Written by Megan Keith
In Australia, around 1 million people are living with an eating disorder, and many more display patterns of disordered eating. These symptoms are on the rise, with binge-eating in particular showing a dramatic increase over recent years.
The prevalence of binge-eating among people with ADHD is even more extreme and the same drugs have been approved for the treatment of both conditions. But the question is, why are they connected? There are several possible explanations for this:
Binge-eating is defined as the consumption of a large amount of food in a short period of time, irrespective of actual hunger, and in a manner that feels out of control. Since impulsivity is a key ADHD-characteristic, it is no wonder that eating impulsively forms a part of this, with binge-eating being a prime example.
Dopamine is a chemical found in the brain which helps to regulate emotions and gives feelings of pleasure and reward. In people with ADHD, dopamine levels are typically lower, which may drive them towards behaviours which produce dopamine artificially, such as drinking alcohol, taking drugs, and – you guessed it – eating food. That’s right, eating food – particularly that is high in fat and sugar – can trigger the release of dopamine and stimulate our brain’s reward system. Eating excessive amounts of these types of foods may be the body’s attempt to counteract abnormally low dopamine levels, such as in the ADHD brain.
Interoceptive awareness is a term used to describe a person’s perception of their own internal bodily signals, such as hunger and thirst. In people with ADHD, studies have found interoceptive awareness to be much lower, meaning they might not notice when they begin to feel hungry, particularly when in a hyperfocused-state. This can result in forgetting to eat regular meals, and not noticing their increasing hunger until it is impossible to ignore – it is then difficult to eat in a way that is mindful and regulated. When this occurs, binge-eating is far more likely.
Overwhelm of cooking
For many people with ADHD, the steps required to plan, shop for and cook meals can seem overwhelming, so avoiding to cook completely may be more appealing. This can lead to neglecting to eat for a large amount of time, and then overindulging on snack foods in the place of well-balanced meals.
Whilst there is still a lot we don’t know about the link between ADHD and binge-eating, recognising this connection may be the first step towards healthier eating behaviours. Taking actions to reduce the likelihood of binging include stocking your fridge/freezer with healthy ready-meals for the days when cooking is too much, scheduling times to eat so that you’re not relying on dampened hunger cues, and keeping busy doing activities that you enjoy which stimulate your brain’s reward system.
More than anything, be kind to yourself, remember that slip-ups are normal, and never give up on becoming a healthier you!