Food, diet culture, and ADHD women have been on my mind as of late.
Actually no, they’re on my mind all the time because we live in a culture where women are trained to think of these things from birth. We compare our own bodies to other women all the time, even if we don’t like to talk about it.
If we do talk about it, it’s usually in the context of trying to bond with other women.
Here’s where I tell you a story. Name is changed for obvious reasons.
“Liz – hi!”
The woman was looking at me, waving and trying to get my attention. I moved my shopping cart closer to her so I could figure out who the hell she was.
“Oh hi Megan.”
I hadn’t seen Megan in nearly twenty years.
Megan looked a little different than when I last saw her. In a good way. She seemed older and much more confident.
“You look amazing.” She gushed at me, looking me up and down appraisingly.
People don’t comment directly on my looks very often so her compliment caught me off guard.
Just so we’re clear I run around my hometown with my hair frizzed out, no makeup, and wearing sweaty gym clothes 90% of the time. If there’s a hoody available I’ll take that, too.
“Do you work out? You look so good…I’ve put on weight the last couple years after having the twins.”
She has twins. I’d heard about that.
I realized after she said it she was a little heavier than in high school, but it wasn’t noticeable. I mean we can’t all run around in button fly size four Gap jeans forever.
“Yeah. Ummm thank you. I work with a trainer to keep me motivated.”
I realized how bougie it sounded almost immediately.
We chatted for a few minutes before parting ways. It was nice to see her after so many years, but I kept thinking how odd it was that the first thing she noticed about me after twenty years was my weight.
You might say I was feeling smug. Maybe I do look good.
But I also felt like an imposter. Perhaps I look like a model of self-discipline, but the reality is that I have a fraught relationship with food and my body. So it was an uneasy smugness.
You know what I mean. Don’t deny it.
Thinking about food and body size are part of being a female in our diet obsessed culture.
You’re told you should be body positive and love yourself just as you are. But then you’re fed a stream of advertising for diet programs and images showing you what your body should look like and what you should and shouldn’t eat.
Women email me asking how to plan separate meals for themselves so they can lose weight while also keeping their family happy.
Every adult woman in my life was on Weight Watchers in the 80s. My mom, my stepmom, my aunts, and even my grandma. I can’t tell you how many Weight Watchers meetings I sat in pretending to read.
I was taught that, “corn is for the hogs” at the age of six. And I knew donuts and French fries could throw off your whole daily calorie count by age eight.
As little girls we’re taught that if you control what you eat, you can control how your body looks. And you will be rewarded for controlling your body.
Control is a huge issue for women and girls with ADHD. It starts when we’re young and continues throughout the lifespan.
With ADHD you often feel like your life is totally out of control. So it’s natural to look for things you can control.
Food is a part of life, we can’t escape it. So you can easily begin to hyperfocus on it, Particularly if you’re raised in an environment of “good foods” and “bad foods.”
According to some research, individuals with ADHD are more likely to suffer with disordered eating than the general public. Binge eating and even restricting are not uncommon behaviors in women with ADHD.
“You can always control what you put in your mouth.”
-quote from a family member.
ADHD medications sometimes suppress appetite, which makes eating even more complicated. Your appetite might come and go leading to restriction and binge cycles that are hard to manage.
Medications have long been a point of controversy in treating children and adults with ADHD for exactly this reason. I’ve met women with and eating disorder history whose psychiatrists will not prescribe stimulants because of that history.
Food is just as powerful as any prescription you’ll ever put in your body.
Food as a drug
Though I was never diagnosed specifically, during my college years I believe I was a binge eater.
Whenever I was stressed I’d hide in my apartment and eat a box of pasta. I’d always feel sick after but it helped me to feel emotionally full.
I didn’t have any other way to calm myself down except alcohol. And in my mind food was less dangerous.
Dr. John Fleming has published several articles on ADHD women and disordered eating.
When he interviewed patients from eating disorder treatment programs, he noticed that many of them were living with undiagnosed ADHD.
It seems that for some women, eating or not eating, is a type of addiction.
I know it was for me. Food numbed me when I needed it to, and it stimulated me when I needed it to.
You can self-medicate using food. And you’re more likely to do so if you aren’t treating your ADHD.
The ADHD connection to disordered eating
In this article, Dr. Fleming explains the connections between executive function and inhibitory control with ADHD.
Inhibitory control involves resisting impulses.
Eating requires a high degree of planning and organizing, particularly if you are trying to prepare all of your own meals, or stick to a particular eating plan.
You’re already overwhelmed, therefore more likely to eat what’s easy and available.
“People with ADHD are renowned for their lack of self-awareness. Maintaining a high level of awareness of internal states, particularly in the context of other activities, can be extremely challenging for someone with ADHD.” – Dr. Fleming
In other words, we lack awareness of our hunger and thirst signals, as well as our own behaviors and thought patterns.
You’re more likely to eat a desirable food when it’s offered, whether you’re hungry or not.
We simply don’t have the impulse control to check in with ourselves.
Further, Dr. Fleming described “a strong correlation between dopamine receptor density in our brains and our BMI…Patients with the lowest density of dopamine receptors had the highest BMI’s.”
You might have heard ADHD referred to as a reward or dopamine deficiency. If you are low on dopamine you might never feel satisfied – this leads to overeating.
But the news isn’t all bad. You can heal your relationship with food.
Healing your relationship with food
As with all things ADHD – knowledge is power.
If you believe you need more intensive support to work through some eating issues, ask your treating physician about a referral to a registered dietician. Or, a therapist who has experience with eating disorders.
You can start learning more about intuitive eating on your own by picking up a few books. These are the two most often recommended. (affiliate link. See my full disclosure.)
Even better, get some direct support from someone who understands your challenges.
I asked a registered dietician, Becca King, who also has ADHD, to talk about the challenges that are unique for women like us. Becca has a very affordable program she runs designed for women with EF struggles.
Our interview is below.
Whether you want to lose weight, or you’re just sick of diet culture, there are options for healing your relationship with food and finding more body acceptance.
You’re reading an article written by someone who still writes down everything she eats, every day. The urge to do that never disappears. But I still eat, even if I’m not happy with what I wrote. I don’t dwell on it.
THAT is progress.
You can do it, too.
Food, diet culture, and ADHD Women – it’s one of those sticky subjects. I hope my transparency helps you to feel more comfortable talking about it and telling your stories.
If you want to meet other women who “get it,” and experience small-group coaching in a safe, secure environment check out the ADHD Enclave.