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ADHD and Binge Eating, Is there a connection?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Binge Eating Disorder (BED) are two distinct mental health conditions. It is estimated that about 2.6 million people (5%) in the UK are diagnosed with ADHD. And 22% of the population are suffering with BED. Studies have shown that if you have ADHD you are 30% more likely to suffer from Binge Eating Disorder. 

ADHD is a neurobehavioral disorder characterised by symptoms of attention deficit, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and difficulty with executive functioning (planning, organizing, and completing tasks). In contrast, BED is a type of disordered eating characterised by recurrent episodes of excessive food intake, loss of control eating, and emotional overeating.

Further Reading – How to stop binge eating in 5 easy steps

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The Connection Between ADHD and Binge Eating

Studies have shown that individuals with ADHD may be at a higher risk of developing BED. This may be due to a lack of impulse control, attentional control, and response inhibition, which are common symptoms of ADHD. Additionally, individuals with ADHD may struggle with emotional regulation, which may lead to binge eating as a way of coping with negative emotions.

On the other hand, individuals with BED may also experience symptoms of ADHD, particularly relating to executive function. The inability to plan and organize may contribute to poor decision-making around food intake, leading to binge eating episodes.

Binge eating disorder (BED) is much more common in adults with ADHD than in the general population,” explains Becca Harris, registered dietitian and founder of The Nutrition Junky. It’ll come as no surprise to learn that there’s no specific research into how much more prevalent BED is in women with ADHD, given the gender gap in ADHD diagnosis. But studies have found concrete links between BED and ADHD. A 2017 study published in BMC Psychiatry, examined 1,165 adults with eating disorders and found that over a third tested over the threshold for ADHD.

Further reading – The signs and symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder

Neurotransmitter deficiencies and ADHD

ADHD is caused by an imbalance in brain chemistry. In particular people with ADHD may not have as much of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine as others. 

Too much norepinephrine can lead to anxiety, but too little and we can have issues concentrating and taking in information. 

Dopamine controls our impulses. When we are lacking in dopamine we can act impulsively. Dopamine is responsible for us feeling pleasure, when we are lacking in it, we are automatically going to seek out ways of seeking and feeling pleasure. This seeking means we turn to food as a source of feeling good, yet the urge is so great it is difficult to control. 

How are ADHD and binge eating disorder treated?

Treatment options for individuals with ADHD could include stimulant medication, psychological therapy, CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy). For BED treatment may include Cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, to help impulsive behaviors, emotional regulation, and executive function. Psychological therapy is also very helpful in getting to understand the causes of your binge eating. Additionally, healthcare professionals and especially eating disorder specialists can be aware of any other contributing psychiatric disorders such as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. 

Further Reading – Binge Eating Therapy, which psychological therapy is best for you

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Coping With ADHD and Binge Eating

Medication and Cognitive behavioural therapy could help manage your ADHD and Binge Eating. Psychological therapy can also help you to understand yourself better so you can regulate your emotions better, leading to less impulsive actions and eating. 

Here are some other tips to help you manage your Binge Eating and ADHD

1. Schedule When You Eat

Having a regular eating pattern will help you feel less hungry and therefore less prone to impulsive eating. It will allow you to manage your hunger and fullness better, knowing you are going to be eating again at the next mealtime. 

To help you keep a regular schedule; 

1. Schedule in food shopping. Do it on a regular basis so you always have the right food in the house. It stops you from picking up ultra-processed foods at shops and last-minute take-aways. 

2. Prepare a list in advance. This helps to stop impulsive buying. 

3. Portion out your food. When you eat, portion out how much you need onto your plate. This stops you mindlessly eating from a buffet-style layout when you can’t measure how much you are eating. Portioning helps you to manage the amounts of food you are eating.

4. Meal plan. This gives you reassurance of what and when you are going to eat and limits any poor awareness around portion control. It also helps you to increase the variety of foods to eat.  

5. Swop junk food for healthy meals. Simple swaps can make a big difference to your health. For instance, cooking oven chips instead of chip shop chips. 

2. Teach Yourself When to Stop Eating

This is a principle of intuitive eating. Getting to know what it feels like to be full and then learning to stop when you feel full. It requires patience and practice to stop. You are teaching your body when you feel satisfied and that it will remain satisfied once you stop eating. 

1. If you do eat too much, learn to forgive yourself, be kind to yourself, and know tomorrow is another day. 

2. Scale your fullness, 10 being very full and 5 is you still have room. Learn when a good time to stop is by paying attention to what number you are at when you feel content. 8 is a good number. Use that as a fullness cue to then stop eating. 

3. Get comfortable with pushing the food away when you are full and then throwing it in the bin. It is better in the bin than you having to do the work of carrying around excess weight. 

Further reading – The 10 principles of intuitive eating

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3. Pay Attention to the Experience of Eating

Practice mindfulness. This can look like; 

1. Eating without any distractions. Switch off the TV when eating so you solely focus on the food. 

2. Pay attention when eating to the sensory aspect of eating. The taste, smell, texture, the look on the plate, the sound when eating (crunching, chewing, biting) 

3. Observe your thoughts, reactions and feelings whilst eating. Take away any judgement, just notice what you notice. 

4. Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy uses techiniques such as talking therapy, hypnotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy.

1. It helps you to manage the day-to-day issues of impulsiveness and managing your eating. It can help you through intuitive eating practices to help you into a regular eating pattern.

2. It helps you understand your behaviours such as bingeing. When we understand and are aware of our behaviours, the behaviour often changes. 

3. It helps you to heal any past trauma’s and hurts which is often a big contributor to eating disorders.  

4. It can help you with your mental health in relation to weight gain and manage your emotional responses and your emotional processing. 

5. Your disordered eating can become more manageable, so you have a better relationship with food. 

Further Reading – What to expect from Binge Eating Therapy

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5. ADHD and Binge Eating Support Groups

You will find many support groups on Facebook and other social media platforms, as well as in-person groups. This can be a major help, to know you are not alone and others will understand what you are going through as they are going through similar challenges themselves. 

In conclusion, there appears to be a deep connection between ADHD and BED. The neurobehavioral circuits and reward circuits that are affected by both conditions may contribute to the development of these mental health issues. Seeking the help of a mental health professional can lead to effective treatment and improve the quality of life for individuals with ADHD and Binge Eating Disorder.

About Vanessa McLennan

Vanessa is an emotional eating expert with a passion for natural health, superfoods and psychology. She helps women from all over the world to successfully lose weight by escaping the diet cycle and end their emotional eating patterns. She holds a diploma in Hypnotherapy as well as qualifications in EMDR, EFT, Emotional Eating, IBS therapist. Check out her free guide to help you break free of the diet cycle