Girls with ADHD may have a higher risk of developing eating disorders according to a study completed at the University of Virginia. Researchers believe that because ADHD goes undiagnosed in girls more frequently than in boys, depression and other problems may develop. One of those is self-esteem issues and dissatisfaction with body image. Impulsive behaviors can lead to binge eating and bulimia (purging oneself after eating large amounts of food).
There are a number of theories on what may cause the link between ADHD and eating disorders:
Eating Disorders and Impulse Control
Dr. Patricia Quinn, Director of the National Center for Girls and Women with AD/HD, explains that both ADHD and eating disorders share the characteristics of lack of impulse control/self-regulation, depression and low self-esteem. Eating disorders may occur, according to Dr. Quinn, because "people eat for many reasons other than physiological hunger, including boredom, excitement, anger, sadness, food availability, reward and stress relief. Surrounded by highly desirable food, it may be difficult to say ‘no’ to the impulse to eat. " It is easy to understand how ADHD might put someone at a disadvantage, since difficulties with impulse control are a central defining attribute of ADHD. Individuals with ADHD tend to be dominated by the moment, reactive, and only later, regretful of their lack of foresight."
ADHD Symptoms May Contribute to Eating Disorders
Another explanation is offered by Dr. Carolyn Dukarm in her book Pieces of a Puzzle: The Link Between Eating Disorders and ADD. Dr. Dukarm explains that healthy eating habits require planning and organization, both areas of weakness for those with ADHD. In addition, many people with ADHD skip meals because of being distracted or hyperfocus. Their hunger then becomes so intense they overeat. Unhealthy eating habits become routine.
Self-Medicating with Food
Self-medicating is often associated with illegal drugs and alcohol, however, it can occur with any behaviors, including gambling, sexual addiction, over-spending and eating. Many people use food for comfort, to help ease the pain of stress, or to calm themselves. Eating certain foods may make you feel better, temporarily but, according to Wendy Richardson, often ends up causing other problems. In the article entitled The Link Between ADHD and Eating Disorders, Richardson explains that those with ADHD may crave foods high in sugars and carbohydrates because of the effect of these foods on their brain - raising levels of serotonin. However, as with many drugs, you need to consume more and more to get the same effect causing overeating.
Treatment for ADHD and Eating Disorders
As with any coexisting condition, an accurate diagnosis is the first step. When either the ADHD or the eating disorder goes undiagnosed, treatment only targets part of the problem. For example, if you are treated for an eating disorder without treating the underlying impulsivity or hyperactivity, then those factors continue and will make recovery that much harder. Dr. Quinn suggests a treatment plan that includes nutrition education, cognitive behavior therapy, ADHD medications and nutritional supplements. Other experts believe that including an antidepressant medication is helpful if there is underlying depression.
For more information on eating disorders:
"Disordered Eating and AD/HD: Could There Be a Connection?, 2009, May 15, Patricia Quinn, M.D. Eating Disorders Blogs
"The Link Between ADHD and Eating Disorders, Updated 2011, Dec 6, Wendy Richardson M.A., L.M.F.C.C., HealthPlace.com
Pieces of a Puzzle: The Link Between Eating Disorders and ADHD, 2006, Carolyn Piver Dukarm, Advantage Books
"Teen ADHD Ups Risk for Eating Disorders," 2008, Rick Nauert, Ph.D. PsychCentral.com
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.