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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that involves impulsivity, hyperactivity, and difficulty focusing on certain tasks. Many people with ADHD also have a high need for stimulation.

According to 2015 research, the part of the brain responsible for feelings of pleasure, reward, and motivation often doesn’t work properly in people with ADHD.

This dysfunction has to do with the way certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine, are released, explains Becca Harris, a registered dietitian specializing in ADHD.

Harris says that you may not feel the same level of satisfaction internally because of the structural difference. You might turn to food for stimulation.

“Dopamine levels tend to be low in individuals with ADHD,” says Michele Goldman, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and media advisor for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation.

Goldman says that people with lower dopamine levels may be more impulsivity and reach for high-cal foods that will cause the pleasure center of the brain to be activated.

This may help explain why experts have found a link between ADHD and disordered eating, particularly binge eating disorder (BED). This eating disorder involves eating large portions of food in a short period of time.

There is more information on why people with attention deficit disorder might eat for stimulation, and how to handle it.

Eating can provide stimulation for people with ADHD in many different ways, says Cali Estes, PhD, an addiction recovery coach.

Food can satisfy other senses, as well as offer stimulation in the way of taste.

  • smell
  • sight
  • The texture of the food is touched.

Goldman emphasizes that eating provides stimulation for everyone, not just people with attention deficit disorder.

“The body reacts to something when we ingest it. Goldman says that people with attention deficit disorder might be more sensitive to the body’s shifting chemistry.”

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People with attention deficit disorder are affected by sensory input more than people without it. This may help explain why you might find the taste, smell, temperature, texture, and feeling of satiety from eating incredibly satisfying.

People with attention deficit disorder may try to get their brain to respond to stimulation by over eating.

Key research findings

  • A 2017 review found significant associations between ADHD and eating disorders in eight out of 11 studies. More specifically, researchers found strong links between ADHD and BED in 20 out of 27 studies.
  • A 2015 review found that adolescents with ADHD were more likely to binge eat compared to those who didn’t have ADHD.
  • A 2015 review found that impulsivity is the strongest predictor of eating disorder behavior in people with ADHD. Around 40to50 percent of children with ADHD have impaired response inhibition, which means they have a hard time not following through on impulses. When it comes to eating, they may find it difficult to pause, reflect, and stop.

Binge eating can happen because of a lower awareness of internal body cues.

“It is more difficult to regulate eating patterns if there is no awareness. If you don’t recognize your body’s hunger signals, you may end up going too long without eating and then over eating. If you don’t know body signals that let you know you’re satisfied, you’re more likely to eat past the point of full.”

Also, Goldman notes that people with ADHD often have trouble with time management, which may also lead to binge eating. If you forgot to prepare meals for work, or ran out of time to do so, you might go without eating all day and binge eat when you get home.

ADHD often involves an overwhelming focus on one thing at a time. This period of hyperfocus may not allow space for other things, explains Cassie Willnauer, a licensed professional counselor.

People with attention deficit disorder may skip meals and binge eat later in the day, if their hunger signals return.

Binge eating doesn’t always mean you have BED

“Sometimes binge eating can be a sign of BED, but it doesn’t mean you have it.”

Harris says eating beyond your full capacity is normal. Some people with attention deficit disorder who engage in binge eating behaviors have BED.

The criteria for BED include:

  • Most people would eat the same amount of food in a 2-hour period.
  • “It feels like you can’t control what you eat.”
  • Experiencing distress around your eating habits.
  • binge eating can be done in 6 months or 3 months.

At least three of the following are involved in BED.

  • Eating faster than usual.
  • Eating to the point of being uncomfortable.
  • When not hungry, eating a lot of food.
  • eating in private due to feelings of shame or embarrassment
  • Feelings of guilt, disgust, or depression can be experienced.

This condition doesn\’t involve any behavior that “compensates” for binge eating, like purging, fasting or excessive exercise.

Eating for stimulation may not have a negative health impact. It is possible to affect your physical, mental, and emotional well-being by regularly eating past the point of a full stomach.

Some possible effects include:

Physical effects

  • Physical discomfort. Overeating may sometimes cause nausea, gas, bloating, or stomach pains, according to Allison Chase, PhD, a clinical psychologist and eating disorder specialist with the Eating Recovery Center.
  • Increased risk of certain chronic diseases. Eating large amounts of certain foods regularly may contribute to certain health conditions and diseases, Goldman says. High-sodium foods could raise your risk of high blood pressure. Foods high in saturated fat could raise your risk of high cholesterol. Sugary foods could raise your risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Unintentional weight gain. Eating more than your body needs may lead to unintentional weight gain over time. That said, weight gain can depend on your activity level, the types of foods you eat for stimulation, and whether you binge eat often.
  • Fluctuations in energy levels. Eating a lot in a short period of time can lead to energy crashes, since it takes far more effort for your body to break down large amounts of food.

Mental health effects

  • Guilt and shame. An episode of binge eating can sometimes trigger feelings of shame, guilt, and remorse, Goldman says. This can then lead to more binge eating, creating a cycle that can be difficult to break.
  • Higher risk of restriction. In response to this guilt, shame, or remorse, you may feel tempted to restrict your eating or deprive yourself of food later on, Goldman explains.
  • Depression and anxiety. Overeating may have some association with depression and anxiety, according to a 2014 review. Both depression and anxiety are also risk factors for overeating, so mood symptoms and disordered eating behaviors may fuel each other, triggering a cycle.
  • Eating in isolation or hiding while eating. If you feel embarrassed about your eating habits, you may begin to avoid eating around others, Chase says. This can create stress around social situations, lead to feelings of isolation, and prompt a sense of shame.
  • Lifestyle disruptions. When you go out of your way to seek stimulation from food — driving 10 miles out of your way to get a specific type of ice cream, for example — that can disrupt your work, social schedule, and other responsibilities, Estes says.

“Harris emphasizes that your eating habits could still have an impact on your quality of life even if you don’t meet all the criteria for BED.”

You can do a number of things to address the effects of eating for stimulation.

Learn to recognize body cues

“The most important step you can take? Willnauer says to get ready for your body’s hunger and satiety cues.”

According to a 2017 study, mindfulness exercises could help reduce binge eating and emotional eating.

“If you have the urge to eat when you aren’t hungry, you might try.”

  • journaling about any emotions driving you to turn to food for comfort.
  • “It’s better to avoid distraction like watching TV, browsing social media apps or working while eating. Goldman says that eating without distraction can help you notice when you are full.”
  • To better recognize when you are satisfied, you should eat more slowly.

Harris says that ignoring or avoiding hunger cues can lead to binge eating.

“It’s important to learn to work with your hunger, not against it,” Harris says.

Our guide to eating well is here.

Know your triggers

Goldman says it can help to recognize your go-to foods.

If you know that having those foods in your house can make you eat a lot of them at once, you may want to keep them in small quantities.

“You might find yourself eating an entire bag of potato chips. If that’s the case, you might want to buy a single-serving bag.”

Eat regularly

It is helpful to eat every 3 to 5 hours. Goldman says this can help you avoid over eating because of your hunger getting out of control.

She says that some people prefer to eat four or five smaller meals, while others prefer three meals a day with smaller snacks in between. Set timers to help you remember to eat and find what is right for your body.

Often forget to eat? Goldman recommends keeping some satisfying and nutritious snacks easily accessible, like on your desk or in the console of your car.

Get more tips for meal times.

Try a replacement activity

If you like to eat for stimulation, a replacement activity can also provide it. Some ideas to consider.

“It isn’t something you have to deal with on your own. If you are having a hard time controlling binge eating, restricting or eating for stimulation, a trained professional can offer more guidance and support.”

It may be time to seek support.

  • Your eating habits affect your life.
  • You experience emotional distress after eating.
  • You feel depressed, anxious, fear, shame, or guilt after eating.
  • You have noticed that eating for stimulation has unwanted physical effects.

Harris recommends that you find a licensed mental health professional who specializes in these disorders. A therapist, counselor, or dietitian can help you.

  • identify specific events
  • Find replacement activities.
  • Behavioral changes can be explored.

To find the right therapist, you can start by:

  • exploring therapist directories, like the American Psychological Association database
  • You can find a list of in-network providers near you by contacting your insurance company.
  • Ask a healthcare professional for a referral.

As you vet possible therapists, aim to make sure they work from a body-neutral or “health at every size” lens.

“Willnauer says this will make sure you don’t experience diet culture related judgement in therapy.”

Eating for stimulation can be addressed with treatment for the attention deficit disorder.

Goldman explains that many therapies teach strategies to help manage symptoms of attention deficit disorder.

A therapist can help you explore ways to do better.

  • navigate impulsivity.
  • Make and keep plans.
  • manage time

Medication interventions might also help reestablish chemical levels in the brain, which can decrease the need to eat for stimulation, Goldman says.

There are treatment options for the disorder.

People with attention deficit Hyperactivity Disorder eat for stimulation more often than anyone else.

Enjoying meals is nothing wrong. Eating more food than you intended can affect your daily life and well-being.

Trying other stimulating activities can help you avoid eating for stimulation, while practicing intuitive eating can help you learn to recognize your body’s hunger and fullness cues more easily. If these strategies don’t seem to help, a therapist can offer more support with narrowing down potential causes of eating for stimulation and helping you explore steps toward change.

Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based writer who writes about health and fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has appeared in a number of publications.