Food and Behaviour Research

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21 May 2015 - Huffpost - Mindful Eating, ADHD and Nutrition

Mark Bertin, M.D.

The words attention deficit are so strongly associated with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), many people overlook other far-reaching consequences of the disorder. Among them are poor eating habits, eating disorders, and a higher-than-average risk of becoming overweight as a result of having ADHD.

For example, a recent study linked ADHD to binge eating. How these eating issues happen makes a lot of sense when you understand the impact of ADHD on life management as a whole.

Executive function includes cognitive abilities that act as the brain's manager. ADHD is essentially a consequence of poor executive function, not inattention or impulsiveness. That means it undermines skills such as time management, decision making, organization, and planning. For people with ADHD all these management-level mental abilities can be difficult.

The ADHD Executive Chef

While research shows eating issues are common around ADHD, if you are an adult with ADHD or have a child with it, all this might come as a surprise -- for good reason. "The relationship between ADHD and eating is vastly under-recognized even in the eating disorders and ADHD communities," says Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., a leading expert on the topic.

Executive function supports everyday decision making around food. With ADHD, the inability to plan on its own may cause last minute, rushed dietary choices. It also leads to rushed reliance on fast food or quick snacks laden with fat, carbohydrates, or sugar. In addition, children and adults with ADHD frequently feel a need to eat right now when hungry, fed by their ADHD-related reactivity and impulsivity. And out of stress, boredom or overstimulation amplified by ADHD they often develop emotional overeating.

How people with ADHD eat also becomes problematic. The craving for stimulation inherit to the condition may lead to eating too quickly. Engaging in other activities while eating, such as watching television or driving, leads to missing body cues that signal satiety. This causes people to eat past the point of being full.

Not only is nutrition compromised for people with ADHD, the condition puts many of them at risk for an eating disorder. "Typically eating disorders with ADHD are the more impulsive types, such as binge eating disorder and bulimia," Dr. Olivardia says. "Since most people think of ADHD as impulsive in nature, those with compulsive eating disorders like anorexia are often under-diagnosed and missed. This restriction around food can be an attempt to quell the chaos that someone living with ADHD feels."