Healthy eating habits for people with ADHD are often a struggle. ADHD causes problems with impulsivity, forgetfulness, planning ahead, and dopamine cravings. As a result, ADHD and food habits can end up feeling frustrating and short-lived.
As a therapist for millennials with ADHD, I work regularly with clients who want to make healthier food choices. Let’s talk about why healthy food habits are tricky when you’re neurodivergent – and what you can do about it.
ADHD comes with lower executive functioning abilities. This causes problems in areas of life that require reasoning, planning, focus, impulse control, and memory. All of these functioning skills are important for habit formation, including healthy eating habits. As a result, ADHDers often struggle with healthy eating habits.
Before I get to common ADHD-related reasons you might be struggling with food, a note: When I talk about ADHD and food habits, I’m referring to unhealthy food habits that can stem specifically from ADHD. It’s important to distinguish between ADHD-related food habits and non ADHD-related food restriction or eating disorders.
Food restriction is the number one reason for food challenges like bingeing and weight cycling. ADHDers aren’t necessarily more likely to succumb to restriction than neurotypical folks. However, people who purposely restrict food intake or who have eating disorders are more likely to have an anxiety disorder as well. ADHD may or may not play a role, but anxiety often does. If you think you might have an eating disorder or you recognize you restrict to the point of dysfunction in your life, it’s worth talking to an eating disorder specialist to figure out next steps.
Here are some common reasons you might be struggling with healthy food habits and ADHD, and strategies to help you navigate them.
Even if you buy all the ingredients to cook and they’re all right there on hand, you might get home and see candy on the table and eat that instead. A higher level of impulsivity among ADHD brains makes things like waiting and self-control more difficult.
One strategy to curb impulsivity is to build in a pause. This can look like taking a few deep breaths or counting aloud slowly to 10 seconds. These pauses can help you build the skills for delayed gratification. They work by slowing you down and giving you a chance to think before you act.
The overwhelm from having to chop, saute, boil, stir, and clean is real. The unfortunate truth is that eating cheese and crackers is so much easier than making a meal. Therefore, ADHDers are more likely to give in and go the easy route that involves the least amount of overwhelm.
Strategies to counteract overwhelm:
Whenever we eat something with lots of sugar, fat, or salt, we get an immediate and oh-so-glorious dopamine release. Our human brains are designed to keep us alive. Calorie-rich foods and beverages trigger the release of dopamine precisely because these foods do just that. People with ADHD have naturally less dopamine in our brains and are always seeking more out.
Furthermore, food is a naturally soothing way to regulate our emotions and provides sensory relief, which can be a huge coping mechanism for things like anxiety or overwhelm. All of which is to say: if you find yourself eating more because you crave those short-lived good feelings, you’re not alone.
However, when this is your only coping mechanism for stress, problems arise. In order to break this habit, you need to have other things in your life to look forward to and enjoy other than just the foods you eat. A big part of my work with clients is helping them find joy in their lives. So many of my clients are chronically stressed, overworked, overscheduled, anxious, and struggling in their relationships. Maybe you can relate?
Sources of dopamine and emotional regulation other than food might include quality time with good friends, time in nature, exercise, and pursuing hobbies that bring you joy.
Sometimes living with ADHD feels like living with amnesia. Some ADHDers are prone to hyperfocusing and forgetting to eat altogether. Others buy fresh produce for meals with the best of intentions but then forget entirely about them once they’re in the fridge. (We all know about the drawer where vegetables go to die. RIP.)
Here are some steps to take to overcome forgetting about food:
Having healthy eating habits with ADHD is hard. If you want extra support in building healthier habits in your life, I'm here to help.
As someone who specializes in ADHD and anxiety, I’m here to give you judgment-free strategies and tools for emotional regulation, decreasing impulsivity, lowering overwhelm, and reducing forgetfulness, and finding sources of joy and relaxation in your life.
Together, we’ll figure out what you need in order to improve your relationship to healthy eating, work through the obstacles in your way, and come up with a plan to helps you feel more in control and healthy in your life.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started. Let’s start building a better future together.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.