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ADHD and Food – A dysfunctional relationship

Written by Franny Treymaine - 23rd May 2017


Food probably isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of ADHD. Hyperactive kids running around in circles? Someone talking ten to the dozen? A sort of crazy manic energy that can’t be contained? Yep, yep and yep. But food? Where is the link? The truth is that food and ADHD have a close and troublesome relationship. You feel out of control with your behaviour so you seek comfort through eating (because donuts make EVERYTHING better). The problem is that excessive eating or an obsession with food turns into a problem all of its own and wham bam you have a side of eating disorder to go with your ADHD.
I’ve lived with ADHD all of my life and I am passionate about raising awareness of the issues that surround it and helping people with this condition live healthier and more productive lives. Understanding the link between eating and ADHD is vital not only for supporting sufferers but as a tool in the diagnosis of ADHD, particularly in girls.


What is ADHD anyway?

ADHD is a term that we throw around a lot. It’s used as a joke or an insult but many of us don’t have a strong understanding of what it means. I’ve provided a whistle-stop overview below:

• ADHD is the most common mental disorder in children.

• It’s more prevalent in boys but is thought to be widely undiagnosed in girls.

• Symptoms can vary but can include hyperactivity, impulsiveness and inattention.

• In adults ADHD can manifest as anxiety, low self-esteem and chronic boredom.

• ADHD brains are structured differently with clear differences visible on an MRI when compared with ‘normal’ brains.

Where Does Food Come into It?

ADHD is a disease where control or rather lack of it is key. Feeling overwhelmed by your own brain is hugely disconcerting and binging can lead to temporary calm that can quickly become addictive. Soon bingeing turns into an eating disorder and becomes a devastating symptom of the underlying condition. ADHD sufferers classically struggle for self-control so knowing when to pull the plug on an eating session can be almost impossible.

The link between ADHD and food isn’t just a logical connection, it’s supported by clear clinical and research evidence.

A 2007 study of 99 severely obese teenagers found a strong link between Bulimia and ADHD. It suggested that screening for ADHD in obese teenagers with bulimia would be a sensible diagnostic tool when treating disordered eating.

Similarly, a study of 150 obese women in 2016 founds an ADHD rate of over 28%. ADHD was also linked to binge eating, depression and bulimic behaviours. Dr John Fleming who has conducted similar studies on patients suffering from obesity and disordered eating has found a comparative rate of around 30% undiagnosed ADHD in such groups.

This cycle of destructive behaviour has devastating consequences for sufferers, many of whom have never received any diagnosis for ADHD so cannot possibly fully understand the drivers behind their destructive relationship with food.

A ray of hope may come from the visibility of these eating disorders which act as a red flag for medical professionals. By screening for and treating the underlying ADHD patients can receive relief from both weight and food related problems as well as symptoms that form the underlying ADHD.

What Does It Mean for Girls?

Eating disorders are more common for girls who also often fail to be diagnosed or receive a late diagnosis for ADHD. It’s very possible that some of these eating disorders are driven by ADHD which often presents itself in a less obvious way in young girls than it does for boys. They tend to lack the hyperactivity that characterises the condition for boys and instead struggle to pay attention and focus. This can easily be dismissed as a lack of effort or dreaminess leaving girls untreated and at risk.

My personal experience reflects that of many women with ADHD. I got my diagnosis at 29 by which time I was exasperated and completely exhausted, knowing something was wrong but never having the information or tools to cope. It took a long time to figure out my own path through ADHD but I did it. Earlier and better diagnosis would help more women dramatically improve their quality of life.

Paying more attention to our daughters’ mental health and recognising that problems with food could be symptomatic of underlying ADHD can help to save pain and suffering into adulthood.

How Do We Help?

I get that this seems like a pretty bleak picture but understanding this link gives us more tools to help treat and support those people who struggle with ADHD, a condition that when under control can drive huge success.

Treatments including medication, therapy and great diet can help to bring ADHD under control. Partnered with appropriate treatment for eating disorders they can create a dream team of therapies that really do change lives.

As our medical profession understand this link and each condition more fully we get better and better at spotting ADHD, diagnosing it and treating it properly.

For the rest of us, we can stay aware of this link and get better at noticing ADHD symptoms in girls and boys. Let’s look after each other and our mental health.


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