Binge eating is the most common eating issue for people with ADHD. This article looks at the reasons why and treatments that can help.

For some people, common symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — like inattention and impulsivity — can cause or contribute to patterns of disordered eating.

A 2014 study reported that people with ADHD were more likely to have disordered eating, including:

  • a clinical eating disorder
  • binging behavior (eating large amounts of food in a short time, even if you feel full)
  • purging behavior (removing calories from the body in an attempt to control your weight)
  • restricted food intake

While ADHD may be related to various eating disorders, most of the research in this area has focused on its links with binge eating.

If you or a loved one is concerned about disordered eating and ADHD, support is available. Effective ADHD treatments (therapy, medication, or both) can help many people manage the symptoms of both ADHD and eating disorders.

Some experts believe that ADHD and binge eating are connected because ADHD leads to challenges with impulse control and differences in how the brain’s reward circuits function.

For example, a 2015 study found that binge eating and ADHD involve some similar brain processes, including:

  • the reward circuits in the brain, such as the dopamine system
  • impulsive behavior or an inability to stop yourself from doing something, such as eating food
  • difficulties with processing and regulating your emotions

Patterns of binge eating occur in several eating disorders, including binge eating disorder (BED) and bulimia nervosa. These conditions are not a choice and can have major negative effects on a person’s life.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that BED is the most common eating disorder in the United States. In addition, many people have trouble with overeating but may not meet all the diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder.

Another study from 2015 shows evidence of a correlation between ADHD, binge-eating behavior, and obesity — although some people who experience all three don’t meet the full criteria for an eating disorder.

A 2015 review and meta-analysis of 42 studies also indicated a link between ADHD and obesity. The researchers believe that inattention and impulsivity caused by ADHD can lead to increased food intake.

However, it’s also important to know that binge eating disorder is not connected to body weight. People of all body sizes can have difficulty with binge eating.

Are other eating disorders linked to ADHD?

BED is only one of several eating disorders linked to ADHD.

A 2017 study screened for a possible ADHD diagnosis in 1,165 adults with an eating disorder. They found that almost one-third (31.3%) of people with an eating disorder showed significant signs of ADHD.

By comparison, around 8% of the general U.S. population will have ADHD in their lifetime.

The treatment options for both ADHD and BED include medication and therapy — and some of the treatments overlap.

Research suggests that stimulant medication used to treat ADHD could also help treat BED. One example is lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (Vyvanse). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Vyvanse for use in the treatment of BED in adults.

A randomized clinical trial published in 2015 found that lisdexamfetamine dimesylate was more effective than a placebo in reducing binge eating behavior and frequency.

Another ADHD medication that may be effective for BED is atomoxetine.

A 2021 case study featuring an 18-year-old woman with anorexia nervosa (binge-purge type) found that atomoxetine improved eating disorder behaviors and mood. Another study found that atomoxetine reduced binge eating in adults. However, the research is limited and more evidence is needed before experts know the effectiveness of atomoxetine for BED.

Types of therapy that can help with ADHD, binge eating, or both include:

Finding healthcare professionals who adhere to the health at every size (HAES) principles can ensure that you’ll receive respectful and weight-inclusive care.

Getting a range of nutrients from your diet may help reduce the impact of ADHD symptoms. But if you also live with BED, it can be hard to stick to a healthy eating plan.

That said, there are ways to make achieving a nutritious diet easier.

Making a shopping list in advance

It’s harder to overeat unhealthy food if there are fewer options in the house. Making a list before you go shopping can help you reduce impulsive purchases.

You might consider filling your grocery cart with one treat item per shop, plus plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy protein choices.

Scheduling your shopping trips and using a master grocery list are two ways you can make this process easier.

Consider smaller, but more regular, meals and snacks

Sometimes, ADHD can cause binge eating because inattention can lead to missed fullness cues. Eating smaller portions, but eating more often throughout the day, may help you avoid overeating.

Schedule meals in advance

Missed hunger cues leading to skipped meals can cause you to compensate with binge eating later. You can reduce these occurrences with scheduled mealtimes. Cellphone alarms can help to keep you on schedule.

Impulsive eating is common in ADHD, and some people also meet the criteria for BED.

Experts believe that the impulsivity and inattention related to ADHD can lead to binge eating or overeating. Research has shown that ADHD and binge eating behavior have some overlap in brain function, such as in the reward circuits.

Eating disorders and neurodevelopmental conditions like ADHD are not a choice, and help is available.

Looking for a therapist, but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.