ADHD and eating disorders

ADHD and eating disorders, woman standing in front of an open fridge

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.

Eating disorders and ADHD may not seem like they’d be related. 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 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 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 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. 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 mental health issues, anxiety and depression, often co-occur with ADHD as well. People 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.

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

It’s important to seek professional help for each of these conditions. Parents can start by talking to their child’s health care professional, who can make a referral to a mental health professional. Adults can talk to their health care or mental health professional.

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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.

  • It’s important to seek professional help for these conditions.

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