Can ADHD and Eating Healthy Coexist? A Dietitian’s Perspective

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

If you or someone you care about has ADHD, you understand the struggle with ADHD and eating.

From challenges with planning and cooking meals to impulse buying at the convenience store, it can be difficult to eat well and have a good relationship with food. But it is possible!

In this article, we’ll talk about the challenges with ADHD and planning, shopping, and eating (or not eating). I’ll provide key tips for addressing nutrition and eating challenges head on so you can feel great about food.

Let’s go.

What is ADHD?

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how the brain functions. As of 2020, over 500 million adults were affected by ADHD worldwide.

Common ADHD symptoms are inattention or selective attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, which can significantly impact various aspects of daily life, including nutrition. Also, challenges with working memory, planning, and organization, known as executive functioning, are a part of having ADHD and have a direct impact on preparing and eating food.

While ADHD is widely recognized for its effects on cognitive (brain) functioning and social interactions, its influence on nutrition and eating habits is often overlooked. 

The challenges of ADHD and eating

Mental health conditions like ADHD can make it challenging to maintain consistent, healthy eating habits. The interplay between ADHD symptoms, medications, and behaviors can lead to a rocky relationship with food. 

A person with ADHD may have trouble with:

  • Appetite suppression (due to medications or distraction)
  • Food textures, tastes and smells and may appear to be a picky eater
  • Connecting to hunger and fullness signals
  • Binge eating disorder or other eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, ARFID)
  • Planning meals and grocery shopping trips
  • Buying duplicate items by accident or forgetting to buy needed items
  • Impulse buying at the store (staying in budget)
  • Organizing grocery items in the pantry or fridge
  • Having the right meal components on hand to make a recipe
  • Preparing balanced meals
  • Maintaining structure around mealtimes
  • Making thoughtful food choices

Poor eating habits like those listed above can result in nutritional deficiencies, which can further contribute to ADHD symptoms. This cycle can be difficult to break.

Hungry woman looking to refrigerator for something to eat

How does ADHD affect appetite?

Certain medications prescribed for ADHD, such as stimulants like methylphenidate, may affect appetite and eating patterns. 

While these medications can help manage ADHD symptoms effectively, they can also suppress appetite, possibly leading to:

  • Erratic eating patterns and schedules
  • Skipping meals or snacks due to lack of hunger
  • Unintended weight loss 
  • Missing out on vitamins and minerals
  • Malnourishment

Additionally, hunger and fullness cues from the body may be difficult to sense due to distraction or intense engagement with an activity. In cases of loss of appetite or lack of internal cues to eat, using scheduled eating times may be helpful to maintain adequate nutrition. 

Alternatively, some individuals experience increased appetite or uncontrolled eating as a side effect of their medication or as a result of impulsive behavior. Binge eating or feeling out-of-control around food is common among some people with ADHD. This may lead to:

  • Eating large amounts of food without awareness
  • Emotional distress and feelings of guilt or shame
  • Unintended weight gain
  • Imbalanced eating or disordered eating behaviors
  • Possible malnourishment

If you are having challenges with decreased or increased appetite because of your medications, consult your healthcare provider or registered dietitian.

ADHD and food textures, tastes and smells

Some people with ADHD have sensory processing issues that make certain foods unappealing or difficult to eat. 

Studies show that people with ADHD may be more sensitive to food tastes and smells. For example, if someone has difficulty eating vegetables (or getting a child to eat them), this hypersensitivity may be at play, contributing to picky eating or food aversions. The fact is, certain textures or flavors may simply be less appealing to those with ADHD

Picky eating can cause worry, especially for parents of kids with ADHD. However, as long as someone eats foods from various food groups (fruits and/or vegetables, proteins, starchy carbohydrates, fats) throughout the day or week, being selective may not be a problem. 

If, however, food aversions or texture sensitivities are getting in the way of meeting your or your child’s nutrition needs (i.e. you are losing weight, a child is failing to grow, or lab results show nutrition deficiencies), talk to your healthcare provider or registered dietitian to discuss treatment options.

ADHD and eating disorders

Disordered eating patterns can be common with ADHD due to symptoms such as inattention, impulsivity, sensory processing, or other behavioral or cognitive challenges. Disordered eating behaviors may include:

  • Skipping meals or forgetting to eat
  • Unawareness of body signals, such as hunger or fullness, that can lead to binge eating or eating past fullness
  • Impulsive eating, eating large amounts, or loss-of-control eating
  • Compensating for eating with exercise, laxatives or vomiting (purging)
  • Picky eating to the point of losing weight or failing to grow (in children)

These behaviors deserve attention. When caught early, a healthcare provider, registered dietitian, and/or therapist can help provide treatment before these behaviors develop into a full-blown eating disorder.

While having ADHD is a risk factor for developing disordered eating, it is not a guarantee. It is important to watch for any of the behaviors listed above. Having ADHD as a child increases the risk for disordered eating later in life. Therefore, if you or someone you care about has ADHD, becoming aware of your eating patterns and practices can be useful for preventing eating disorders.

The most common eating disorders associated with ADHD are Binge Eating Disorder (BED) and Bulimia Nervosa (BN). While Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is also seen in those with ADHD, it is less common. Eating disorders are more common in people who identify as female.

If you or someone you care about shows any of these symptoms, please contact your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian to help find appropriate eating disorder treatment.

ADHD and eating mindfully

The fast-paced nature of ADHD can lead to impulsive eating decisions, such as:

  • Reaching for convenient, less nutritious options 
  • Eating past fullness
  • Loss of control eating
  • Binges
  • Waiting until the last minute to eat (when extreme hunger may be present)

To counter impulsive eating, building a greater awareness of what is happening in the body can be extremely helpful to people with ADHD. Mindfulness exercises are one way to increase the mind-body connection and become more aware of body sensations, including hunger and fullness cues.

Many studies show that mindful eating is effective in both preventing and treating binge eating. Practicing mindful eating helps someone slow down and focus on the eating experience — the aroma, taste, textures of foods — as well as the body sensations that change during eating. These skills can be invaluable to those with ADHD.

These introductory practices can be very helpful to build focus and concentration and deepen the mind-body connection. Check out this resource for more information and instructions on mindful eating.

ADHD and cooking (or not cooking…)

Individuals with ADHD may struggle with executive functioning, including organization, time management, and prioritization. These challenges can make it difficult to plan and prepare balanced meals, making convenience foods or takeout meals really appealing. 

Using convenience foods CAN be very helpful to folks with ADHD who struggle with meal planning and cooking.

If you eat takeout, frozen dinners, or fast food often, zoom out from time to time to see if your convenience meals are in line with your health goals

  • Are you getting enough balance and fiber? 
  • Is your sodium intake high?
  • How does convenience food make you feel? Energized or sluggish? Comfortable or bloated? Constipated or regular?
  • Do you feel satisfied with the foods you eat?

Preparing food at home can help you stay within budget and in line with your health goals. Here are some no-cook meals and easy-to-cook suggestions for balanced meals to make when you feel too overwhelmed to cook from scratch, but don’t want to eat fast food.

  • A plate of crackers, cheese, nuts, fruit, and veggies
  • Yogurt with frozen fruit and chopped nuts
  • Cereal with milk and fruit
  • A fruit and yogurt smoothie with a handful of added spinach
  • Canned stews or soups with crackers and cheese
  • Spaghetti and frozen meatballs
  • Ramen with added tofu/cooked chicken and baby spinach
  • Sandwiches – PB&J or whatever you like – with a side of fruit, veggies or chips
  • Grilled cheese and a bagged salad
  • Mac and cheese mixed with peas and cooked chicken or tuna
  • Scrambled eggs with toast and peanut butter
  • Frozen burritos
  • Frozen pizza and a side of baby carrots with dip
  • Rice and beans topped with cheese and salsa
  • A plate with deli turkey, nuts, crackers, and fruit or veggies

Even if you have ADHD and hate cooking, you can set yourself up for success by having the ingredients/foods you need on hand each week to make dinnertime easier. For a free pdf copy of my meal planning and grocery list templates, fill out this form:

Tips for improving nutrition with ADHD

Meal planning tips

  1. Create a master list of meals you like. Get my free pdf template by completing the form above.
  2. Meal plan for the week by choosing 5-7 meals from the master list. 
  3. Aim for balance in your meals by choosing a protein, a carbohydrate, colorful foods like veggies and fruits for fiber, and a little bit of fat for flavor. Check out this post about making meals balanced.

Grocery shopping tips

  1. Grocery shop using a list based on your meal plan (see #1 & #2 above).
  2. Check the pantry/fridge before you go to make sure you don’t buy duplicate items.
  3. Purchase some no-cook options each week for nights when executive functioning feels low and you don’t feel like cooking a complex meal.
Woman in a white blouse pushing a grocery cart down a supermarket aisle

Meal timing

  1. Stick to a regular eating schedule if you tend to forget to eat. Use timers on your phone if you need a little reminder.
  2. Eating every 2-5 hours is what most of us need to maintain energy levels.
  3. Choose nutrient-dense foods that provide sustained energy, mood and focus (e.g., fruits/vegetables, complex carbs, proteins, healthy fats).
  4. Consider adding a snack each day if you notice the following:
  • Little energy/focus in the afternoons at work/school 
  • Irritability (especially if it’s been a couple since your last meal/snack)
  • A lack of patience in the evening to cook a meal (despite having ingredients on hand)
  • Late-night mindless snacking
  • Hunger between meals

Making balanced meals

  1. Eating balanced meals can help improve and sustain energy levels, mood, concentration and focus.
  2. Aim for balance in your meals by choosing a protein, a carbohydrate, colorful foods like veggies and fruits for fiber, and a little bit of fat for flavor. Check out this post about making meals balanced.
  3. Experiment with different textures and flavors to find enjoyable and satisfying options.
  4. Incorporating mindfulness techniques can promote awareness and mind-body connection during meals.

Parting words on ADHD and eating

The interplay between ADHD symptoms, medications, and behaviors can potentially lead to a rocky relationship with food. Poor eating habits can result in nutritional deficiencies, which can further contribute to ADHD symptoms. Disordered eating is common among those with ADHD and should be monitored.

Understanding the relationship between ADHD and eating is super important for finding strategies to maintain a nutritious diet.  By addressing your challenges and using the effective approaches listed above, you can improve your eating habits and your overall well-being.  ADHD and good nutrition CAN indeed coexist!

This article is the first in a series on ADHD and eating. Check the blog soon for other articles on ADHD and nutrition!