ADHD affects hunger in several ways — you might feel less hungry, forget to eat, or get distracted while eating so you don’t complete meals.
Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. These symptoms are linked to missing hunger cues and irregular eating habits.
ADHD and ADHD medications may impact your eating habits, and the symptoms may increase your chance of developing eating disorders in several ways.
Various strategies can help you deal with the effects ADHD has on your eating habits.
A person with ADHD may experience greater challenges in planning meals and following through with a regular and consistent eating schedule.
People with ADHD may also experience greater distraction and hyperfocus on tasks that prevent them from acknowledging or listening to their hunger cues.
So, it’s not that ADHD makes a person hungrier, but that someone with ADHD may ignore their hunger cues for longer than someone without ADHD. Medications for ADHD may also affect hunger levels and affect eating patterns.
ADHD symptoms and medications may make children, in particular, more vulnerable to undereating during the day, overeating in one sitting, and developing specific food fixations.
When someone gets to the point of being overly hungry, they may find themselves craving and reaching for convenient, high calorie, and quickly satisfying foods.
Because ADHD can make you ignore hunger cues for hours and increase your impulsivity, there’s an increased chance of binge eating behaviors or compulsive overeating, and the potential development of binge eating disorder (BED).
BED is a clinical diagnosis involving recurrent episodes of binge eating, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.
ADHD and eating disorders
The same study suggests that the link between ADHD and the prevalence of coexisting eating disorders, including binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa, comes down to differences in impulse control (the brain’s inability to regulate impulsive behavior).
Even in the absence of a clinical eating disorder, the study says children and some adults with ADHD present with impulsive, dysregulated, and disordered eating behaviors.
If you or a loved one has been experiencing binge eating behaviors, consider reaching out to a healthcare or mental health professional to discuss your eating patterns and the role ADHD symptoms or medications may be playing.
Certain ADHD prescription medications, particularly psychostimulant medications, can lower or reduce appetite levels. This means that you may feel less hungry overall or not experience the same hunger cues as you would without the medication.
Without a regular appetite, a person with ADHD may be much likelier to forget to eat regular, consistent meals and snacks. This can have an impact on overall calorie and nutrition intake.
For example, a 2014 study found that children taking the stimulant known as methylphenidate-ER consumed around 300 calories less per day than children who were not on the same medication. Lower overall calorie intake in the study was associated with an increased likelihood of nutrient deficiencies.
By the time a child with ADHD who’s taking stimulants reaches later adolescence, though, this difference in calorie consumption and associated body mass index (BMI) or weight group is said to have an inverse (the reverse-type) relationship.
For example, a 2014 study found higher BMI in adolescents taking stimulant medications than those with no history of ADHD or stimulant use. This speaks to the complex relationship between ADHD, diet, and weight.
It can be challenging to develop and maintain a healthy relationship with food when you have ADHD.
You may even feel as though traditional “healthy eating” advice doesn’t really apply to you and find yourself wondering what you can do that works with your symptoms and unique circumstance.
Here are some options you may consider:
Eat smaller meals throughout the day
To deal with missing hunger cues and the potential of becoming overly hungry (which can affect symptoms and promote binge-like eating behaviors later), try to eat at set times and intervals throughout the day rather than waiting to get hungry.
Calendar and day planner reminders can assist you in remembering to eat.
Snack on raw fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables can be incredibly convenient when eaten raw because they don’t require much (if any) preparation. Some fruits, such as bananas, oranges, and apples, even come in their own serving sizes.
Mini cucumbers, baby carrots, and pre-cut celery sticks are convenient for on-the-go healthy eating.
Getting an adequate amount of these foods regularly may also help reduce symptoms of ADHD.
A 2022 study suggests that children who consume more fruits and vegetables, in particular, demonstrated less severe symptoms of inattention.
Talk with a healthcare professional or nutritionist who is ADHD-aware
Asking for professional support about what you can do to shift your eating patterns can be helpful. Together, you can develop realistic changes and strategies to overcome any potential pitfalls.
A registered dietician or nutritionist, for example, can help by taking a look at your current diet patterns and making tailored suggestions based on your food preferences, budget, and everyday schedule.
Living with ADHD may affect your relationship to hunger and food, therefore affecting your eating habits.
But this doesn’t mean that a balanced diet is out of reach. There are daily food habit changes that may help.
Tips for healthy eating with ADHD include making conscious choices to eat regularly, including fresh fruits and vegetables in your daily diet, and following directions from a healthcare professional and dietician.
If you or a loved one is having trouble with binge eating, it’s important to seek help from a healthcare professional or dietician who can help develop a plan that works with your current ADHD symptoms and overall nutritional needs.
Looking for a therapist, but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.