What I Learned About Binge Eating And ADHD

binge eating and ADHD

I used to be a binge eater. Maybe I still am?

I’ve always had issues with food. But during my sophomore year in college I had some personal stuff going on that pushed me over the edge and into more of an addiction state.

My roommate had failed out of school, so I was alone in my apartment a lot.

I was feeling totally unstimulated and dissatisfied with my life. The partying or the fraternity scene actually made me feel worse about myself.

I avoided mixers and parties and started staying home a lot. While I was at home I ate.

Eating became a way to put a barrier between myself and men. Actually, if I am being honest I was putting a barrier between myself and the world.

Eating also became a way to “forget” everything that was hurting me.

My thoughts were foggy and my emotions were all over the place. I was off my ADHD medications.

There are several neurotransmitters involved with ADHD. There are even more hormones and neurochemicals involved in our body’s hunger and appetite system.

All of these chemicals have to work together in order for us to feel our best. The human body/brain is the most complicated living organism on earth!

It’s no surprise that many people with ADHD struggle with with self-regulation and eating issues.

But guess what?

I have learned how to manage my own eating behaviors, and so can you.

what I have learned about binge eating and adhd


First, A little background info…

The basics of binge eating (and ADHD)

Binge eating can mean different things to different people.

For me it meant eating large quantities of food in secret and then feeling disgusted with myself. For others, it might mean eating rapidly and feeling out of control. Some binge eaters also purge, similar to bulimics.

Here is a snippet from the DSM that describes the diagnostic criteria:

Criterion 1 Recurrent episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following:

  1. Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances
  2. The sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)
Criterion 2 Binge-eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:

  1. Eating much more rapidly than normal
  2. Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  3. Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
  4. Eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating
  5. Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
Criterion 3 Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.
Criterion 4 The binge eating occurs, on average,

  1. at least 2 days a week for 6 months (DSM-IV frequency and duration criteria)
  2. at least 1 day a week for 3 months (DSM-5 frequency and duration criteria)
Criterion 5 The binge eating is not associated with the regular use of inappropriate compensatory behavior (e.g., purging, fasting, excessive exercise) and does not occur exclusively during the course of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.
Severity Grading DSM-IV does not include a BED severity grading scale.
Applicable to DSM-5 only, BED severity is graded as follows:

  • Mild: 1 to 3 episodes per week
  • Moderate: 4 to 7 episodes per week
  • Severe: 8 to 13 episodes per week
  • Extreme: 14 or more episodes per week

Here is a snippet for the DSM regarding ADHD:

  1. Inattention: Five or more for adolescents 17 and older and adults; symptoms of inattention have been present for at least 6 months, and they are inappropriate for developmental level:
    • Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or with other activities.
    • Often has trouble holding attention on tasks or play activities.
    • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
    • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (e.g., loses focus, side-tracked).
    • Often has trouble organizing tasks and activities.
    • Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to do tasks that require mental effort over a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
    • Often loses things necessary for tasks and activities (e.g. school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, mobile telephones).
    • Is often easily distracted
    • Is often forgetful in daily activities.
  2. Hyperactivity and Impulsivity: Five or more for adolescents 17 and older and adults; symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity have been present for at least 6 months to an extent that is disruptive and inappropriate for the person’s developmental level:
    • Often fidgets with or taps hands or feet, or squirms in seat.
    • Often leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expected.
    • Often runs about or climbs in situations where it is not appropriate (adolescents or adults may be limited to feeling restless).
    • Often unable to play or take part in leisure activities quietly.
    • Is often “on the go” acting as if “driven by a motor”.
    • Often talks excessively.
    • Often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed.
    • Often has trouble waiting his/her turn.
    • Often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations or games)

Living with ADHD makes us more likely to also eat impulsively.

In November of 2017 I heard Dr. James Greenblatt speak at the CHADD conference. I will review his newest book Finally Focused soon. (affiliate link.)

Dr. Greenblatt is an integrative psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders and mood disorders. You can find him here. https://www.jamesgreenblattmd.com/

I read his book New Hope for Binge Eating Disorder and found it to be a wealth of information. (affiliate disclosure)

This book changed the way I think about the relationship between binge eating and ADHD.

Understanding why you binge

Food addiction is a real thing.

When we eat we get an immediate hit of feel-good hormones. Unfortunately, the high wears off and we are left feeling ashamed and/or sick.

Self-medicating with food actually makes us feel worse than usual, because after a while we need more and more food to get the same dopamine high. Dr. Greenblatt explains, “This is the definition of tolerance, a hallmark condition of addiction.”

According to Greenblatt,

     “Overeating blunts the dopamine reward response, encouraging overeating. When people eat            large amounts of processed junk foods, which are purposely engineered to excite the dopamine system, over time the brain down-regulates dopamine receptors, producing less of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This decrease leads to a yearning for reinforcement, which both weakens the ability to resist temptation and diminishes the satisfaction from food.”

The connection between binge eating and adhd

Many people with ADHD eat when they are bored or stressed out. <<raises hand.>>

On the flip side, we might forget to eat if we become hyperfocused on something. <<raises hand again.>>

Many adults who enter treatment for eating disorders are found to have ADHD when they undergo psychological testing.

According to Greenblatt, “Among those with obesity, the prevalence of ADHD was a staggering 42.6%. Because women with ADHD are often not hyperactive, their ADHD is goes unrecognized.”

In addition to ADHD, anxiety is often a factor in binge eating.

A person with anxiety might resort to controlling every morsel they put into their mouth in an attempt to control something in their life.

Common anxiety disorders associated with eating disorders are obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.

I wrote about anxiety and ADHD here. 

Next, lets talk about what we can do about it.

Dietary Considerations for bingeing

Right now everybody is talking about going gluten free and dairy free. While this is helpful for people who have specific allergies, these same two proteins can also cause us to binge.

You can find the dreaded gluten in bread, pastas and many baked goods.. For some people excess gluten creates imbalanced levels of a hormone called gliadorphin.

Dairy products can raise the level of the hormone casomorphin in our bodies.

Both of these chemicals at high levels are addictive. Having a urine test can reveal if you have high levels of either one.

Also, don’t cut out all of your healthy fats.

According to Greenblatt, “Numerous studies have shown that omega-3 supplements can be helpful in treating depression, ADHD and anxiety, all disorders associated with binge eating and obesity.”

Amino Acids (your secret weapon!)

Amino acids are the building blocks of our bodies and our neurotransmitters.

According to Dr. Greenblatt, when amino acid levels are too low, the result can be lower serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. So, “supporting the diet with amino acids is the first step toward controlling appetite.”

Anecdotally, this has worked really well for me!

Since I started using free form amino acids I have had much better control over my cravings.

Quick reference guide for aminos: (taken from New Hope for Binge Eating)

  • Tryptophan is found in large amounts in high-protein foods, most notably eggs, cheese, fish, poultry, beef and soybeans.
  • Phenylalanine is the precursor for two important neurotransmitters: dopamine and norepinephrine. Phenylalanine acts in three ways to control appetite. First, it is the precursor to the synthesis of dopamine. Dopamine improves mood and decreases the urge to binge.
  • Glutamine helps replenish glucose supplies to the brain, stabilizing mood and preventing sugar cravings and bingeing. If you have a problem with hypoglycemia or sugar/carbohydrate cravings, supplemental glutamine may help.
  • It is best to start with a free-form amino acid blend of all the essential amino acids. A free-form blend bypasses the digestion process and is easily absorbed by the body to be used in protein, neuropeptide and neurotransmitter synthesis.

These are the amino acids I use. (affiliate link. Please see my full disclosure.)

Supplements to prevent bingeing

Many people who take ADHD meds are actually low in zinc. We just don’t know it. So a zinc supplement might be helpful.

Magnesium supplementation is also described in Dr. Greenblatt’s book.

I have used magnesium in the form of Magnesium Calm. (Affiliate link)

This supplement is calming and helps you wind down. Little did I know, magnesium is actually vital to our bodies metabolic processes and many Americans are not getting enough.

I also take a chelated chromium supplement I get directly from Amazon. (affiliate link)

Chromium has been a favorite of trainers and body builders for blood sugar control and controlling cravings for many years.

“Low plasma levels of the omega-3 (known as DHA) are linked to low serotonin levels and an increase in suicide attempts.”  For this reason, Dr. Greenblatt recommends a high quality fish oil supplement.

I take one from GNC. (Please see my affiliate disclosure.)

Prescription medications for ADHD and binge eating

Because dopamine plays a role in binge eating as well as ADHD, stimulant medications have been shown to be effective as part of treatment for binge eating.

The other noticeable benefit of stimulant meds is that they curb the impulsive behavior that often leads to bingeing.

Currently, Vyvanse is the only stimulant medication approved by the FDA for use in ADHD treatment as well as treatment for BED.

Many people on stimulants report a reduced appetite. Depending on your propensity toward abuse and unpleasant side effects, stimulants may or may not be a good option for you.

Things to avoid

We all know high fructose corn syrup is not good for us.

After reading Dr. Greenblatt’s book I found out that, “HFCS is primarily converted into fat and triglycerides. One research study showed that people who ate food sweetened with HFCS had 200% higher levels of triglycerides than those who consumed food sweetened with glucose.”

Yeah – I am going to continue to avoid HFCS because of my heart health but also because it raises the risk for type II diabetes and messes around with my taste buds and sense of satiety.

MSG has been shown to increase food consumption and it is very cheap, so you will find it in many packaged and commercial foods.

Apparently, it causes our pancreas to produce excess insulin which leads to blood sugar crashes and more hunger.

Yucky stuff. Avoid it if you can.

Lifestyle factors

1) Stress

When we get stressed out our bodies produce cortisol. When we have extra cortisol coursing through us we eat more.

I am not entirely sure about the science behind this but I do know that stress brings on bingeing behavior is many of us.

Cortisol actually slows our digestion and absorption of nutrients.

To reduce stress I recommend trying meditation, exercise, reading…basically anything that helps you to balance yourself.

2) Therapy

Talking to a therapist about your eating and your ADHD is also an important part of your treatment plan. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been exhaustively researched and is proven to be effective for binge eating and ADHD.

Reframing your thoughts is important, and CBT can help you with that process.

3) EFT Tapping

I have been experimenting with EFT tapping. Yes, it is woo-woo. But I am still learning about it.

Feeling calmer and more rational is important to me. For background on EFT tapping go here.

4) Exercise (Yep I am saying it again)

Exercise is part of our health care.

Consider movement part of your treatment plan for ADHD.

When you engage in moderate cardiovascular activity your appetite is naturally reduced because, “exercise stimulates many of the same reward pathways in the brain.” (Greenblatt)

As an added bonus, exercise decreases anxiety and cortisol.

5) Sleep

Sleep as much as you can.

When we sleep our bodies produce more leptin, which is a satiety hormone. If we get too little sleep we have less leptin and MORE ghrelin, so we feel hungrier.

Sleeping can be difficult for those of us with ADHD. Talk to your doctor about medication timing and dosage so that you can get the sleep you need to function.

Finally, open yourself up to unpacking some of the emotional regulation issues that are part and parcel of life with ADHD.

Link to article on emotional management.

Look for support from other people who have experienced binge eating. There is hope and there is help.

Food is a huge part of our lives. We need it to live!

Food is also a powerful “drug” that we need to treat with respect.

I have learned how to manage my own eating behaviors, and so can you.

Get My List of Favorite Blogs and Web Resources!

Greenblatt, James. Answers to Appetite Control: New Hope for Binge Eating and Weight Management. Kindle Edition.

**Always consult with medical professionals before trying any new diet or lifestyle changes.***

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