Exercise & Health

Is Your ADHD Brain Hard-Wired for Weight Gain?

You’re not imagining things — it is harder for you to lose weight and keep it off. Here, learn about the neurological and psychological symptoms of ADHD conspiring against you, plus strategies for healthier eating that you can begin today.

Someone with ADHD and obesity breaking a cartoon scale
Cartoon scale with feet, weight loss/gain concept

If ADHD were an animal, it might be a jackrabbit or, better yet, a Boxer — energetic, playful, highly engaged, and did we mention energetic? This is the stereotype, anyway. But the reality is that ADHD (particularly the inattentive type) might just as easily be a lumbering Panda or Garfield the cat. In fact, ADHD does not automatically bring with it calorie-burning energy and a sleek physique. Its symptoms may actually trigger and exacerbate serious weight problems.

Indeed, decades of research show a strong correlation between ADHD and obesity — so strong, in fact, that someone with ADHD is four times more likely to become obese than is someone without ADHD.1 Brain chemistry, poor impulse control, and erratic sleeping habits all conspire to encourage unhealthy eating — and to make weight loss feel impossible.

That doesn’t mean an individual with ADHD is doomed to a life of obesity. But it does necessitate a serious understanding of ADHD’s effect on food intake, exercise habits, and overall health. Here’s why ADHD may make you more prone to gaining unwanted weight — and what you can do to get healthy.

Why ADHD Often Leads to Obesity

Despite their assumed hyperactivity, people with ADHD are less physically active, eat less healthy foods, and have higher BMIs than do people without ADHD, according to studies. This may seem counterintuitive, but those who understand ADHD see why the connection makes sense: The symptoms of ADHD that make it hard to focus at school, succeed at work, or manage your relationships also make it exceedingly hard to eat properly and exercise on a regular schedule.

[The ADHD-Dopamine Link: Why You Crave Sugar and Carbs]

Some factors of ADHD that make it easier to slide toward obesity include:

Executive function deficits: Maintaining a healthy weight requires robust executive functioning skills — used for everything from planning balanced meals to sticking with that daily run. People with ADHD have naturally weaker executive functions, which makes starting (and keeping up with) a healthy daily routine much more taxing.

Impulsivity: ADHD and impulsivity are not synonymous, but individuals who do struggle with it know the devastating effect it can have on health. We are all bombarded with tantalizing (i.e. high-fat, high-sugar, high-carb) food on a daily basis. Most people can successfully manage their food-related impulses — and say no to a daily doughnut at the coffee shop, for instance. People with ADHD-fueled impulsivity cannot. Their impulsivity takes the wheel and they reach for (and devour) the junk food before their mind catches up to say, “No!”

Poor interoceptive awareness: Interoceptive awareness helps us sense what’s going on inside our bodies — whether that’s hunger cues, thirst markers, or physical fatigue. A person with ADHD, however, is oriented outward — always looking for the next source of stimulation. As a result, she may struggle to pay attention to and make sense of what her body is telling her. Someone with ADHD is more likely to interpret thirst (or boredom, or exhaustion) as hunger, and will often turn to food to fulfill that unclear internal need.

Poor sleep habits: A brain that’s constantly whirring will find it hard to “shut down” at the end of the day and fall asleep, so it’s no surprise that ADHD brings with it fitful or disordered sleep. And a wealth of research finds that sleep deprivation is a large factor in promoting obesity. When our bodies are sleep deprived, our brains release hormones that push us to overeat — particularly unhealthy foods that are high in fat and sugar. Simultaneously, our metabolism drops as our bodies attempt to conserve fat. This is an evolutionary relic of our caveman past — when lack of sleep usually meant famine — but in modern times, it backfires on sleep-deprived ADHD bodies.

“Procrastineating:” There’s an ADHD tendency to put off boring tasks by eating instead, a phenomenon that’s been dubbed “procrastineating.” Ordering, waiting for, and devouring a cheesy pizza is infinitely more interesting to the ADHD brain than is writing a term paper. Therefore snacking becomes a tempting — albeit unhealthy — form of procrastination. (And it certainly doesn’t help us get our work done any faster, either!)

Low levels of neurotransmitters: ADHD is a neurological condition traced back to the brain’s neurotransmitters. The chemicals dopamine and GABA exist in insufficient amounts in the brains of people with ADHD. Dopamine regulates and promotes arousal; low levels of dopamine result in an under-aroused, “bored” brain. GABA controls inhibition. A person with adequate levels of these neurotransmitters can typically stop himself from eating an entire box of cookies. Someone with low levels does not receive the brain signals alerting him to potential long-term harm — hos brain focuses only on how delicious (and stimulating) the cookies are right now.

[Free Download: Stop Procrastinating!]

Behavioral Changes to Manage Your Weight

Is your ADHD brain working against your waistline? Yes. Is it pointless to fight back? No. Healthy eating habits may actually lead to improved ADHD symptoms, which in turn leads to healthier eating. Getting started is the hardest part; here are some simple strategies to begin:

1. Spell out your goals. The ADHD brain performs poorly when goals and motivation are only vaguely defined — weight loss resolutions only stick when you know exactly why you’re pursuing them. Think about the small- and big-picture reasons you want to lose weight: To live a longer life? To be more active with your kids? To fit in to that killer black dress again? Keep that goal in mind as you outline your weight-loss plan. With specifics, you’re much more likely to follow through.

2. Plan your meals. Since ADHD leads to poor interoceptive awareness, people with ADHD may not notice they’re hungry until they’re starving. And by that time, it’s often too late to prepare a well-balanced meal because you’ve already called Domino’s. Manage this (and overall impulsivity) by setting aside a time each week to plan your meals so you’re prepared when hunger hits. Try setting an alarm for 7 PM on Thursday, and spend half an hour writing out a grocery list and deciding what you’re going to shop for and eat over the next week. The executive functions involved in this may feel overwhelming at first, but with practice, it will become easier.

3. Practice good sleep hygiene. The first step to losing weight? Get more sleep. People with ADHD — particularly hyperactive type — tend to view sleep as unproductive or boring, but it’s actually critical to rebuilding your body and keeping your brain running smoothly. In addition to regulating your hormone levels, a good night of sleep will render you less moody, less stressed, and less likely to turn to food for comfort in fragile moments. To learn how to improve your sleep hygiene, read this.

Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight will take effort — effort that may feel impossible to overcome, at first. But with clear goals, advanced planning, and better rest that effort will lessen over time. And when it starts to pay off, the results — for both your physical and your mental health — will be well worth it.

[No More “What’s For Dinner?” Stress]

1Fliers, Ellen A. et al. “ADHD Is a Risk Factor for Overweight and Obesity in Children.” Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics : JDBP 34.8 (2013): 10.1097/DBP.0b013e3182a50a67. PMC. Web. 18 July 2017.

9 Comments & Reviews

  1. This article is not very helpful. Goals don’t work for me because I never can keep any motivation, and I can plan all I want but I won’t be able to cook the food when the time comes due to various reasons. I have sleep apnea and sleep all the time (with a sleep machine) but I am still tired a lot…I am getting my thyroid checked again since I do have issues but this is just not very helpful at all….

    1. Hey! I posted a comment that addresses the first part of this…but in terms of cooking, I highly recommend subscribing to a service like HelloFresh or Blue Apron. The ingredients and recipes are shipped to you and all you have to do is follow the steps. It’s easy and I find the whole concept of, following the instructions and rewarding yourself with a beautiful and delicious meal that YOU crafted, kinda fun and sort of like a challenge (and we all know, we love a good challenge!). A friend of mine has their subscription set up for once or twice a month so that it’s not a huge expense. The portions are usually big enough that you’ll have left overs.

      If you’re feeling tired frequently, it may not have anything to do with sleep, but could be a result of what you’re consuming or dehydration. I recommend seeing a nutritionist or even just watching a few YouTube videos about how certain foods effect your body. If you’re sleeping a lot, and you know it’s not the sleep apnea because the machine is supplementing you the oxygen you’re lacking, but you’re still tired, it most likely related to the kind of food you’re eating or lack of water!

  2. I thought this article was helpful. It gave me the ‘why’ to a lot of my weight problems and eating impulses. I knew that my medication caused me to gain weight, but I didn’t know that I was “hard wired” this way. As a kid my parents always ate healthy and controlled my portions by simply serving my plate and “cutting me off”(especially with carbs-my weakness). However, when I went off to college there was no mom to say, “Ok. That’s enough.” and the dining hall was an all you can eat buffet! So impulse control went out the window. Not to make excuses, but another factor was timing. I only had a short amount of time to get in, eat, and get to my next class. Often, the easiest and quickest item was not the salad bar, but burgers and fries. I quickly gained a ton of weight and at the age of 26 I am still struggling to break those habits and 1) eat better and 2) eat less. Now that I know that it’s not just me (thanks to this article in particular) I know that it’s ok to NOT listen to my body when it tells me that “Yes, you’ve had 3 servings of pasta, but you still want more!!” I know now that my receptors are off. I have been trying to eat better with the help of my family and my boyfriend (who does the cooking!) I try to use smaller plates so I “fill” up my plate with less food to start off with and drinking more water throughout the day especially before meals. I know this is a long post, but it’s just nice to know that it’s not just me or my struggle, I am not alone.

  3. One thing the article doesn’t mention is memory. Many people with ADHD have poor short term memory problems. I tend to overeat because I can’t remember x amount of chips, so I eat even more! One help is to eat slowly. I don’t pick up a hand full of chips off the plate, just 1 at a time. I try to chew each one thoroughly and swallow before taking another one. This helps a lot! All eating should be done this way, if you’re on a diet. You will eat less because you will feel full before you have eaten as much as it usually takes.

  4. I think a tip that’s worth adding is to find an accountability person. Most of us still fail even when we have our goals in mind because we lack that self-motivation that will get us up off the couch, in the car, and in the gym. I think a good way of overcoming this trait is having a workout buddy or investing in a fitness trainer, nutritionist or some kind of program that includes both. We’re more likely to actually work out and be healthy if we have someone pushing us, keeping us accountable, and informing us exactly what exercises to be doing and exactly what we should be eating…especially if we’re paying for it. Hope this helps!

  5. As a mental health professional, this article is not helpful. It should be taken off this site. While the first half of the article describes some of the ADHD struggles that are accurate, the solutions are so off-base, it’s going to have the impact on people with ADHD as one more professional telling me how I’m not trying hard enough.” The solutions posed are superficial at best. People with ADHD can historically create goals, once they harness the elusive motivation to do so. That’s not the hard part that sabotages their success. It’s the inability to keep a system in place once the newness has worn off (about 2-3 weeks for many, but it varies by person), or b/c their working memory and short-term memory prevent them from remembering the system (inadvertently sabotaging), or b/c it’s a bad neurotransmitter day/week/month (even with stimulants or other meds) and it’s just not going to happen (can’t even force it), or they haven’t found an effective way to solidify the habit into a routine that works for them (habit stacking or habit chaining work well for this group). And these are only a few of the reasons that a person with ADHD struggles to implement the neurotypical solutions of “make a plan and you’re golden! Set a reminder and you’ll succeed! Have goals!” … yeah, those aren’t the crux of the problems (or cruxes … they vary and are far more complex than the neurotypical solutions presented). Please vet your articles better before posting to avoid unintentionally hurting your target audience due to mental health professional author’s ignorance.

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