ADHD and Binge Eating: New Evidence Shows A Link

This blog article is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical advice.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and binge eating disorder (BED) are two complex mental health conditions that impact a person’s quality of life. 

While they might seem unrelated at first glance, emerging research suggests a potential connection between the two.

In this article, we delve into the fascinating link between ADHD and binge eating. We’ll also explore how understanding this connection can lead to better treatment approaches. 

Finally, I offer 12 dietitian-recommended coping skills for those with ADHD and binge eating.

Understanding ADHD and Binge Eating Disorder

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties in maintaining attention, controlling impulses, and regulating hyperactivity.   

Binge eating disorder, on the other hand, is a common eating disorder that involves recurrent episodes of consuming large amounts of food in a discrete period, accompanied by feelings of lack of control. 

While ADHD and binge eating are distinct disorders, they share some common characteristics such as:

  • Impulsivity
  • Emotional dysregulation 
  • Difficulties with self-control

The connection between ADHD and binge eating

ADHD is rarely present as an isolated disorder. 

Previous studies have reported that about 70% of people with ADHD have at least one other diagnosed disorder

Both ADHD and binge eating share common underlying traits and pathways, such as:

  • Impulsivity
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Executive functioning
  • Reward pathways in the brain

Some research suggests that ADHD predisposes an individual to disordered eating, specifically binge eating, due to impulsivity. Other eating disorders, such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, are also seen in folks with ADHD.

Impulsivity in ADHD and binge eating

One of the central threads tying ADHD and BED together is impulsivity. “Impulsivity is defined as a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli without regard to the negative consequences of these reactions.”

Individuals with ADHD often struggle with impulse control, making quick decisions without fully considering the consequences. 

Similarly, BED involves impulsive eating, with individuals feeling a loss of control during binge episodes. 

Individuals with ADHD frequently grapple with impulsive actions, and the same impulse-driven tendencies appear in BED through overeating. This connection emphasizes the importance of addressing impulse control in treating both conditions. 

Emotional dysregulation

Difficulty regulating emotions is also common in both ADHD and BED. 

People with ADHD may experience heightened emotional responses and have difficulty managing their feelings when emotional challenges feel magnified.

In BED, emotional distress can trigger binge episodes, providing temporary relief from negative emotions. The act of binge eating often serves as a coping mechanism for managing emotional challenges. 

This connection highlights the potential role of binge eating as a coping mechanism for individuals with ADHD who struggle to manage their emotional states.

Image of many drawn faces depicting emotions of all kinds

Executive functioning in ADHD and binge eating

Executive function, the cognitive ability to plan, organize, and execute tasks, is impaired in both ADHD and binge eating. 

Both ADHD and BED can hinder these essential cognitive abilities, leading to disorganized meal patterns, impulsive food choices, eating large amounts, and difficulties in self-regulating eating behaviors

Some researchers argue that “the impulsivity of ADHD patients causes executive dysfunction, which prevents the patient from executing the goal of controlling eating behavior.

ADHD and executive functioning challenges may lead to:

Treatment for ADHD can focus on building skills that address executive functioning by creating structure around meals, meal planning, shopping and cooking to improve nutrition and quality of life.

Dopamine’s role in ADHD and binge eating

Dopamine, the brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitter, plays a significant role in the ADHD-BED connection. Dopamine is associated with motivation, pleasure and reward.

In ADHD, dopamine levels can fluctuate, impacting attention and focus. There can be alterations in dopamine levels and receptor functioning, leading to challenges in experiencing pleasure and managing impulsive behaviors. 

In BED, binging on highly palatable foods, such as sweets or salty or fatty carbohydrates, triggers a dopamine release. This positive feeling reinforces binge behaviors. 

Binge eating can be an attempt to stimulate a dopamine release, providing temporary relief from emotional distress that often accompanies both conditions.

This parallel suggests that dopamine dysregulation could contribute to the vulnerability for both ADHD and BED.

Image of two hands holding a smiley face, representing the effects of dopamine on the brain

How does binge eating affect ADHD?

The connection between ADHD and binge eating can have nutritional implications. Binge eating episodes often involve consuming large amounts of calorie-dense, sweet, and/or processed foods. 

Such dietary choices can exacerbate ADHD symptoms due to fluctuations in blood sugar levels and inadequate intake of essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital for brain health. 

A well-balanced diet rich in whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats can support both ADHD management and binge eating recovery.

Depression, ADHD and binge eating

According to the CDC, almost 50% of individuals with binge eating disorder are also diagnosed with a mood disorder, and 43% are diagnosed with an impulse control disorder. 

Research studies suggest that other comorbidities in ADHD patients are thought to contribute to binge eating behavior. Mood disorders, such as anxiety or depression, have been associated with higher incidence and severity of BED

Diagnosis of ADHD and binge eating 

Being evaluated for ADHD or an eating disorder typically involves several steps, and involves the guidance of a qualified healthcare professional.  

Start by scheduling an appointment with a healthcare provider, such as a primary care physician, psychiatrist, or psychologist. During this initial visit, you’ll discuss your symptoms, concerns, and any challenges you’re facing.

A comprehensive evaluation for ADHD may include assessments of cognitive function, executive function, and behavioral observations. This can provide a more in-depth understanding of your challenges.

An evaluation for binge eating disorder involves a mental health professional or healthcare provider who specializes in eating disorders. During the evaluation, you’ll discuss your eating behaviors, emotions, and any associated symptoms. This assessment aims to determine if your patterns of excessive eating align with the diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder.

The key in either evaluation is to be open and honest about your experiences and challenges, as this will help healthcare professionals make an accurate diagnosis and develop an appropriate treatment plan tailored to your needs.

Treatment of ADHD and binge eating

Addressing the link between ADHD and binge eating requires a holistic approach that combines medical, psychological, and nutritional interventions. 

Collaborative efforts between healthcare professionals, including dietitians, therapists, psychiatrists, and physicians, are crucial for providing comprehensive care tailored to the individual’s needs. 

This might involve cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication management, stress reduction techniques, and guidance from a dietitian to help develop healthy eating habits and manage impulsivity-related food challenges.

The goals of treatment are often to reduce or eliminate binge episodes, improve coping skills, improve quality of life, and gain skills to improve executive functioning.

Coping strategies for ADHD and Binge Eating

As a dietitian who works with clients who have ADHD and binge eating, I often begin by emphasizing the importance of creating structured meals and meal times. Incorporating balanced nutrition and fostering mindful eating habits help clients gain better control over their eating behaviors. This serves as the foundation for healing.

Other coping strategies that can be helpful for someone dealing with both binge eating and ADHD are:

1. Create Structure and Routine:

Establishing a daily routine can provide a sense of stability, helping to manage impulsive behaviors and reducing the likelihood of binge episodes.

2. Meal Planning:

Plan and prepare meals and snacks in advance, when possible. Having structured meal times and balanced food options available can reduce impulsivity around food choices.

3. Mindful Eating:

Practice mindful eating by paying attention to the taste, texture, and experience of each bite. This can help you become more aware of your body’s hunger, fullness and satisfaction cues. Studies show that mindful eating is effective in both preventing and treating binge eating

4. Limit Distractions During Meals:

Create an environment that minimizes distractions during meals, such as turning off screens and focusing solely on your meal. This can enhance awareness of flavors, hunger and fullness levels, and the simple pleasure of eating food you enjoy.

5. Beneficial Snacking:

Keep a variety of nutritious snacks readily available to curb impulsive eating while providing nourishment. Snacking is a part of a healthy eating plan.

6. Regular Physical Activity:

Engage in regular movement, as it can help manage ADHD symptoms and improve mood, reducing the urge to turn to food for emotional comfort.

7. Seek Professional Help:

Consult healthcare professionals who specialize in both ADHD and eating disorders. A primary care practitioner, therapist and registered dietitian are often a part of the treatment team. They can offer tailored strategies and treatments to address both conditions.

8. Medication Management:

If prescribed, ADHD medication can help regulate impulsive behaviors and enhance focus, which may indirectly support better control over binge eating.

9. Behavioral Therapy:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) can help address impulsive behaviors and emotional triggers associated with both ADHD and binge eating. Having the support of a therapist can make a world of difference.

10. Support Groups:

Joining support groups or online communities for individuals with ADHD and binge eating can provide a safe space to share experiences, gain insights, and receive encouragement.

11. Stress Reduction Techniques:

Incorporate relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation to manage stress, which can help reduce binge episodes.

12. Mindfulness and Meditation:

Practicing mindfulness and meditation techniques can help improve self-awareness and self-control, reducing the impulsivity that contributes to binge eating.

Remember that finding the right combination of coping strategies might take time and experimentation. It’s important to approach this journey with patience, self-compassion, and a willingness to seek professional help when needed.

Final words on ADHD and binge eating

As a dietitian, understanding the intricate connection between ADHD and binge eating is vital for providing effective guidance and support to individuals facing these challenges. The link between ADHD and binge eating disorder is a complex web of shared traits, emotional struggles, and neurological factors.

Navigating this intricate relationship requires a tailored approach that takes into account the unique needs of each individual, fostering a better understanding of themselves and empowering them to take control of their well-being.

By recognizing the shared factors that contribute to both conditions, we can develop personalized strategies that promote emotional regulation, mindful eating, and overall well-being. Through a collaborative approach, we can empower individuals to regain control over their eating behaviors and lead healthier, more fulfilling lives.