ADHD Eating Disorders Types and Symptoms

Exploring the Link Between ADHD and Eating Disorders: Understanding the Connection

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, can have a significant impact on eating habits and the development of eating disorders. Individuals with ADHD may be more prone to impulsive behaviors, poor impulse control, and disordered eating habits. Understanding the ADHD eating disorders connection is crucial for identifying risk factors, providing appropriate treatment, and promoting healthier eating behaviors in those with ADHD. 

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Alice Gendron

Founder of The Mini ADHD Coach

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Why Talking About Eating Disorders is Essential in the ADHD Community

Did you know that if you have ADHD, you're approximately 3.8 times more likely also to meet the criteria for an eating disorder? Research has consistently shown this significant increase in risk across various types of eating disorders for individuals with ADHD. Although eating disorders are one of the most frequent co-occurring conditions among those with ADHD, this topic often goes under the radar. That's precisely why we need to bring it into the conversation.

In this article, we'll discuss:

  • How unhealthy eating patterns overlaps with ADHD and its connection to developing an eating disorder
  • A deep dive into the link between ADHD and eating disorders, including:
  • Bulimia
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Anorexia
  • Innovative treatment approaches for managing eating disorders when you have a diagnosis of ADHD

So, if you're navigating the challenges of ADHD alongside an eating disorder, wondering if it's time to seek support, or aiming to help someone close to you, this article is here to offer you essential research-backed insights.

How Are Eating Disorders Related To ADHD Symptoms?

When we talk about mental health, we often come across unexpected connections - especially regarding Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). One such intriguing link is between ADHD and various eating disorders; our unique set of symptoms and differences in the wiring of our brain can make us more vulnerable to disordered eating and lead to behaviors typically associated with eating disorders.

These include:

  • Impulsivity:  People with ADHD often struggle with impulsivity, which can manifest dramatically in their eating habits. Impulsivity can lead to binge eating disorders, where large amounts of food are consumed impulsively. Understanding this link highlights the need for strategies to manage impulsiveness in eating habits.

  • Inattention: ADHD's hallmark of inattention can disrupt healthy eating routines, sometimes leading to overeating or undereating. Studies, like Study-6, reveal that higher levels of inattention in ADHD are significantly associated with increased symptoms of eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.

  • Emotional Dysregulation: Emotion regulation difficulties, a common trait in ADHD, often correlate with eating disorders. Individuals may use food as a coping mechanism for emotional instability, potentially leading to conditions like binge eating disorder. Study-4 underscores the role of emotion regulation difficulties as a shared vulnerability in ADHD and eating disorders.

  • Executive Functioning: ADHD can impact executive functioning, influencing planning and memory skills. As a result, erratic eating habits can further complicate eating disorders and hinder recovery. Recognizing and addressing these executive functioning challenges in dietary planning is crucial.

  • Rejection Sensitivity & Self-Esteem: Low self-esteem, often accompanying ADHD due to fears of rejection, can significantly impact body image and eating behaviors, potentially leading to disorders like anorexia nervosa.

  • ADHD Medication & Appetite: Stimulant medications, a common treatment for ADHD, can suppress appetite, leading to irregular eating patterns. While beneficial for ADHD management, these medications require careful monitoring to prevent adverse effects on eating habits. 

Certain eating disorders are more prevalent in people with an ADHD diagnosis. And, as diet often affects ADHD symptoms, understanding why and how people with ADHD may develop eating disorders is crucial in managing our physical and mental health. 

The Link Between Bulimia Nervosa and ADHD

Bulimia is a complex eating disorder characterized by an intense preoccupation with body image, shape, and weight. It involves cycles of binge eating followed by purging, not just through vomiting but also using laxatives or diuretics. Some individuals with bulimia engage in non-purging behaviors like excessive exercise, fasting, or crash dieting. 

Feelings of guilt or shame after binge eating are often behind this cycle. If left untreated, bulimia can lead to long-lasting physical and mental health issues.

Research insights highlight several factors that can elevate the risk of developing bulimia. 

These include:

  1. Emotional Health: Bulimia often arises as a way to cope with intense emotions and distress by binge eating, which provides temporary relief due to a surge in dopamine.

  2. Difficulty Managing Emotions: Individuals with bulimia may struggle to manage their emotions, opting to suppress them, which can lead to conditions like depression and anxiety linked to bulimia.

  3. Psychological Health: Nearly 95% of people with bulimia have coexisting mental health conditions, including OCD, substance use disorder, or personality disorders. Some also engage in self-harming behaviors.

  4. Stressful Life Events: Major life changes and high-stress situations, such as breakups, job transitions, or starting college, can increase the risk of developing bulimia.

  5. Traumatic Events: Past traumatic experiences, including interpersonal trauma, may trigger or contribute to bulimia. Trauma can lead to conditions like PTSD, driving individuals to use binging and purging as coping mechanisms.

Linking Bulimia to ADHD

When we examine the common reasons behind bulimia, it's clear to see how ADHD can be linked. 

For example, ADHD and bulimia can be exacerbated by:

  • Emotional Dysregulation: ADHD can make it challenging to regulate emotions effectively. People with ADHD may experience intense feelings and have difficulty finding healthy ways to cope, which can potentially lead to emotional distress. Some individuals may turn to binge eating and purging to soothe themselves temporarily.

  • Impulsivity: Impulsivity is a hallmark of ADHD. It means acting on urges without thinking through the consequences. In the context of bulimia, this impulsivity might manifest in impulsive binge-eating episodes. The guilt and shame that often follow may then trigger the purging behaviors.

  • Coexisting Conditions: ADHD rarely travels alone; it often comes with its entourage of coexisting conditions, such as anxiety and depression. These conditions can contribute to emotional distress and the desire to find solace in binge eating.

  • Coping Mechanisms: People with ADHD may develop unique coping mechanisms to deal with the challenges they face. For some, binge eating and purging might become a way to gain a sense of control over their lives or temporarily escape from the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions that ADHD can bring.

  • Impaired Executive Function: Executive function, which includes skills like planning and organization, can be impaired in individuals with ADHD. This inability to plan and make decisions may lead to difficulties in managing a structured and balanced approach to eating, such as remembering to buy groceries, potentially contributing to chaotic eating patterns that switch between binging, purging and starving.

The research confirms this link; for example, one study from Harvard Medical School notes that those diagnosed with ADHD reported more binging/purging behaviors and restrictive behaviors.Recognizing and addressing this link is vital in providing effective care and support to those affected, ultimately enhancing mental health and wellbeing.

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Binge Eating Disorder and ADHD

Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming large quantities of food, often accompanied by a feeling of loss of control during these episodes. It's different from occasional overeating; it's a recognized eating disorder with specific diagnostic criteria.

Research reveals a substantial connection between having ADHD an developing binge eating disorder. One of the key theories behind this connection links to dopamine, which is the brain's motivational messenger and plays a central role in food craving, decision-making, executive functioning, and impulsivity. Research suggests that disruptions in dopamine can contribute to the development and maintenance of binge eating, and harmful behaviors such as substance abuse and self-harm. 

As individuals with ADHD have impaired dopamine functioning, there is a clear biological link between food addiction, binge eating disorder and ADHD, as binge eating can trigger a surge in dopamine levels, providing temporary relief and pleasure. The desire for this dopamine-driven reward may contribute to the repetitive binge eating patterns observed in individuals with ADHD, highlighting the complex interplay between dopamine, ADHD, and binge eating disorder.

Discover further insights into binge eating here, including its underlying causes, available treatments, and effective coping strategies.

Anorexia Nervosa and ADHD

Anorexia nervosa is a significant and complex eating disorder. People with anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight, leading to a severe restriction in food intake, a distorted body image, and an unhealthy obsession with thinness. People with anorexia often go to great lengths to control their weight and shape, which can significantly interfere with their lives.

But what causes anorexia? Research suggests a cocktail of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. These include genetic predisposition, brain chemistry imbalances, emotional challenges, and societal pressures. It's a multifaceted condition beyond just a desire to be thin.

Linking Anorexia to ADHD Symptoms

Research (Study-6) sheds light on a link between inattentive ADHD symptoms and anorexia. It appears that the inattention in ADHD could contribute to body dissatisfaction and a drive for thinness, often seen in anorexia nervosa. Despite extensive research into eating disorder symptoms among adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the connection with restrictive eating disorders like anorexia remains less clear. Many of these studies tend to lump all eating disorder subtypes together. This approach could result in an exaggerated perception of how prevalent anorexia is among individuals with ADHD.

When considering the possibility of anorexia within people with ADHD, there are a few key factors we need to consider before we assume anorexia is the cause. For example, Some behaviors in ADHD, like picky eating, sensory sensitivities, or even forgetfulness (like missing meals), can mimic or be misinterpreted as eating disorder symptoms. So, when someone has undiagnosed ADHD, others might mistakenly attribute their symptoms to an eating disorder, whereas, in reality, it's the ADHD that's influencing their behavior - especially undiagnosed ADHD.

Additionally, ADHD medications, particularly stimulant medication, can suppress appetite. So, sometimes, what looks like anorexia could be a side effect of ADHD treatment. 

Tackling ADHD and Eating Disorders Together: A Holistic Approach

When it comes to addressing ADHD and eating disorders, research points to specific, effective treatments for each type of disorder:

  • Bulimia Nervosa: Often linked with impulsive behavior and poor impulse control, bulimia nervosa in patients with ADHD requires a dual approach. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a cornerstone in treating this common eating disorder, helping patients reform their eating behaviors and body image. Medications, primarily antidepressants, are also used to curb the compulsive urge to binge and purge. These treatments aim to regulate dysregulated eating behaviors often observed in bulimia nervosa and ADHD.

  • Binge Eating Disorder: As binge eating episodes often relate to issues with impulse control and emotional dysregulation, treatment usually includes CBT and medications like Lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (Vyvanse), the first FDA-approved drug for adults with moderate to severe binge-eating disorder. Research suggests that this stimulant medication can effectively reduce binge eating behaviors in ADHD and eating disorders.

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Anorexia nervosa requires comprehensive treatment, especially when co-occurring with ADHD. Treatment combines psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and sometimes medications like antidepressants or antipsychotics. The goal is to address both the eating disorder behaviors and any co-occurring mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders or ADHD. As some ADHD medications reduce appetite, clinicians should consider a diagnosis of anorexia when treating ADHD. 

For adult eating disorder patients with comorbid ADHD, these tailored treatments can significantly improve both the eating disorder symptoms and ADHD management. It's crucial to involve an eating disorder therapist or a clinical psychologist experienced in treating both ADHD and eating disorders. 

This approach ensures they can address all aspects of the patient's mental health, considering the unique interplay between ADHD brain functioning and eating behaviors.

Further Support & Resources For Eating Disorders

If you're grappling with the dual challenges of an eating disorder and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), seeking support is essential. A variety of eating disorder charities offer invaluable assistance in understanding both the complexities of eating disorders and their relation to ADHD.

Here are some key organizations:

  • National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) - United States: As a premier nonprofit, NEDA supports those impacted by eating disorders, offering a helpline, treatment referrals, and extensive information on various eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa and binge eating behaviors.

  • Beat - United Kingdom: This charity provides crucial support for those facing eating disorders across the UK. Offering helplines and online assistance, Beat helps individuals with common eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, often exacerbated by impulsive behavior linked to ADHD.

  • The Butterfly Foundation - Australia: Catering to Australians dealing with eating disorders and related mental health conditions, including ADHD, this foundation provides therapy, counseling, and educational resources to address eating habits and disturbances.

  • Eating Disorders Association of Canada (EDAC) - Canada: EDAC offers comprehensive resources and support, providing guidance on treatment options and managing disordered eating behaviors. 

These organizations are invaluable for anyone seeking to improve their mental health, change unhealthy behaviors, and find effective disorder treatment. Don't hesitate to connect with them for help and guidance on your path to recovery.

Key Takeaways

Research suggests a diagnosis of ADHD is one of the many risk factors for developing an eating disorder. In this article, we examine the unique relationship between three types of eating disorders and the ADHD symptoms that may contribute to them.

Bulimia Nervosa and ADHD:

  • ADHD's emotional dysregulation can exacerbate emotional health issues and difficulty managing emotions in bulimia.
  • Impulsivity, a key ADHD symptom, can manifest in bulimia as impulsive binge-eating episodes followed by guilt-induced purging.
  • Coexisting conditions like anxiety and depression, common in ADHD, may increase the risk of bulimia.

Binge Eating Disorder and ADHD:

  • A strong connection exists between ADHD and binge eating disorder, often related to dysregulated dopamine functioning in the ADHD brain.
  • This relationship can lead to repeated binge-eating episodes driven by a dopamine-seeking reward mechanism.

Anorexia Nervosa and ADHD:

  • Inattentive ADHD symptoms may contribute to anorexia nervosa, with both conditions sharing traits like body dissatisfaction and a drive for thinness.
  • Stimulant medications for ADHD can suppress appetite, sometimes mimicking anorexia symptoms.

Treatment Approaches for Comorbid ADHD and Eating Disorders:

  • Bulimia Nervosa: A combination of CBT and antidepressants helps manage impulsive binge-eating and purging behaviors.
  • Binge Eating Disorder: CBT, along with medications like Vyvanse, addresses impulsivity and binge eating episodes.
  • Anorexia Nervosa: Integrative treatment with psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and sometimes medications is crucial, especially considering ADHD medications' effects on appetite.

Grasping the complex interplay between ADHD and eating disorders is critical to effective management and treatment. Whether dealing with bulimia, binge eating, or anorexia, it's vital to recognize and address these connections. 

If you or someone you know struggles with these challenges, seek professional help, especially from those experienced in both ADHD and eating disorders. Acknowledging the issue is the first step to recovery, and support is always within reach.

What’s Next?

If you’re curious as to how ADHD can affect your relationship with food, check out these related articles.

The Struggle with Impulse Control in ADHD

ADHD's Influence on Eating Habits and Food Choices

The Link Between ADHD and Forgetting Meals

Navigating Emotional Dysregulation in ADHD

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ADHD Eating Disorder FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What are the main symptoms of eating disorders?

The symptoms of an eating disorder can differ for each disorder. A severe case of nervosa can result in death. Symptoms include the disease's complications from starvation and suicide. People with eating disorders may also have other mental disorders such as depression or anxiety. Eating disorders cause illnesses, including bulimia nervosa or anorexia. There are similar symptoms to binging including trying to control the weight or trying to control body fat.

Who is at risk for eating disorders?

Any person could have an eating disorder but most of them are affecting women. Eating disorders often appear in young adulthood and teenagerhood. They may develop throughout life, whether as a toddler or later in life.

How are eating disorders diagnosed?

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, this can be severe enough that you may need medical help ASAP to prevent permanent damage. Your physician will use several tools to make an accurate assessment.

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