Is there a link between ADHD and eating disorders?
Correlations between ADHD and eating disorders have been difficult for clinicians to define. This is in part because ADHD tends to affect more males than females, whereas eating disorders tend to affect more females than males. However, recent studies seem to show higher-than-normal eating disorder rates in people with ADHD, particularly among girls.
The eating disorders typically seen in people with ADHD include:
- Compulsive overeating/binge eating
- Bulimia nervosa (binging and purging)
- Anorexia nervosa (self-starvation)
Why are eating disorders more prevalent in patients with ADHD and what can be done about it?
The Reasons Behind the ADHD-Eating Disorder Link
While further research is needed, clinicians suspect that a major reason why eating disorders are more prevalent in ADHD patients is that ADHD causes problems with impulse control. People with ADHD tend to struggle to control their overwhelming impulses to engage in behaviors they know are harmful or wrong. This is particularly true if the ADHD is untreated or not properly controlled.
There is a strong link between poor impulse control and eating disorders. This is true of both binge-type and denial-type eating disorders. Compulsive overeating is even more difficult for an ADHD patient to control, as are behaviors in which individuals binge then purge, or deny themselves food altogether.
One major complicating factor is that ADHD tends to be more difficult to diagnose in girls than in boys, particularly because girls tend towards a more inattentive and less hyperactive form of the condition and the symptoms are not as easy to spot. This puts female ADHD patients at an increased risk for developing a related eating disorder as they enter adolescence and adulthood, as their ADHD may not be diagnosed and will thus not be properly controlled.
Addressing Eating Disorders in ADHD Patients
The importance of getting an ADHD diagnosis cannot be overstated, especially in situations where there is a comorbid eating disorder. This is especially true if the patient’s eating disorder falls into the binge category, as stimulant medications used to treat ADHD have also shown great promise in curbing impulsive overeating.
Treating both conditions is essential for the patient to be restored to full health. Typically, a combination of therapy and medication will be used to bring both the patient’s ADHD and eating disorder under control. Medications to help control impulsive behaviors and assist in self-regulation provide a crucial foundation for treating the accompanying eating disorder. To that end, psychotherapy and group therapy can both be a great help.
The goal of treatment is to replace unhealthy habits with healthier ones, and that can only take place over an extended period of time, and with proper medical supervision. If you or someone you care about is suffering from an eating disorder which seems to be caused by poor impulse control, and if other ADHD symptoms are present, seek help from your family doctor or a psychiatric professional.