The ADHD-Dopamine Link: Why You Crave Sugar and Carbs
Mainstream weight-loss plans don’t work for us. ADHD brains lack and crave dopamine, which sugar and carbs deliver in spades (or rolls, as the case may be). To get healthy, we first have to get wise — and crafty. Here’s how to lose weight the ADD way.
Medical research1 shows that obese individuals are five to ten times more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than are members of the general population. The link between ADHD and obesity is very real — though not yet fully understood. Certainly impulsivity, poor planning, and high-intensity emotions don't help in the fight to lose weight, but there could be more at play here.
1 Fliers, Ellen A. et al. “ADHD Is a Risk Factor for Overweight and Obesity in Children.” Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, vol. 34, no. 8, 2013. 10.1097/ DBP.0b013e3182a50a67.
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Lack of Dopamine in the ADHD Brain
As you know, one trademark of ADHD is low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine — a chemical released by nerve cells into the brain.
Due to this lack of dopamine, people with ADHD are "chemically wired" to seek more, says John Ratey, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "Eating carbohydrates triggers a rush of dopamine in the brain," he says. "It's the drive for the feeling of satiety."
To avoid the temptation to regulate your dopamine levels with food, consider keeping them in check with a stimulant medication. By boosting the brain's executive function, stimulants help individuals with ADHD become better at observing and regulating their behaviors and avoiding impulsive eating. They also make it easier for people with ADHD to follow through with their eating and exercise plans — to be consistent.
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Graze Throughout the Day
To further avoid binging on food to satiate our dopamine cravings, adults with ADHD should do the following:
Don't skip meals because you are too busy or distracted. You are much more likely to pile on unhealthy calories when you hit rock bottom.
Lance Levy, M.D., says that eating several mini-meals throughout the day (grazing) provides a "source of ongoing stimulation that may lessen feelings of restlessness in people with ADHD."
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Eliminate ADHD Temptation
Still, even the most restrained among us have trouble resisting sweet and salty foods when they're lurking in the pantry. Avoid impulsive eating by setting up a "food environment" that promotes healthy eating. That means ridding your home of chips, chocolates, and other snacks that encourage binging, while stocking up on nutritious meals and snacks that require little preparation. Part-skim mozzarella sticks, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, protein bars, dried fruit, nuts and seeds, apples, and oranges are all great choices for a successful ADHD diet.
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Avoid Crash Dieting
Understand that crash diets or lose-weight-fast gimmicks often produce a boomerang effect that can leave you weighing more than you did when you started. Try to see the changes you're making as part of a larger plan to improve your overall physical and mental health. A sustained weight change requires sustained changes in both your diet and your behavior. Are you really willing to live on nothing but grapefruit and poached eggs for the rest of your life? If not — and who would? — then you need eat balanced meals and make changes in your diet that you can maintain over time.
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ADHD Brains Crave Dopamine, Exercise Releases It
Did you know that exercise can help control some ADHD symptoms by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain? With regular physical activity, ADHD adults can raise the baseline levels of dopamine and norepinephrine by spurring the growth of new receptors in certain brain areas, further regulating attention and reducing the temptation to boost dopamine through food.
Treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes all offer great cardiovascular activity, but they can also get boring very quickly. Interval training is the perfect solution to keep your interest. Interval training alternates a short burst of high-intensity exercise with bouts of low-intensity activity, burning more fat in 20 minutes than longer workouts do.
Here's how to do it: Warm up for five or 10 minutes on a stationary bike, treadmill, or on a run. Then pedal, walk, or run as fast as you can, for 20 to 30 seconds, followed by a minute or two of low-intensity activity. Speed up again, then lay back. Do five or six alternations in 20 minutes.
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You didn't put on 20, 30 or 100 extra pounds overnight, and it won't come off that quickly either. It takes time to reverse the effects of years of over eating and inactivity so talk with your doctor about setting realistic weight-loss goals.
When it comes to exercise, many adults with ADHD set goals that are unrealistically high — and unwittingly set the stage for failure. For instance, if you say that you'll work out for 30 minutes but manage only 15, you may feel so discouraged that you skip your next workout session.
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Set Manageable Goals
First, decide upon the absolute minimum amount of exercise that you find acceptable — for example, working out for 15 minutes twice a week. Then set an easy maximum workout goal — maybe 30 minutes twice a week. Chances are, you'll have no trouble reaching your minimum goal — and there's a pretty good chance that you'll also exceed your maximum too.
Meeting your goals makes you feel good and encourages you to stick with your workouts. Also remember to increase your minimum and maximum goals periodically so you don't get in a rut.
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Track Your Progress
Hang up a calendar, and mark an X on the days you exercise. Keep it simple — no need to mark workout time, reps, laps, heart rate, and so on. Once a month, review what you've accomplished to get a sense of your progress.
Try using a mobile app like MyFitnessPal to easily track the calories you consume each day. Raising your awareness of common foods' caloric value can help you make more educated decisions on the fly.
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Losing weight is easier with a partner to keep you on track and share in your pain and progress so recruit friends to go on the journey with you. You may even want to make things interesting with a bet for who will hit his/her target weight first. Money is a great motivator, and even the "loser" wins by losing weight.
Friends can also help when you need a boost. Many adults with ADHD start an exercise program with tremendous enthusiasm, only to lose interest within a few weeks. If that sounds like you, write yourself a letter of encouragement. Give it to a friend at the start of your exercise program, and ask her to "deliver" it back to you when your enthusiasm starts to flag.