ADHD and eating disorders

By The Understood Team

At a glance

  • ADHD and eating disorders often co-occur.

  • ADHD symptoms like impulsivity and trouble with focus can play a role in binge eating disorder (BED).

  • The eating disorder that overlaps most often with ADHD is BED.

If your child has ADHD and also has an eating disorder, you may think the two are unrelated. But these two conditions often co-occur. Research shows a particularly strong link between ADHD and binge eating.

Learn more about the connection between ADHD (also known as ADD) and eating disorders.

ADHD and binge eating disorder

There are a few types of eating disorders. These include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder (BED). The condition that overlaps most with ADHD is BED. It’s also the most common eating disorder.

BED affects around 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men in the U.S. An estimated 30 percent of them have ADHD. Researchers believe that ADHD symptoms like impulsivity and inattention play a role.

With BED, people often eat large amounts of food quickly, even when they’re full. Unlike with bulimia, they don’t try to purge the food by throwing up or through excessive exercise. But they do often feel shame afterward. (It’s important to know that obesity often co-occurs with both ADHD and BED.)

Experts believe that people with ADHD may overeat to satisfy their brain’s need for stimulation. Also, problems with can make self-control and self-regulation difficult.

Inattention can also be a factor. People with ADHD may not be as aware of or focused on their eating habits. They may not recognize when they’re hungry during the day, for example, and then end up overeating later on. They may also not pay attention to when they’re full, and keep on eating.

There also appears to be a genetic link. Researchers have identified common genes in people with ADHD, BED, and obesity. These genes are involved in transmitting a brain chemical called dopamine in the brain. With ADHD, this transmission isn’t very efficient.

ADHD, bulimia, and anorexia

The direct connection between bulimia and ADHD isn’t as strong as the one between BED and ADHD. But binge eating can be part of this type of eating disorder, too. So, it’s not uncommon for people to have both ADHD and bulimia.

When it comes to anorexia, studies show no link to ADHD. The behaviors of the two conditions are totally different. People with ADHD are impulsive. People with anorexia are compulsive. They restrict the amount of food they eat, instead of eating to excess.

Anxiety, depression, and eating disorders

Mental health issues can also contribute to eating disorders. Two of the most common, anxiety and depression, often co-occur with ADHD as well. So, kids with ADHD may be at even greater risk of an eating disorder if they also have other mental health issues.

Treating ADHD, eating disorders, and mental health issues

ADHD, eating disorders and mental health issues like anxiety need to be treated separately. But some treatments may help with more than just one of the conditions.

Stimulant medication for ADHD may help with binge eating, for example. It can improve self-control. It also has the side effect of reducing appetite. If you’re considering ADHD medication, talk to your child’s doctor about whether it may be right for your child.

Therapy is a key treatment for eating disorders and other mental health issues. It can also help with ADHD. One common type is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Another is called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

It’s important to seek professional help for each of the conditions your child might have. Start by talking to your child’s doctor. From there, the doctor can refer you to mental health professionals.

Learn more about ADHD and emotions. Find out how behavior therapy can help kids with ADHD. You may also want to read about ADHD in girls, or ADHD in boys.

Key takeaways

  • Studies show no link between anorexia and ADHD. But there is a link between ADHD, BED, and bulimia.

  • People with ADHD may overeat to satisfy their brain’s need for stimulation.

  • If your child is struggling with ADHD, an eating disorder or both, talk to your child’s doctor. The doctor can refer you to a therapist or other mental health professional.

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    About the author

    About the author

    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Roberto Olivardia, PhD is a clinical psychologist and lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School.