able to identify when one is actually hungry as well as satiated means one must be mindful. Paying attention to one’s internal messages can be a challenge in the face of the many distractions and responsibilities an individual may have. In addition, some individuals with ADHD have a tendency to hyper- focus which may lead to skipping meals only to find themselves starving and later overeating or binge eating as a result. Another difficulty for many individuals with ADHD is in the ability to regulate ones sleeping habits. Since getting enough sleep is vital to maintaining a healthy weight, for those individuals with ADHD, who find it difficult to fall asleep or cannot regulate their sleeping patterns so that they are well rested, lack of sleep adds to the challenge in maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, many individuals with ADHD will often eat while studying, watching TV, or doing some other activity, not even paying attention how much food they are eating or the amount of calories they are actually consuming.
3. The Use of Food to Self-Medicate
Food is often an easy, fast way to alleviate stress, anger, sadness, loneliness or boredom, along with several other emotions that may come up in an individual’s life. Since food is readily available, legal and provides immediate gratification, many individuals will reach for food to alleviate many of these emotions. Sometimes individuals tell me that food helps them to stay focused and grounded while studying or before doing a boring or difficult task. Boredom is a big problem for individuals with ADHD and can also add to the desire to use food to alleviate these feelings. Since individuals with ADHD have low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for the reward center of the brain, many will use food to help elevate these levels, while providing them a sense of satisfaction and pleasure.
How does one go about addressing the above issues that lead to problems with weight regulation? Firstly, if you have an eating disorder, do seek help from an individual who is trained in treating this problem. Make sure that this individual is also knowledgeable about ADHD and how that diagnosis may figure into the treatment protocol. If you have an ongoing struggle to lose weight, work on developing good organizational and planning tools. There are many great computer programs and APPS you can put on your iPhone or android to help with meal planning and shopping while out about. Get in the habit of meditating and developing awareness around all your activities, as well as eating. A great book on mindfulness is Dr. Lidia Zylowsak’s book entitled The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD. It even comes with a CD that walks you through the meditation process. Make a rule not to eat while doing other activities. If you have a tendency to hyper focus and skip meals, set an alarm to remind yourself that it is time to take a meal break. If you are not on medication for your ADHD already, consider trying a medication regimen, which can be very helpful in keeping one’s attention and focus as well as lessen the tendency to be impulsive. If you are on medication, make sure you take it regularly and that it is working properly. Develop a daily exercise program including some form of cardio vascular exercise. Work with an ADHD coach or counselor that can help you develop and stick with your routine and schedule. In seeking professional help, be sure that the clinician you are working with is knowledgeable about ADHD, since developing a treatment protocol without considering the specific challenges facing these individuals, can be detrimental to obtaining a successful treatment outcome.
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