Healthy Eating Habits for Impulsive, Dopamine-Starved ADHD Brains
Healthy eating habits are hard-wrought and short-lived for many adults with ADHD due to impulsivity, stress, and dopamine cravings. Learn how ADHD symptoms often sabotage a good ADD diet, and how to develop better food habits — even in quarantine.
Healthy eating habits are elusive for many adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). Why? Studies show that we make dozens of decisions about food and eating every day — each one demanding strong executive functions. To devise and stick to a healthy diet, our ADHD brains must anticipate, plan, coordinate, and follow through on smart food choices. When we fall short, we feel demoralized and blame ourselves when our ADHD symptoms are the culprit.
The fact is: Healthy eating habits and healthy weight begin with understanding our ADHD brains. Here are the five most common challenges to cultivating healthy eating habits — and strategies for beating them.
Healthy Eating Habit #1: Practice Mindful Eating
Adults with ADHD are rarely mindful of the aspects of eating (what they eat, how much, when, where, etc.). They eat more calories than they are aware of, and consume fewer healthy foods. They tend to eat larger portions, even when they don’t like what they are eating. Before making any changes in your diet, you should make an honest assessment of your eating habits. Here’s how:
1. Document everything you eat in a week-long period. Write it down, make a note in your phone, or, even easier, take a photo of everything you eat before you eat it. At the end of each day and at the end of the week, before looking at your notes or pictures, think about what you ate, and see if your recollection matches the actual food intake. You will be surprised!
2. Set up times to eat. Center your appetite around hunger cues rather than boredom. A daily schedule can look like this:
- Breakfast at 8 a.m.
- Snack at 11 a.m.
- Lunch at 1 p.m.
- Snack at 3 p.m.
- Dinner at 6 p.m.
- Snack at 8 p.m.
3. Eat at a table. This may sound obvious, but people with ADHD are more likely to eat while doing other things: watching TV, studying, and even driving (yikes!). It is important to establish the kitchen or dining room table as the place to eat, so your brain does not designate every room in your house as an “eating room.”
4. Watch your portions. An ADHD brain craves volume. One hack is to use smaller plates and bowls. You will feel just as satisfied eating a full bowl of something, regardless of the size of the bowl.
Healthy Eating Habit #2: Curb Impulsive Eating
Impulsivity is a hallmark trait of ADHD, and it shows itself in our eating habits. Have you ever eaten so much that your stomach hurt and left you asking, “Why did I do that?” Adults with ADHD tend to eat their food faster, which can lead to over consumption – your stomach doesn’t have enough time to signal to your brain that you are satisfied. Use these strategies to curb impulsive eating:
1. Before eating, drink a glass of water. This can help you feel satisfied sooner when eating a meal.
2. Take three to five deep breaths when you sit down to eat.
3. Taking even 20 seconds to ground yourself can help create that “pause” button that makes you a more mindful eater.
4. Scoop your portion, then put some distance between you and the serving bowl. You are likelier to want a second or third portion if you don’t have to get up and get it. Quick access means less time to think whether you are still truly hungry.
5. Put down your fork or spoon after every bite. Do not pick up the utensil or more food until you have completely swallowed.
6. Stop nibbling when preparing meals. A client of mine realized, after completing the mindful assessment exercise, that he’d eat what amounted to full meals as he “tested” the food he was cooking.
7. Make snacks hard to access. Put the Oreos in the cabinet. Out of sight is out of mind. Seeing trigger foods can make you “realize” you are now hungry.
Healthy Eating Habit #3: Avoid Emotional Eating
Everyone can relate to reaching for a pint of ice cream during stressful times. This is particularly common among adults with ADHD, who struggle with emotional regulation.
1. Catch yourself in moments of boredom. Keep a list of things you can do when bored. Call a friend. Read a book. Do a puzzle. Anything besides eating.
2. When you are anxious or angry, take five minutes to breathe deeply to ground yourself. Instead of eating, use other soothing techniques to feel better. Food can provide sensory relief, but an alternative sensory input can be better.
3. Express your emotions in a creative way (singing, movement, martial arts, etc.) or the old-fashioned standby of talking to someone about your bad day, rather than defaulting to impulsive eating.
4. Be aware that negative emotions make you more vulnerable to mindless eating. When you feel them coming on, don’t wait until you become too emotional to institute a pause. You will want to eat — don’t.
Healthy Eating Habit #4: Let the Labels Guide You
With so much nutritional information available, it is no wonder that adults with ADHD are confused about what they should eat. Use these rule-of-thumb strategies to eliminate the guesswork.
1. Always have healthy staples on your shopping list and stocked in your house. Sometimes we eat unhealthy foods because we don’t have healthy, nutritional alternatives at our fingertips. Shopping smart is key. Look for foods like:
- olive oil
- boneless chicken breast
- fruits and vegetables
2. Fortify your meals with protein and fiber-rich foods. If you have allergies, or other nutritional considerations (vegan, etc.), consult a nutritionist or your physician about good foods to stock in your pantry.
3. Read the labels. We tend to underestimate the number of calories or the amount of fat in food. Look at labels to get a sense of what you are putting in your body. If you are getting takeout, browse nutritional information beforehand to see how much fat, sugar, and sodium will be in your food. What we don’t eat is sometimes more impactful than what we do.
4. Don’t drink your calories. Sodas are literally liquid sugar. And diet soda is not as good as you may think – even though it has no sugar, it is loaded with artificial sweeteners, which can actually trigger more eating. Substitute flavored seltzer water for soda a couple of times a week. Alcoholic beverages are highly caloric, and they lower our inhibitions, which results in an increase in impulsive decisions and actions. Also, be aware that juicing your fruits is not the same, nutritionally, as eating them. When we juice them, we lose lots of the fiber, and we increase our glycemic index, which spikes blood-sugar levels.
Healthy Eating Habit #5: Hold the Big Picture In Mind
Adults with ADHD have the best intentions, but execution tends to fall short. We need more than intentions to get things done. We need a plan, and to build healthy habits beyond just eating.
1. Take an hour a week (perhaps on the weekend) to meal plan for the coming week. Check your refrigerator and pantry to see if you have all the necessary ingredients. Make a shopping list of the items you need. This planning can ease your decision-making after a long workday next week. Put on some music, make a cup of coffee, and plan. One hour spent doing this could save you the daily chore of figuring out what to eat.
2. Get some sleep. Sleep deprivation is a contributor to unhealthy weight, and it increases ADHD symptoms. When a body does not get enough sleep, it is evolutionarily designed to lower its metabolism and hold on to body fat. It is as if our brains and bodies assume that we are not sleeping because a higher need (food) is in jeopardy. Our body does not understand that we are going to bed at 3 a.m. because we are binge-watching Netflix.
3. Exercise! It helps regulate our appetites, moods, cognitive clarity, and ADHD symptoms.
If you are a foodie (as I am), healthy, mindful eating does not mean giving up the excitement of food. It is no wonder that the ADHD brain loves food. It appeals to all our senses. And being a healthy eater will enhance our eating experience, not diminish it. We will enjoy flavors more and connect to textures and aromas more solidly. We will have a better relationship with food when we eat it and avoid regretting it later. And a healthy weight means more years of enjoying delicious food (and all those other things we live for!).
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Don’t judge yourself if you engage in mindless eating now and then. We all do it. Rather than feeling defeated, ask yourself, “What made me eat the wrong things?”
Healthy Eating Habits: Next Steps
- Read: The Dopamine Deficiency That’s Sabotaging Your Diet
- Download: Make Mindfulness Work for You
- Watch: A Healthy Nutrition Guide for Adults with ADHD
Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.