ADHD as a Co-Occurring Disorder with Eating Disorders

Contributed by: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC for Eating Disorder Hope

Young female student studying outdoors in the autumn.Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a condition that both children and adults can struggle with. While many individuals’ associate apparent symptoms with this disorder, such as restlessness, inability to concentrate or hold attention, or impulsiveness, there is rarely a connection made to eating disorders.

However, research has demonstrated several commonalities between ADHD and eating disorders, which can help bring a greater understanding to the potential connection between these two conditions.

The link between ADHD and eating disorders can due to multiple factors, and many of the characteristics of ADHD have been shown to influence some disordered eating behaviors. The following ways may contribute to the connection between ADHD and eating disorders among children and adults:

Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD, and Eating Disorders:

Many individuals who struggle with ADHD typically exhibit irregularity with the interoceptive sense, which is how the brain interprets signals and cues from the rest of the body. For example, cues transmitted to the brain about thirst, hunger, pain, etc, may be distorted in a person who struggles with ADHD.

Misinterpreted signals about the body’s basic needs can lead to abnormal behaviors, particularly if there is a disruption in the ability to regulate hunger cues. A child who is unable to recognize when they are hungry and full may eat abnormally, under or overeat, or develop food aversions in response to malfunction with their interoceptive signal.

Food Allergies and Sensitivities:

Only the freshest ingredients for this chefIndividuals with ADHD may be more sensitive to stimuli, scents, textures, flavors, and foods. As a result, a person with ADHD may not as readily accept certain foods, and these behaviors can manifest as restricting, rejection, etc.

If you or a loved one has ADHD and is struggling to eat certain foods, it may be helpful to work with a specialist who can help determine if food allergies or sensitivities are present. Nutritionists can also help guide a person with a healthy diet that incorporates foods that are both acceptable and well tolerated.

Inattention and Impulsiveness:

These characteristics associated with ADHD can make it difficult for an adult or child to maintain a healthy diet or eat adequately. For example, a child who is restless at the dinner table may avoid eating out of anxiousness or restlessness.

Having structured meal times and planning ahead can be a helpful way to enforce healthy eating and habits around the table.

The Root Problem of Some Eating Disorders

ADHD can often be a root problem to eating disorder behaviors, and treatment for ADHD can often help alleviate symptoms related to the eating disorder. For individuals who struggle with ADHD, food may become a way of self-medicating or exercising control in an environment that feels chaotic or out of balance.

Many eating disorder type behaviors can be misread in a person who is struggling with ADHD, and it is crucial to treat and address this primary concern in order to better deal with the eating disorder.

Treatment for ADHD

young beautiful brunette woman with smart phoneTreatment for ADHD can involve many different aspects, including medications, therapy, nutrition, and social skill training. For a child or adult who is struggling with ADHD, focusing on managing these symptoms first can help an individual work through eating disorder issues more effectively.

Seeking out professional and specialized care is a key component of the recovery journey and necessary for one to make strides in healing and wellness. Because many of the symptoms of ADHD and eating disorders can be similar, a health professional who specializes in this area can help determine what is related to the ADHD and what is symptomatic of an eating disorder.

Knowing the connection and distinguishing subtle differences can be helpful in finding effective treatment methods.

Staying Focused on the Goal

Having ADHD and an eating disorder can feel overwhelming at times, but staying focused on the goal of recovery and utilizing resources for treatment can be helpful part of getting well and overcoming challenges.

Be encouraged in knowing that there is help and healing, and by taking one step at a time on this journey, you can find a way to manage your ADHD and overcome an eating disorder.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Have you struggled with ADHD and an eating disorder? How did you approach these disorders to build healthy eating habits?

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 28th, 2016
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