Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that involves impulsivity, hyperactivity, and difficulty focusing on certain tasks. Many people with ADHD also have a high need for stimulation.
As a result of this structural difference, Harris says, you may not feel the same level of satisfaction internally. So, you might turn to outside sources of stimulation — including food.
People with lower levels of dopamine may experience greater impulsivity, which could lead them to reach for high-calorie foods that activate dopamine release and the pleasure center of the brain, Goldman explains.
This may help explain why experts have found a link between ADHD and disordered eating, particularly binge eating disorder (BED). This eating disorder involves eating large portions of food in a short period of time.
Read on to learn more why people with ADHD might eat for stimulation, plus some guidance on handling it and getting support.
Eating can provide stimulation for people with ADHD in many different ways, says Cali Estes, PhD, an addiction recovery coach.
Not only does food offer stimulation in the way of taste, but it can also satisfy other senses:
- touch, in the way the texture of the food feels
As Goldman emphasizes, eating provides stimulation for everyone, not just people with ADHD.
“Any time we ingest something, the body has a natural reaction. People with ADHD might be more sensitive to these shifts within the body because of their brain chemistry,” Goldman says.
According to Willnauer, people with ADHD are often affected by sensory input to a greater degree than people without ADHD. This may help explain why you might find the taste, smell, temperature, texture, and feeling of satiety from eating incredibly satisfying.
Experts believe people with ADHD may tend to overeat in an attempt to satisfy their brain’s higher need for stimulation.
Key research findings
- A 2017 review found significant associations between ADHD and eating disorders in eight out of 11 studies. More specifically, researchers found strong links between ADHD and BED in 20 out of 27 studies.
2015 reviewfound that adolescents with ADHD were more likely to binge eat compared to those who didn’t have ADHD.
2015 reviewfound that impulsivity is the strongest predictor of eating disorder behavior in people with ADHD. Around 40 t o 50 percentof children with ADHD have impaired response inhibition, which means they have a hard time not following through on impulses. When it comes to eating, they may find it difficult to pause, reflect, and stop.
Binge eating can also happen due to a lower awareness of internal body cues, like those relating to hunger and fullness.
This lack of awareness can make it more difficult to regulate eating patterns. If you don’t recognize your body’s hunger signals, you may end up going too long without eating and then overeat later on. Similarly, if you don’t recognize body cues that let you know you’re satisfied, you might be more likely to keep eating past the point of fullness.
Also, Goldman notes that people with ADHD often have trouble with time management, which may also lead to binge eating. If you forgot to prepare meals for work, or ran out of time to do so, you might go without eating all day and binge eat when you get home.
“People with ADHD may skip meals within this state and binge eat later, after their hunger cues return or can no longer be ignored,” Willnauer says.
Binge eating doesn’t always mean you have BED
Keep in mind that occasionally binge eating doesn’t necessarily mean you have BED.
“Eating beyond fullness on occasion is normal,” Harris says. “And not all people with ADHD who engage in binge eating behaviors have BED.”
- eating more food in any 2-hour period than most people would eat under similar circumstances
- feeling that you can’t control what you’re eating, or how much
- experiencing noticeable distress around your binge eating
- binge eating at least 2 days a week for 6 months, or at least 1 day a week for 3 months
BED also involves at least three of the following:
- eating faster than usual
- eating to the point of discomfort
- eating a lot of food when not hungry
- eating in private due to feelings of shame or embarrassment
- experiencing feelings of guilt, disgust, or depression after overeating
This condition doesn’t involve any type of behavior that “compensates” for the binge eating, like purging, fasting, or excessive exercise.
Eating for stimulation may not always have a negative health impact. But regularly eating past the point of fullness as a means of stimulation can eventually begin to affect your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Some possible effects include:
- Physical discomfort. Overeating may sometimes cause nausea, gas, bloating, or stomach pains, according to Allison Chase, PhD, a clinical psychologist and eating disorder specialist with the Eating Recovery Center.
- Increased risk of certain chronic diseases. Eating large amounts of certain foods regularly may contribute to certain health conditions and diseases, Goldman says. High-sodium foods could raise your risk of high blood pressure. Foods high in saturated fat could raise your risk of high cholesterol. Sugary foods could raise your risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Unintentional weight gain. Eating more than your body needs may lead to unintentional weight gain over time. That said, weight gain can depend on your activity level, the types of foods you eat for stimulation, and whether you binge eat often.
- Fluctuations in energy levels. Eating a lot in a short period of time can lead to energy crashes, since it takes far more effort for your body to break down large amounts of food.
Mental health effects
- Guilt and shame. An episode of binge eating can sometimes trigger feelings of shame, guilt, and remorse, Goldman says. This can then lead to more binge eating, creating a cycle that can be difficult to break.
- Higher risk of restriction. In response to this guilt, shame, or remorse, you may feel tempted to restrict your eating or deprive yourself of food later on, Goldman explains.
- Depression and anxiety. Overeating may have some association with depression and anxiety, according to a
2014 review. Both depressionand anxietyare also risk factors for overeating, so mood symptoms and disordered eating behaviors may fuel each other, triggering a cycle.
- Eating in isolation or hiding while eating. If you feel embarrassed about your eating habits, you may begin to avoid eating around others, Chase says. This can create stress around social situations, lead to feelings of isolation, and prompt a sense of shame.
- Lifestyle disruptions. When you go out of your way to seek stimulation from food — driving 10 miles out of your way to get a specific type of ice cream, for example — that can disrupt your work, social schedule, and other responsibilities, Estes says.
Even when you don’t meet all the criteria for BED, Harris emphasizes, your eating habits could still have an impact on you and your overall quality of life.
If eating for stimulation negatively affects your life, you can do a few different things to address it.
Learn to recognize body cues
The most important step you can take? Get tuned in to your body’s hunger and satiety cues, Willnauer says.
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If you have the urge to eat when you aren’t hungry, you might try:
- journaling about any emotions driving you to turn to food for comfort.
- avoiding distractions like watching TV, browsing social media apps, or working while eating. As Goldman explains, eating without distraction can help you notice when you’re full.
- making a point of eating more slowly, using all of your senses, to better recognize when you’re satisfied.
“Don’t restrict your food intake if you’re hungry,” Harris adds, explaining that ignoring or avoiding hunger cues can lead to binge eating behaviors.
“It’s important to learn to work with your hunger, not against it,” Harris says.
Know your triggers
It can help to recognize your go-to trigger foods, Goldman says.
If you know having those foods in your house may make you more likely to eat a lot of those foods at once, you may want to avoid keeping them at home, or only keep them around in small quantities.
For example, maybe you often find yourself eating an entire bag of potato chips. In that case, you might opt to buy a single-serving bag instead of a family-size one.
You might also find it helpful to eat regularly throughout the day — ideally, every 3 to 5 hours. This can help you avoid overeating as a result of letting your hunger get out of control, Goldman says.
“Some people prefer to eat four or five smaller meals, while others prefer three meals a day with smaller snacks in between,” she says. “Find what’s right for your body and then set timers to help you remember to eat something.”
Often forget to eat? Goldman recommends keeping some satisfying and nutritious snacks easily accessible, like on your desk or in the console of your car.
Try a replacement activity
If you tend to eat for stimulation, you might find that a replacement activity can also provide stimulation. Some ideas to try include:
Eating for stimulation isn’t something you have to deal with on your own. If you’re having a hard time managing unwanted eating behaviors, including binge eating, restricting, or eating for stimulation, a trained professional can offer more guidance and support.
A few signs it may be time to consider seeking support:
- Your eating habits interfere with your relationships, work, or social life.
- You experience significant emotional distress after eating for stimulation.
- You experience feelings of depression, anxiety, fear, shame, or guilt after eating.
- You’ve noticed unwanted physical effects after eating for stimulation or binge eating.
Harris recommends finding a licensed mental health professional who specializes in ADHD and disordered eating. A therapist, counselor, or dietitian can help you:
- identify specific triggers
- find replacement activities
- explore behavioral changes
To find the right therapist, you can start by:
- exploring therapist directories, like the American Psychological Association database
- contact your insurance company for a list of in-network providers near you
- ask a healthcare professional for a recommendation or referral
As you vet possible therapists, aim to make sure they work from a body-neutral or “health at every size” lens.
“This will ensure you’re not experiencing any diet-culture related judgment in therapy,” Willnauer explains.
Keep in mind, too, that getting treatment for ADHD can also help address eating for stimulation.
Many therapies teach compensatory strategies to help manage ADHD symptoms, Goldman explains, including those that can affect your relationship with food.
A therapist can help you explore effective ways to:
- navigate impulsivity
- make and keep plans
- manage time
Medication interventions might also help reestablish chemical levels in the brain, which can decrease the need to eat for stimulation, Goldman says.
Anyone can find pleasure in food, but eating for stimulation is particularly common among people with ADHD.
There’s nothing at all wrong with enjoying meals, of course. But regularly eating more food than intended can eventually begin to affect your daily life and overall well-being.
Trying other stimulating activities can help you avoid eating for stimulation, while practicing intuitive eating can help you learn to recognize your body’s hunger and fullness cues more easily. If these strategies don’t seem to help, a therapist can offer more support with narrowing down potential causes of eating for stimulation and helping you explore steps toward change.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.