Exercise & Health

Dieting Advice for Adults with ADHD

An ADHD coach shares how, after gaining 20 pounds, she’s finally losing weight.

A woman writes out a diet plan for the week to help meet her ADHD weight loss goals.
A woman writes out a diet plan for the week to help meet her ADHD weight loss goals.

I gained 20 pounds over the last two years, which is a lot for me. I’ve been trying to lose the weight since winter, but the scales have not been my friend. Nor has my regular routine. How could I be exercising for 20 minutes a day, eating healthy foods, and still gaining weight? While I discovered firsthand that what they say about your metabolism coming to a screeching halt when you hit your forties is true, I thought there might be something more to it. So I resorted to counting calories two weeks ago.

Why am I talking about dieting instead of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Because counting calories has turned out to be a surprisingly good coping strategy for me. Regular readers will know that I’m serious about sleep, nutrition, and exercise as first line defenses against the symptoms of attention deficit. And while my daily habits appeared healthy, on the surface, tracking my calorie intake forced me to really pay attention to what I was doing in the health and fitness department. And only then did I realize how often I did not pay attention to what I was eating, despite my good intentions.

Diet and Fitness Tools for Adults with ADHD

I’m using a little web (free) application called MyFitnessPal. I enter what I eat, and it gives me the calorie count and a bunch of other nutrition information, keeping track of my daily and ongoing totals. Who knew that in order to lose a pound a week — a healthy goal to set — a 44-year-old woman of my body type and activity level can only consume 1,200 calories a day? And who knew that a can of split pea soup is a whopping 450 calories, over a third of my daily allowance? You’d think peas would be calorie-free! MyFitnessPal also calculates the calories burned by various types of exercise. For example, a 30-minute run at five miles per hour burns 245 calories. Those 245 calories are added to my food allowance for the day. So if I run today, I get to consume 1,445 calories and still reach my weight-loss goal. That’s incentive! There are lots of other programs and iPhone apps that do the same thing, some of which even provide nutrition information for national restaurant chains. (Got a fitness or weight-loss tool or app you love? Tell us in a comment below.)

[Is Your Brain Hard-Wired for Weight Gain?]

Why Counting Works for ADHD

Keeping track of meals, snacks, and bites eaten is a helpful tool for “typical” dieters — a 2008 Kaiser Permanente study found of nearly 2,000 participants found that keeping a food journal may double a person’s weight loss  — and I think it’s particularly helpful for adults with ADHD who are trying to lose weight. For me, counting calories provides structure for a nutrition plan. Structure, of course, is the antidote for ADHD impulsivity. We tend to make eating decisions impulsively, based on what appeals to us at the moment. Especially if we’re not aware of the ramifications of those decisions. Counting calories helps me determine the consequences of my choices. I also use it to limit my snacking. How many times have I said “Oh, it’s just a handful of pretzels; I’ll make up for it tomorrow?” Similarly, how many times have I said, “I’m tired. I’ll cut my run short, just this once?” And then forgotten all about it the next day? Now, knowing that I won’t be able to have my frozen yogurt later if I quit too soon is enough to keep me going for those last 10 minutes.

Not only am I getting in-the-moment nutrition information to guide my decisions, I’m training myself to make better choices overall. Each day I learn a little more about what constitutes good eating. Each day I learn a little more about why I eat, and when I eat. Before, it was all about what I felt like doing. Sound familiar? Now, it’s all about staying within the limits I have set for myself. I now know, for example, that even if I don’t feel full after my measured-portion lunch, I will feel full in about five minutes. That helps me be patient, instead of taking that second helping. For some this feeling of satiety may take as long at 15 to 20 minutes; test yourself and see what works for you.

Counting calories is a learning tool. It provides motivation and structure. It helped me develop better eating habits. And, it has helped me lose five pounds so far!

What tools (online, in-hand, or of the will-power variety) have you used to achieve or maintain a healthy weight or shape?