Does ADHD affect eating habits?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. It is one of the most common childhood disorders, estimated to affect around 5% of children worldwide. The symptoms of ADHD frequently persist into adulthood, causing impairments in daily functioning.

In recent years, there has been growing interest in the relationship between ADHD and disordered eating habits. Some studies have found that individuals with ADHD may be more prone to developing unhealthy eating patterns like binge eating, emotional eating and poor planning around meals. However, the evidence is mixed and more research is needed.

Here we review the current evidence exploring whether ADHD affects eating habits and weight management. We examine the proposed reasons for a link between ADHD and disordered eating, look at relevant study findings, and discuss the clinical implications.

Is There a Link Between ADHD and Disordered Eating?

Several researchers have hypothesized that there may be an association between ADHD and disordered eating habits. There are a few key reasons why this link has been proposed:

– Impulsivity – Impulsivity is a core symptom of ADHD that could promote impulsive eating behaviors like bingeing or emotional eating.

– Inattention – ADHD-related inattention may make it difficult to plan meals, shop for groceries, and stick to structured mealtimes.

– Dopaminergic dysfunction – Imbalances in the dopamine system are implicated in ADHD and may also play a role in disordered eating via effects on the brain’s reward pathways.

– Comorbid psychiatric disorders – ADHD has high comorbidity with conditions like depression and anxiety, which are also linked to disordered eating.

Some studies have found a higher prevalence of binge eating disorder (BED) and bulimia nervosa in those with ADHD compared to the general population. However, findings remain mixed overall regarding eating disorders. Research more consistently shows a link between ADHD and disordered eating habits like binge eating, emotional eating, and poor meal planning.

Next we will review key studies exploring the ADHD-disordered eating connection.

Studies Investigating ADHD and Binge Eating

Several studies have specifically looked at whether ADHD is associated with increased risk for binge eating behaviors:

– In a study of 148 adults with ADHD, 27% reported frequent binge eating behaviors – significantly higher than in healthy controls. ADHD symptom severity was positively correlated with binge eating severity.

– A meta-analysis of 16 studies found a significant association between ADHD and binge eating. The odds of having binge eating behaviors were much higher for those with ADHD compared to those without.

– Research on a large French cohort of adults found that ADHD was associated with a 5-fold increased risk of frequent binge eating and a 7-fold increased risk of BED.

– Looking at data from a US national survey, adults with ADHD had 2.7 times higher odds of reporting binge eating problems compared to those without ADHD.

Overall, these studies consistently demonstrate that ADHD is associated with an increased risk for recurrent binge eating episodes in both children and adults. Though the exact prevalence varies between studies, individuals with ADHD appear significantly more prone to binge eating behaviors.

Studies on ADHD and Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is the tendency to eat in response to negative emotions, such as stress, sadness, or boredom. Several studies have linked ADHD to increased emotional eating:

– In a study of 153 youth with ADHD, 26% reported emotional eating, which was linked to greater ADHD severity and more mood symptoms.

– A study on adult ADHD found that 35% reported emotional eating, which was associated with higher ADHD symptoms and more depression. The emotional eaters also had a higher BMI.

– A meta-analysis concluded that ADHD was significantly correlated with emotional eating, though specificity was low indicating other factors are also involved.

– Children with ADHD reported more food cravings when bored in a study. Boredom eating could reflect using food for arousal or distraction.

Overall, the research indicates ADHD is tied to greater likelihood of eating in response to emotions, particularly negative ones like stress, boredom or sadness. The links to mood and distraction suggest emotional eating may serve as a coping mechanism.

Findings on Meal Planning and ADHD

Some studies have also found that individuals with ADHD exhibit challenges around meal planning and preparation:

– In a study of 50 adults with ADHD, 66% reported difficulty planning and preparing meals, like forgetting to eat, impulsive meal decisions, and challenges grocery shopping.

– College students with ADHD reported greater difficulty following structured mealtimes and relying more on convenient fast food in a study of 168 students.

– Interviews with 27 adults found ADHD made it harder for them to plan meals, shop for food, and stick to dietary routines, resulting in more spontaneous, impulsive eating.

– Children with ADHD were more likely to skip breakfast and have an unstructured approach to eating compared to non-ADHD controls in a study of 75 children.

The findings indicate symptoms like inattention, impulsivity, poor planning ability, and distractibility in ADHD can negatively impact the organization around regular meals. This may lead to more haphazard, impulsive eating habits.

Connection Between ADHD and Obesity/Overweight

Given the links found between ADHD and disordered eating patterns like binge eating and poor planning around food, some researchers have proposed ADHD could be a risk factor for obesity. However, study results have been mixed:

– A meta-analysis of 42 studies concluded that ADHD was associated with obesity, with a pooled prevalence of obesity 1.5 times higher in people with ADHD.

– Conversely, a systematic review of 10 longitudinal studies found no clear association between childhood ADHD and later obesity risk, though results differed by gender.

– Some research suggests ADHD is correlated with being overweight primarily when binge eating behaviors are also present. The binge eating may mediate the ADHD-obesity link.

– There is stronger evidence that individuals with the ADHD-inattentive subtype are at increased obesity risk compared to those with hyperactive/impulsive symptoms.

Overall, findings remain inconsistent about whether ADHD itself directly predisposes individuals to becoming overweight or obese. It likely depends on additional factors like medication use, demographics, comorbid binge eating, and access to lifestyle support. More long-term studies are needed looking at ADHD subtypes and eating patterns.

Potential Reasons for the ADHD-Disordered Eating Link

Assuming ADHD is associated with altered eating habits, what are some potential explanations for this relationship? The key hypotheses include:

Impulsivity and Disinhibition

Impulsivity involves behaving without forethought or regard for consequences. It is a hallmark of ADHD and could promote impulsive eating, bingeing, and emotional eating. Disinhibition refers to an inability to inhibit urges and could likewise make it harder to restrain overeating drives.

Inattention and Poor Planning

ADHD-related inattention can cause difficulty with planning, prioritizing, and organizing tasks. These deficits could negatively impact meal planning and sticking to eating routines. Forgetting to eat due to distractibility is also a possible issue.

Seeking Stimulation and Novelty

People with ADHD often seek stimulation and excitement. This could prompt a preference for highly palatable, novel foods as a source of stimulation. The rewarding properties of certain foods may mitigate ADHD boredom.

Dysregulated Dopamine Signaling

Imbalances in dopamine signaling are implicated in both ADHD and disordered eating, particularly binge behaviors. Altered dopamine reward pathways may promote impulsive, addictive-like eating patterns.

Comorbid Mood Disorders

ADHD has high comorbidity with anxiety and depression, which are also linked to emotional eating. Mood symptoms may underlie some eating issues seen in a subgroup of people with ADHD.

Medication Appetite Effects

Stimulant medications used to treat ADHD often initially suppress appetite. This could lead to altered hunger signaling and rebound bingeing when medication wears off. However, research on this has been mixed.

Overall, the reasons are likely multifactorial, with impulsivity, inattention, dopamine dysfunction, and psychiatric comorbidities likely playing interacting roles in disordered eating behaviors among the ADHD population.

Clinical Implications

Given the emerging research linking ADHD to disordered eating habits and the health risks of behaviors like bingeing, what are some clinical implications to consider?

Screening and Assessment

When evaluating someone for ADHD, clinicians should screen for potential disordered eating using validated instruments. Getting a profile of eating behaviors can help guide treatment.


People with ADHD should be informed about their elevated risk for developing problematic eating habits. Psychoeducation can promote self-awareness and early intervention.

ADHD Treatment Plans

Treatment plans for ADHD should incorporate strategies to manage symptoms that may otherwise negatively impact eating behaviors – like impulsivity and inattention.

Behavioral Interventions

Behavioral techniques like meal planning, reminders, grocery lists, and structured mealtimes should be encouraged to compensate for ADHD-related disorganization around eating.

Emotion Regulation Skills

Due to links between emotional eating and ADHD, boosting emotion regulation abilities may help normalize eating patterns. This may involve counseling, mindfulness, distress tolerance, and coping skills training.

Nutritional Counseling

A nutritionist could help design balanced meal plans that account for ADHD clients’ needs for food variety, stimulation, and convenience – decreasing reliance on impulsive, rewarding food choices.

Medication Management

The effects of ADHD medication on appetite and eating behaviors should be monitored. Dose-timing may need adjusting to prevent interfering with meals.

Treatment of Comorbid Conditions

Since anxiety, depression and BED commonly co-occur with ADHD, clinicians should screen for and directly address these comorbidities if present.

In summary, a multidisciplinary approach can help identify and manage disordered eating habits in ADHD clients and promote healthier long-term eating patterns. Further research is still needed to better characterize this relationship. But the current evidence suggests clinicians should be mindful of eating-related issues when supporting ADHD patients.


There is increasing scientific interest in understanding connections between ADHD and eating behaviors. Research to date, though mixed, suggests individuals with ADHD are at elevated risk for developing patterns of disordered eating like binge eating, emotional eating, and chaotic meal planning.

Proposed reasons for this association include the impulsivity and inattention inherent to ADHD, effects of ADHD medications on appetite, dopamine system dysregulation, and psychiatric comorbidities. However, more studies are needed to clarify the mechanisms underlying the ADHD-disordered eating link.

Clinically, the data indicates healthcare providers should screen ADHD patients for disordered eating habits. Treatment plans may need to incorporate nutritional counseling, skills for planning and regulating eating, and management of emotions that potentially trigger maladaptive eating. Further research can help refine interventions that promote healthy eating and weight management among the sizeable ADHD population.

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