adhd binge eating what it is and how to stop
  • May 23, 2024

ADHD Binge Eating – Why Does It Happen and What To Do

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and binge eating disorder (BED) can commonly exist together.  Although the relationship between ADHD and […]

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and binge eating disorder (BED) can commonly exist together. 

Although the relationship between ADHD and binge eating is complex, they share similar pathways in the brain for impulsivity, emotional regulation and reward processing (1,2).

If you struggle with ADHD binge eating, you are not alone. Binge eating is one of the most common symptoms of ADHD. 

This article will discuss ADHD binge eating, how they are associated and why this relationship is important to understand. 

 

ADHD Binge Eating – What’s The Link?

ADHD is characterised by symptoms of impulsivity, inattention and hyperactivity. Studies have also found binge eating to be a common symptom of ADHD, with research estimating approximately 20% of people diagnosed with ADHD also experiencing binge eating (1). 

It is important to also note that the relationship between binge eating and ADHD works both ways. 

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is the most prevalent eating disorder. 

Symptoms of BED include:

  • Consuming a large amount of food in a short amount of time
  • Feeling a lack of control while eating 
  • Having a deep sense of guilt and shame towards oneself because of these behaviours

One study has shown that 30% of patients with BED qualify for a possible diagnosis of ADHD. Moreover, around 8% of adults diagnosed with ADHD have also been diagnosed with BED (2). 

Evidently, the relationship between binge eating and ADHD is highly comorbid and intertwined. 

It is important to understand how binge eating and ADHD are related. Highly comorbid disorders require tailored care and treatment due to the complexity of symptoms present.

 

person holding a cake in one hand and a burger in the other, with pizza off to the side

 

Disordered Eating And ADHD

Comparatively to neurotypical peers, those with ADHD have nearly four times the risk of developing an eating disorder (2). 

The risk for developing BED was almost six times greater in ADHD people than neurotypical peers (3).

ADHD and eating disorders share many commonalities. These include, but are not limited to; thought patterns, genetic risks, and neurological changes. This can make if difficult to differentiate between the two.

As both ADHD and eating disorders are often intertwined, a holistic and tailored approach that addresses both issues at the same time is important. 

Educated treatment professionals can work with you in a way that addresses the complexities behind your behaviours. 

Biological and genetic factors may cause you to have a susceptibility to developing an eating disorder. 

Research shows a link between ADHD, bulimia and BED – but not anorexia. This is thought to be due to the impulsive behaviour of ADHD leading to bingeing, where undereating is a restrictive behaviour (4).

People with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine, leading to impulsive decision making and judgement, in a dopamine-seeking nature. This extends to their diet, resulting in the compulsive urge to overeat. 

 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the reward system, playing a role in:

  • Pleasurable reward and motivation
  • Memory 
  • Movement 
  • Mood 
  • Learning (5)

This dopamine-seeking behaviour can take form as binge eating, eliciting a pleasurable reward and motivation release in the brain. 

 

What Causes ADHD Binge Eating?

It is common for people with ADHD to have a complex relationship with food. This can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder later in life. 

Common nutrition issues in people with ADHD that may trigger bingeing include the following:

 

Having A Restrictive Diet

Some parents restrict a child’s intake of foods that are high in sugar, soy or eggs, as older research may indicate this helps manage symptoms (6). 

This can do more harm than good. The studies testifying to this are outdated, and modern research does not align with this. 

Importantly, depriving a child of particular foods/food groups increases the risk of binge eating on these foods when the child finally has access to them. 

Deeming foods ‘good’ and ‘bad’ creates unnecessary anxiety around eating. This may lead to eating past comfortable fullness around ‘bad’ foods, after being deprived of it. 

This perpetuates this cycle, sustaining the behaviours. 

 

Having Unusual Schedules 

A common ADHD symptom is poor executive functioning. This can lead to forgetfulness, and struggling to prioritise a balanced, varied diet. 

This may set you up for a binge eating episode when your hunger catches up to you. A night time snack may easily turn into eating compulsively and without control.

It is important to organise convenient meals that are rich in energy and nutrients, which may reduce the compulsive urges to overeat.

 

Experiencing Sensory Sensitivities 

It is common for people with ADHD to have sensory processing and textural difficulties. This  can make eating a balanced and varied diet difficult.

Certain foods, smells and textures may cause a sensory overload. This can cause many people with ADHD to categorise certain foods as safe and unsafe.

Similar to how we described previously, this can lead to a pattern of restriction and subsequently binge eating, and trigger you to categorise foods as safe/unsafe. This can lead to a restrictive-binge cycle. 

 

Difficulty Regulating Hunger and Fullness Cues

Interoception refers to the signals that take place in your body. It collects information from your organs and body parts, collecting information about how these organs/body parts feel (7). 

Essentially, the communication pathways where your brain can recognise signals and cues presented by your body. 

Interoception is what regulates our hunger signals! 

 

Often, people with ADHD have difficulty with interoception, and may interpret certain signals and cues irregularly. This can look like: 

  • Forgetting to eat all day, eating past the point of comfort at night 
  • Over eating throughout the day despite not being hungry
  • Not taking note of hunger cues and signals 

 

These symptoms are often overlooked, thought to be due to laziness. This can be extremely invalidating and distressing. 

Difficulty with self-regulation is common in ADHD and bingeing behaviours. Thankfully, there are many strategies that can be used to overcome this.

 

person holding a burger in one hand and a hamburger in another, surrounded by food amidst a binge eating episode

 

Brain Reward Response Or Impulsivity? 

The ADHD binge eating pattern has been described as disinhibited. This is thought to be due to a heightened reward response to food, rather than impulsivity (8).

Essentially, we all know ADHD causes you to be impulsive, and make rash decisions and choices. 

This may extend to the way you eat, but it has been found that the bingeing behaviour is coming more brain-reward response – especially the levels of dopamine present. 

There is a dysfunction in the neurotransmitters (essentially – your body’s chemical messengers) in the reward centres of the brain, leading to a craving behaviour of dopamine (9). For many, this takes the form of binge eating, a dopamine seeking activity. 

A recent study had individuals with ADHD, and a history of binge eating, shown pictures of food/non-food items. 

There was increased brain activity in the participants with high levels of ADHD symptoms when they looked at pictures of food (10). 

Researchers found that this heightened brain response may also be why people with ADHD have an increased risk of developing BED. 

Neuroimaging has shown neural overlap in circuits involved with reward processing and executive functioning (11). Also, this overlap is found in circuits of response inhibition, emotional processing and regulation. 

‘Reward deficiency syndrome’ has also been reported. 

This is when you don’t have high enough levels of natural dopamine present. This leads to ‘unnatural’ immediate rewards – which commonly takes the form of impulsive binge eating (12). 

 

Why Does ADHD Binge Eating Happen?

Essentially, ADHD binge eating is largely driven by this reward system. 

Meaning the circuits in our brains are activated by these bingeing episodes. 

Dopamine-deprived ADHD brains are searching for that dopamine surge, the ‘high’ which is often found in binge eating episodes. 

ADHD is also commonly characterised by impulsivity and low impulse control. This also involves eating, and may result in dysregulated eating habits (13). 

The impulsive symptoms of ADHD may mean that you make decisions  without prior planning and considerations. 

This can take the form of ignoring interoceptive cues and internal cues of fullness

The combination of these factors can put people with ADHD at greater risk of developing an eating disorder. 

Food serves as an emotional comfort, an impulsive escape. 

The eating disorder thrives off the ADHD symptoms, making recovery complex. 

 

 

How To Treat ADHD and Binge Eating Disorder 

Of course, having two or more co-occuring conditions makes treatment difficult!

So much of the overlap between BED and ADHD being is due to neuroscience. The symptoms are usually the result of the levels of different neurotransmitters. 

It’s hard to recover with these ADHD symptoms. 

Executive function deficits, impulsivity, dopamine-deprivation, emotional comfort, forgetfulness all complicate the treatment process. 

The constant need for stimulation can be provided through binge eating episodes – and this perpetuates the bingeing, and these compulsive behaviours.

For sustainable and effective treatment, it is crucial to have a treatment team who are neurodiversity-affirming, non-judgemental, , supportive and can walk alongside you on your path to recovery. They can help you in finding coping mechanisms and behaviours to self-soothe, that aren’t causing emotional and mental distress, and sustaining an eating disorder. 

 

Strategies To Help ADHD Binge Eating 

Managing Impacts Of Medication 

Stimulant medication has proven success on children and adults with ADHD. 

However a common side effect of these stimulant medications is decreased appetite and an overall disinterest in eating.

Depending on the medication you are on, the effects usually wear down towards the end of the day. This may set you up for a binge eating episode, after a full day of not eating enough. 

This is why it is important to work with a treatment team who can prescribe medication that is right for you, and establish patterns of eating that will avoid episodes of overeating at the end of the day. 

 

Eat Enough, Regardless Of Appetite 

ADHD often causes appetite suppression – which can result in overeating at the end of the day. 

Having  regular meals and snacks during the day can ensure you are eating enough

We call this “practical eating”. Not engaging with your hunger and fullness cues, and instead just eating at regularly throughout the day. 

Set Timers To Remind You To Eat

During the day it may be helpful to set regular timers on your phone, to remind you to eat at particular times.

This will ensure you are eating throughout the day, regularly. 

It’s easy to forget to eat, when your body isn’t giving you physical cues – so setting regular reminders and timers can help you to eat enough each day. 

 

Abandon The Restrictive Diets 

Many online blogs about ADHD provide good or bad food lists for ADHD. 

However,  there is limited evidence to support that particular diets can make a difference on ADHD. 

Following these diets, and restricting yourself from eating enough – while excluding some of your favourite foods – will just set you up for a binge-restrict cycle.

 

 

Low sugar, ‘no processed foods’, keto, low fat – many of us  have tried everything. 

Following any of these diets increases your risk of binge eating, and in some cases, the development of an eating disorder.

All foods fit in a balanced and varied diet. 

Eliminating foods from your diet without the help of an online dietitian  will do the opposite of what you intend for it to do. 

If you are struggling with eating, it may also be beneficial to reach out to an ADHD nutritionist at Imbodi Health to develop a plan that works for you. 

 

Practice Mindfulness 

I get it – you are hungry, excited to eat, wanting to enjoy your favourite foods while watching a movie or television. This is a universal human experience! 

But, this creates a distraction from your hunger and fullness cues. 

Mindful eating focuses on paying attention to our food, our purpose, moment by moment, without judgement (14).

This means eating without external distraction, allowing for you to focus on your body and the signals it is sending to you. 

Practising mindful eating can help you in identifying your fullness, preventing you from a binge eating episode. 

It’s a beneficial strategy to try. But it’s okay if it doesn’t work. So we recommend this with a caveat. For many people who are neurodivergent, mindful eating is something that is a massive struggle and might just never work!

So it’s okay if this is a strategy that doesn’t align with you.

 

If you need help – reach out to an Imbodi Health Eating Disorder Dietitian 

 

Don’t Restrict After Binge Eating 

It’s instinctive to eat less after a binge eating episode. Most people implement some sort of calorie restriction in an effort to compensate.

But, this does the opposite of your intention.

This just creates a cycle – bingeing, followed by restriction, followed by bingeing, followed by restricting…. It goes on, the longer you are in this cycle. 

It is important to eat enough after a binge eating episode.

To fuel your body, teach yourself that food is safe, food is there, food is not going anywhere. 

Cutting out foods you have the tendency to binge on will also just perpetuate this cycle.

Not being able to keep these foods in your home, out of fear of bingeing on them, will lead to intense cravings. When you finally have access to these foods, you are likely to binge on them due to the deprivation you put yourself through.

Break this cycle! Keep the foods you love in your home, and allow yourself to eat them. 

 

break up with diets ebook

Want to kick start your journey? Download our free copy of our https://imbodihealth.com/freebies/ 

 

Maintain A Healthy Sleeping Schedule 

ADHD impairs the regulation of brain activity, often leading to poor sleep (15). This can lead to trouble falling and staying asleep.

This can also be due to the stimulant medication you may be on. 

It is important to implement strategies to overcome this, as irregular sleeping patterns can disrupt your hunger hormones and signals.

ADHD can also cause you to oversleep, sleeping through alarms and missing meals. This may cause you to delay meals until later into the day, which can then turn into a binge, as your body has been deprived of food. 

 

Work With An Eating Disorder Dietitian 

Treatment with a dietitian can equip you with the skills necessary to mend your relationship with food. 

A dietitian can help implement the strategies above, and create a meal plan which works for you. 

It may be helpful to find a Health At Every Size (HAES) dietitian, who is also a Credentialed Eating Disorder Clinician (CEDC). This allows you to be supported by someone who is educated and knowledgeable, able to help you in your journey to a healthier relationship with food.

If you’re looking for one, the team at Imbodi Health all fit into this box and have free 15 minute discovery calls to see if we’re the right fit for you.

BOOK IN A FREE DISCOVERY CALL WITH OUR DIETITIANS
 

Where to from here?

The relationship between ADHD and binge eating is nuanced and complex.

You may be someone who’s diet isn’t impacted by ADHD, or you may have learnt how to manage your symptoms and diet together.

If you are someone who struggles with ADHD binge eating, you’re not alone! It is such an incredibly common experience, and support and recovery is possible. 

Educating yourself, working with a psychologist and dietitian, can help you in learning to manage the urge to compulsively eat. It’s crucial to identify your triggers, and establish a regular routine that meets your nutritional requirements.

 

 

Written by: Student Dietitian Tara Finn

Reviewed by: Imbodi Health Dietitian Kiah Paetz

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