Diet and Weight Management Strategies for Adults with ADHD

Losing weight is never easy, but for adults with ADHD it can be particularly difficult to shed those extra kilograms. Kathleen G. Nadeau (Ph.D.), writing for ADDvance, believes the reason for this is that “many diet plans are very ADHD-unfriendly”.

 A lot of them involve detailed record-keeping, weighing of food, or unrealistically severe food restrictions, which are difficult for those without ADHD and impossible for those with ADHD. While others, consisting of pre-selected, pre-packaged foods that might work well in the short-run, fail to teach the ADHD individual how to consistently make good choices in the long-run, when he or she is faced with real-world food environments.

ADHD and Disordered Eating

Nadeau also points out that a connection exists between ADHD and disordered eating. Healthy eating habits require organisation and planning - two areas of cognitive functioning that are typically difficult for those with ADHD - as well as a degree of self-awareness (knowing when one is hungry or full). Many individuals with ADHD tend to skip meals because they are too busy or distracted. Once their hunger becomes intense they start swinging in the opposite direction, overeating well beyond their point of reasonable intake because they don't know when to stop.

Since individuals with ADHD also eat for many other reasons besides hunger - including boredom, self-stimulation, anger, sadness, reward, simple food availability, and stress relief - it is easy to understand how their struggle with self-regulation could lead to patterns of chronic over-eating.

Strategies for Weight Management

  1. Take your ADHD medication  Research by Dr. John Fleming indicates that, “the primary benefit of stimulant medication in healthy dietary management is its enhancement of the executive functions of the brain. In other words, stimulants can help individuals with ADHD to become better self-observers; to become more consistent in their ability to self-regulate and resist eating impulses; and to more easily engage in the planning and follow-through necessary for the maintenance of healthy eating habits.”
  2. Don't go on a "diet."  Many people with ADHD want "instant results" and are therefore drawn to strict and radical diet plans, which promise a weight loss of several kilograms per week. Unfortunately statistics show that such plans are doomed to failure for the general population, and are even less likely to result in long-term success for those with ADHD.
  3. Develop an “ADD-friendly Eating Plan”  An “ADHD-friendly plan” should make allowances for common ADHD patterns, such as forgetfulness or lateness, with a "Plan B”. For example, this would involve keeping foods with a longer shelf-live in stock at the office, in order to avoid an immediate reversion to junk food when the ADHD individual forgets to pack his or her lunch. These staples should not be sweets or tempting salty snacks, but rather things such as protein bars, sunflower seeds, dried fruit, yogurt (which can last for weeks when refrigerated), unsalted nuts, and refrigerated fresh fruit (a bag of apples or oranges).

Changing Your Food Environment

People with ADHD -related impulsivity shouldn't expect that they would be able to maintain self-control while sitting in front of tempting and unhealthy food. Instead, they need the confidence to speak up, and request that they not be exposed to unwanted temptation, through the "good intentions" of co-workers and family members.

While individuals with ADHD can't insist that their entire family live according to their new eating plans, it's important that they talk about their needs with their partner and children. Everyone will benefit from a healthier diet with fewer processed snack foods and less sugar. They should try making gradual changes - for example having only one or two sweets or snacks in the house. And try to problem-solve by purchasing snacks or desserts that are not favorites of the person with ADHD, but still appeals to the other snackers in the family. It's also reasonable to request that tempting foods be kept in places where the individual with ADHD will not likely to see them when he or she opens the refrigerator or pantry.


Resources

•    Kathleen G. Nadeau’s article, ‘Diet and Weight Management Strategies for Adults with ADHD’, for ADDvance: http://www.addvance.com/help/adults/weight.html

•    Dr. John Fleming’s article, ‘Eating disorders in women with ADHD’ (2002), in P.Quinn & K. Nadeau’s book, ‘Gender Issues and ADHD’, (Advantage Books)

•    Nancy Ratey and Bob Seay’s article, ‘Weight loss Tips for ADHD Adults’, for ADDITUDE: http://www.additudemag.com/adhd/article/5700.html

Additional information