Weight, Part 1: Eating with ADHD

Problems with eating relate to ADHD in lots of ways. Cooking and eating are a huge part of my life. I enjoy both. They can also be a source of great stress, especially when I struggle to organise meals or control my impulsive urges to eat too much of the crappy stuff.
A kitchen scale icon in pink and black

I had originally called this tangent “ADHD and eating (and not eating)”, but the two sections ended up so long, and so different in tone and content, that I split them up. Part 2 here.

Content note: This post is full of content about issues with eating, so if you find that stuff upsetting or damaging, I’d recommend skipping it.

Before I begin, I must stress that I can offer no proper solutions to any of the problems I’m going to talk about. As an adult I have always had a strange relationship with food, and I have not yet learned to completely normalise it (although I’m currently at a healthy weight). I’m just laying out what I’ve recently learned in the hope that it can help you, me or (ideally) both of us.

Cooking and eating are a huge part of my life. I enjoy both. They can also be a source of great stress, especially when I struggle to organise meals or control my impulsive urges to eat too much of the ‘junk’ stuff. It would be even more difficult for me if I wasn’t lucky enough to have been taught how to cook as a child, or if I couldn’t eat certain foods.

It is important to me that you know this: ‘weight issues’ (a horrible phrase but it’s concise, I suppose) are super common in people with ADHD, and super common in general, and you are not worthless or inferior because you struggle with them.

You’re not alone, you’re not any of the nasty words you might call yourself; and as we learn more about the disorder, loads of clever experts are working on all sorts of tool kits to help work this shit out.

Eating with ADHD

Problems with eating relate to ADHD in lots of ways.

ADHD increases impulsivity, so we make poor choices

Impulsivity and the closely connected inability to really care about long-term consequences is one of the hallmarks of ADHD (there’s a nice, shortish explanation here, from Psychology Today). It can be difficult to override the impulse to eat another crumpet or five, even with the knowledge that it will do you no good in the long-term. 

I can make heartfelt promises to myself about tomorrow’s food consumption. I can work out precisely what I need to eat to lose X amount of weight by Y time (which in itself might not be the healthiest habit). I can put a motivational picture on my phone, and set a reminder to eat something healthy, and really, really want to do it… but when it comes to 13.00 and I fancy a melty cheese sandwich and a packet of crisps, that’s what I’m going to get. I stop caring in that moment, and make up all kinds of clever excuses as to why just this once it doesn’t matter. Except “just this once” ends up being most days.

Learning that this is a pretty common ADHD trait has helped me manage these impulses a bit (medication has helped even more, granted) and, just as importantly, it has lessened the self-hatred that came afterwards.

Dopamine shots can come from certain foods, so we overindulge in them

The ADHD brain is constantly prodding you to provide it with a dopamine fix – or a ‘shot’ as I’ve come to think of it, as we always seem to seek the immediate effect.

Carbohydrates and sugar deliver this – and they deliver it with less immediate and/or far less severe consequences than sex, drugs and drink.

More on that from ADDitude mag here.

Alcohol

Alcohol is calorie-heavy, and lots of people with ADHD have issues with drinking. That’s a huge can of worms that I won’t open in this particular post (I covered it here instead). I’ll just say that drinking a lot of booze will often make you fat, even if you don’t eat much. That’s how I ended up overweight and under-nourished. Fun times.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what our bodies want from us, so we guess (badly)

Many people with ADHD have problems with interpreting their body’s signals (it’s called interoceptive sense, apparently: I just had to look that up and found another handily short article). It can mean that you often mistake one bodily need (e.g. thirst) for another (e.g. hunger). It can also mean that you have trouble telling when you’re full – instead continuing to eat until you reach the point of being uncomfortable.

I’ve always had issues with mixing up signals from my own body. When I’ve been in a difficult mental state, it’s sometimes gotten to the point where I’ve been unable to differentiate between feeling worried and feeling hungry. I’ve also, historically, eaten until I’m “stuffed”, missing the more subtle cue that says “full”.

That weird confusion over signals has contributed to me being both underweight and overweight at times.

Sensory issues can mean picky eaters, so diet can be limited

“Picky eating” is a phrase you mainly see associated with children, and most of the literature that comes up is directed at frustrated parents. In fact, I couldn’t find anything decent about picky eating and adult ADHD, so I asked reddit about it.

The /r/adhd subreddit is way nicer than most of the site, by the way. So if you want an active forum to ask questions, seek support and learn about ADHD, don’t be put off by the fact that it’s reddit. Here’s the whole thread.

It reasserted that we don’t really know if being a picky eater is directly related to ADHD. Plenty of people say they’re not picky eaters, and plenty of people say they are. The people that are picky eaters mainly cite texture as their issue with certain foods.

So, nothing even slightly conclusive, but two theories that came out of the thread sounded plausible (you can tell I’ve not got an editor around to pull me up on this shit):

ASD

ADHD and Aspergers Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have a lot of overlapping symptoms and are often co-morbid (that means you have both at the same time). So picky eating that is down to ASD could be blamed on ADHD.

Sensory Issues

ADHD and Sensory Issues (SI) are also often found together – in fact, I’d assumed that the former came with the latter as standard until I started researching this post – and one symptom of SI is picky eating.

This is an under-studied area of ADHD, but I found this summary, which links to lots of studies on the subject, particularly useful. Many mental health experts now refer to Sensory Processing Disorder as a separate but frequently co-morbid condition, although it is not yet in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

My own sensory overload triggers are to do with touch and sound, so happily I’ve not struggled with this particular area of food and ADHD.

Organisation helps with healthy eating, so… well, I’m sure you see the problem

Eating healthily is much easier if you can organise yourself and, generally speaking, we’re not at the top of the game there.

As an example, packing yourself a healthy lunch is great if you want to eat well. But even getting to the ‘packing’ stage can be difficult for people with ADHD. There are so many steps for such a simple concept:

  • In order to make healthy eating economical, you’re going to need to buy a bunch of stuff in bulk, so you need to make room in the fridge, freezer and cupboards.simple illustration of a stovetop
  • Remember to go to the shop.
  • Remember what you’re meant to be buying from the shop, or remember to make a list and bring it with you
  • Remember to thaw the ingredients, or soak the dried beans, well ahead of time.
  • Remember to make the food before bed, or manage to organise your morning well enough to make the food, or manage to regularly meal prep on a weekend day.

I’m reasonably good about making sure I meal prep a few tubs for Joe to eat at the farm – he probably eats sandwiches one week in three – but that’s easy because he can eat whatever he wants (I am envious but I am not willing to do 50+ hours’ manual labour a week to get a similar level of food freedom). I can throw a week of ‘Joe’ lunches together with whatever’s available.

Making my own lunches is more of a struggle, because I am limiting myself to things that are not bread, pasta, or covered in cheese. Oh, and I’m a pescetarian. This means I need to plan my shopping, and to organise myself into soaking chickpeas, and to tidy the damn kitchen so I can find the cumin. It’s often more than I can bring myself to start, let alone remember to finish.

Conclusion

It’s much easier to deal with weird stuff when you’ve got an idea of why it’s happening.

It has been for me, anyway, since my diagnosis: especially when it comes to impulse control and dopamine-seeking behaviours.

I haven’t been granted a total cessation of these behaviours (even with medication!), but the extra understanding of myself is stopping me from falling into a self-hating spiral. With the melancholy of those spirals would come even more problematic eating behaviours, to make myself feel briefly better, and even less motivation to do anything about it.

If I can be kinder to myself – and I can, at the moment – I can stop a whole process that used to seem inevitable. That’s kind of cool.

You may also want to read…

ADHD and Obesity: Can ADHD Make You Fat? (Gina Pera)

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