While the link between ADHD and eating disorders is still being explored, scientists and psychologists have found definite connections between them. And if you take a closer look at the two conditions, you can see how they could be related—mostly because of the effect ADD has on central cognitive capacity. Many people with ADD struggle to implement the executive regulation that allows for organization and achievement of long-term goals. This impact is one reason people with ADD also struggle with conditions such as depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and relationship conflicts.
The most common eating disorders associated with ADD are binge eating, compulsive overeating, anorexia (self-starvation), and bulimia (bingeing and purging). And there are some key elements of ADD that may influence its link to unhealthy eating habits:
This particularly chronic symptom of ADD is associated with unfocused energy and the urgency that an action needs to be taken, without knowing where that energy should be directed. Restlessness is all about controlling and maintaining emotions and is often connected to binge eating, especially at home, where restless tendencies can be engaged outside of the realm of social disapproval.
2. Disrupted sleep patterns.
The disruption of normal sleep cycle—a common occurrence for people diagnosed with ADHD—can also affect a person’s eating habits and patterns. A regulated appetite is established with positive, restorative sleep and a reliable, healthy sleep cycle; unfortunately, ADD sufferers often get too little sleep, negatively affecting their sleep cycles and therefore their eating habits as well.
Individuals with ADD are often overwhelmed and stressed, too hyper-focused on one thing to the detriment of others, causing them to fall behind on the projects they need to complete. Oftentimes sleep is not prioritized in these scenarios, and some people with ADD are predisposed to staying up late at night. All of these components result in the formation of poor eating habits.
3. High stress levels.
Feeling overwhelmed and controlled by stress are par for the course with ADD. People with ADD tend to react rather than respond to external pressures, which can result in negative consequences and emotional reactions. Binge eating, along with accompanying high stress levels, is one of the most common disorders among those with ADD. It provides an escape from the immediate stress, much like compulsive behavior and substance abuse do. Additionally, binge eating can also present an outlet to cope with boredom. Who among us hasn’t been distracted while eating? Studies show that anyone who eats while multitasking is liable to eat more than planned or than is necessary. For those with ADD, however, the danger of overeating is significantly higher because of the tendency to respond to stressors reactively.
4. Impaired impulse control.
A person with ADD has impaired, different, or challenged impulse control and is subject to feeling confused, panicked, and out of control. Food is often used as a self-medicating process that temporarily makes the person feel better, but that truly only sets them on the path to compulsive eating. In this situation, the individual may use binge eating or anorexic methods to limit the restlessness in his or her mind; they may feel calm and focused for a short time after eating or self-starvation. Sadly, this is not a permanent state of mind, and because the calm recedes and the person with ADD has challenges around impulse control, the overeating cycle may begin again.
So how can people with ADD and eating disorders be treated? After a proper diagnosis, people with ADD can learn more helpful coping mechanisms through therapy, coaching, and appropriate medical treatment. In many cases, this allows a person with ADD to gain control of this aspect of life. Creative approaches, like mindfulness techniques, can also be extremely effective tools for managing the challenges many of us face to self-regulate and eat more healthfully.