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Spoiler alert: I am overweight. And I’m realizing that learning how to eat healthy with ADHD can help with that. I really wanted to write about anything but this topic this week, but instead I’m going to talk about it. Because, let’s face it, the size issue is everywhere. And even when the best of us can feel body positive most of the time, a lot of us are really struggling with getting (and staying!) at a healthy weight.
When I first tried to tackle the issue of healthy eating, I tried to approach it in much of the same way that I approached my ADHD. While it worked for me at the time, a lot has changed since then but it’s a good place to start if you need something concrete to follow with lots of structure. The steps included:
- Get the best information out there and follow sound, professional advice.
- See the situation for what it is – serious. Take what’s fair out of the equation.
- Find the right tools to make it easier and track your progress.
- Give yourself a break, dammit! (But don’t stop the hustle.)
- Celebrate the wins – big and small
I spent some time this week thinking about what weight control would look like through the exact same lens. In other words, I asked myself “what if I treat weight just like my other ADHD problems?” Here is what I’m learning about how to eat healthy with ADHD.
Get the best information out there and follow sound, professional advice.
First, the science. What is the link between obesity and ADHD, if any? There appears to be some common threads that link the two, especially when it comes to impulsivity and dopamine. In the 2009 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal titled “The obesity epidemic: the role of addiction,” researchers hypothesize that ADHD plays a critical role in eating behaviors, which contributes to obesity.
“Not everyone who is exposed to drugs becomes an addict, and, similarly, not everyone who is exposed to high-fat, high-calorie foods becomes a compulsive overeater. These differences in susceptibility can be attributed, in part, to a genetic predisposition and/or to brain adaptations to excessive use over time, specifically, downregulation of the dopamine D2 receptors linked to addictive behaviour,” the study reports.
Adds Dr. Rongwang Yang of the Zhejiang University Children’s Hospital, “There have been a few clinical investigations that suggest ADHD may be a comorbidity of obesity. … For the treatment of the subset with both ADHD and obesity, improvement of the ADHD symptoms may reduce weight.”
This is encouraging news for ADHD sufferers who feel like they may have compulsive eating issues and/or are eating for reasons outside of hunger. It’s helpful to know that treating your ADHD can actually help curb such episodes.
Aside from discussing ADHD’s relationship to obesity with your doctor, there are some behavioral modifications that you can start practicing now. Dr. John Fleming recommends in ADDitude to use your hyperactive brain to geek out about weight-loss activities like cooking or exercising. He (brilliantly) adds to avoid food temptations rather than rely on willpower.
“Don’t berate yourself when you make a mistake. If yelling at yourself were effective, wouldn’t you be perfect by now? Restart your diet and forget the past,” Dr. Fleming says.
Be honest about the situation when it comes to how to eat healthy with ADHD.
While beating myself up for failing doesn’t burn calories, I still want to make sure I don’t lose sight of the situation. And believe me, I know. And maybe that’s what makes some people feel like it’s okay to fat shame – because they think they’re doing it in the name of health. Sorry, still not okay. I fully understand the health risks of being obese and don’t need another voice thrown into the wind to lecturing me on what’s right for me – I know, I know, I know.
In fact, we’re ending this section right here because you know, too. We all KNOW.
Find the right tools to make it easier & track progress.
As I mentioned earlier, I am a professional yo-yo dieter. For now, I’ll go back to using my Weight Watchers app, which at the moment is paid for by my health insurance (so very grateful). Otherwise, the Lose It! app serves nearly the same purpose and is free. In fact, I’m starting to think that Lose It! would be more compatible for my ADHD because it’s just one number (calories) to watch out for, as opposed to the several numbers you must track to calculate Weight Watchers points. That said, I like that Weight Watchers assigns the points on foods based on carbs, sugars, protein, etc., rewarding me for eating that keep me full longer or have other health benefits. Plus, with their food database and in-app scanner, it’s really not all that difficult once you get the hang of it.
To track my exercise, I’m a big fan of the FitBit Charge. At this time since I’m basically starting from Ground Zero, so I’ll just plan on picking a conservative step goal (5,000 probably), then adding onto that weekly. A lot of people would jump in at this point and recommend all manner of high-impact exercise, longer sessions or more steps – but I know myself and I know I need to take this slowly or I will blow it. And, yes, I’ve tried it. I’ve tried it all and I can still say … not for me, please and thank-you! Keep your burpees to yourself!
But here’s the thing: It was never about lack of tools or knowledge of how to lose weight. I’ve had these resources forever, but it hasn’t mattered. And that’s what a lot of people don’t get. Well-meaning people drop knowledge on me all the time, thinking that’s what I need. I’m just gigantic and don’t know better, y’all!
But, as I mentioned at the beginning of the article, there’s something going on between my ears that’s stopping me from achieving. And I think it has a lot to do with the stuff covered in the CMAJ study. I am going to heed those observations and Dr. Fleming’s advice as I move forward. And I’m also going to get better about journaling this stuff. As far as the unsolicited feedback goes … the proverbial mute button will have to do.
Give yourself a break, dammit!
Honestly, I’ve given myself far too many breaks. But I’ll keep this mind. Because, real talk, I’m too easy on myself. I’m too hard on myself, too, but I’m also too easy on myself. I still haven’t found the right balance. Stay tuned …
Celebrate the wins – big and small.
If I ever had a day where I stayed within my Weight Watchers points budget without dipping into (or maxing out) my weekly “flex points” … AND reached my step goal as well? I would call for a damn parade. If I could chain enough days like that together and live like that 80% of the time, I’d be working on a post about purging my closet for a new wardrobe.
What I’m Up to Now
While I’m still generally a fan of the steps above, my attitude towards healthy habits has changed quite a bit. For example, I used to require a set of rules to have any sort of success. Usually, this was in the form of something like Weight Watchers, where I could track my food and be accountable. I also had success with intermittent fasting.
However, these days I’m getting more interested in intuitive eating. There are a few reasons for this. With so many other things taking up space in my mind, I simply don’t have room to analyze every single thing I put into my mouth. Originally this is why I was doing intermittent fasting … except that any time before or after my eating window I was thinking about NOT eating which kinda defeats the purpose).
Intuitive eating became something I started out of necessity rather than trying to reach a health goal. I basically eat when it makes sense and choose what I need at the moment. Lest you think I’m always “needing” crap or too much of a good thing, I really have cultivated a trust within myself where I know the difference between indulgence and abuse.
I don’t study and follow the 10 principles of intuitive eating, because I feel like that would just be giving myself another set of rules. But I do have parameters, a loose manifesto I keep in my mind. I know when I’m eating out because of convenience or because I think I deserve a treat. And I’m honest enough with myself now that I can call bullshit or shrug my shoulders and decide to give myself a break.
Learning How To Eat Healthy With ADHD
Ever since grade school, you were likely reminded to eat a healthy breakfast and eat healthy snacks regularly. This advice seemed especially pronounced on standardized testing days. There is good reason for this: there actually is a cognitive link to proper nutrition. While this is true for everyone, following an ADHD diet can pack a particularly strong punch if you’re grappling with symptoms.
While most of us know what a sound diet consists of, putting it into practice is easier said than done. As a woman with ADHD, this can be even more difficult as multiple tasks – both internally and perhaps related to those we care for – start competing for our attention. Commonly, the needs of others win out as we run out of the resources to do it all.
When it comes to eating right, planning and shopping for the proper ingredients can be a job in itself, not to mention remembering to eat when you don’t have an appetite. Mastering list making, prepping meals ahead of time on Sunday and setting timers to remind yourself to eat every 3-4 hours are a few ways you can utilize behavioral modification to help you reach your nutritional goals.
Here are a few ways research has shown women can better manage their ADHD with improved diet.
Lean protein throughout the day, especially at breakfast, boosts neurotransmitters. According to Psychology Today, “Next to water, protein makes up most of the weight of our bodies. Muscles, organs, hair, nails and ligaments are all composed of protein, so it’s obvious why protein is an important part of the diet.”
Here are some foods that are a good source of protein:
- Eggs – These can be boiled ahead in the Instant Pot for a quick on-the-go breakfast or snack. They’re also a good starter for salads and can be used to make devilied eggs.
- Quinoa – This makes a good base for all types of bowls – just add in some meat (or beans if you’re vegetarian), vegetables and add in your favorite sauce, dressing or cheese.
- Cottage Cheese – Another great snack, this can be paired with berries for a superfood boost.
- Lentils – Like quinoa, this is another great base for bowls. They are also rich an iron, which has been linked to improving ADHD as well as a wide variety of other health benefits.
- Milk – Whole milk with DHA is often recommended for growing brains – or at least that’s what my pediatrician tells me. I figure it can’t hurt my brain either, so I use it as a base in my smoothies or pour a little in my morning coffee.
- Beans – Affordable and filling, this versatile food can work as a side or plays well with others in a protein bowl. They’re also very eas to make and come in all sorts of types so you don’t get bored.
- Greek Yogurt – Another one that works great as a snack or as an ingredient in smoothies, dressings and protein bowls.
- Nuts – Almonds, pistachios and peanuts are a great place to start if you’re looking for a convenient protein-packed snack. Pair with some string cheese and sliced turkey and you can have an easy lunch, too.
- Peanut butter – Aside from the classic PB & J, these also can be rolled into tortillas or serve as a dip for celery, carrots and apples. There also are plenty of smoothie recipes out there that incorporate peanut butter.
- Beef, poultry, pork, and seafood – With the exception of seafood, this is something else that can be made pretty easily using your Instant Pot. Pre-seasoned meats can be purchased and frozen until you need them, and they pair well with steamer bags of vegetables and grains.
In addition to ensuring you are getting enough protein, experts recommend lowering simple carbs, increasing complex carbs and increasing fish oil, according to WebMD. “There’s no clear scientific evidence that ADHD is caused by diet or nutritional problems. But certain foods may play at least some role in affecting symptoms in a small group of people, research suggests.” For a little extra help, look into the top diet books and see how they fare according to the U.S. World and News Report. Top contenders include the DASH diet, the MIND diet, the TLC diet, Weight Watchers, the HMR program, and the Biggest Loser Diet.
When To Eat
For those on ADHD medication, it can be easy to skip meals when you’re not hungry. However, take care to at least snack every few hours. “Because your brain uses glucose as fuel, when your blood sugar is low—common during that long stretch between lunch and dinner—your mental abilities plummet as well,” reports Prevention. Not in the mood for food prep? Consider just packing along a protein bar in case of a mid-day crash.
Nutritional deficiencies have been linked to the worsening of ADHD symptoms, and those diagnosed are encouraged to be tested for any possible issues. “Supplements and diet can correct nutrient shortfalls that exacerbate ADHD symptoms,” Dr. Richard Brown tells ADDitide, which lists the following as supplements to try:
- Bio-Strath – An herbal supplement marketed for fatigue, exhaustion and exam stress. Here’s where to purchase on Amazon.
- Multivitamins – Combinations of vitamins and minerals known to help brain function and/or specifically ADHD symptoms. Here’s where to purchase on Amazon.
- Fish Oil – There is some evidence that it can help ADHD symptoms. Here’s where to purchase on Amazon.
- Ginko – Long recommended to improve memory and mental sharpness. Here’s where to purchase on Amazon.
- Ginseng – Known to stimulate brain function and increase energy. Here’s where to purchase on Amazon.
- Pycnogenol – A natural supplement used for ADHD. Here’s where to purchase on Amazon.
- Rhodiola Rosea – A natural supplement that supports brain function. Here’s where to purchase on Amazon.
While not widely supported by researchers, there is a possibility that additives and other agents in food could contribute to ADHD symptoms. Elimination diets such as The Feingold Diet aim to address these issues. The Feingold Diet is actually a type of elimination diet. Among the foods that are removed includes artificial food dyes, fragrances and flavorings, three specific preservatives, and artificial sweeteners. While it’s commonly used to treat children with ADHD, the diet was originally was developed to help a woman with hives.
With so many grocery stores and restaurants focusing on keeping additives out of foods, it may be a good time to try. As public favor continues to sway toward foods free of synthetics, it’s likely that they will become more accessible and convenient. For example, my neighborhood grocery store has a select line of products that are free of synthetic additives without the super high proce tag. In fact, I only recently learned that these products were specially made for this purpose – the prices were so reasonable that it never occured to me that they could also be additive-free.
Using the Instant Pot for Quick and Easy Meals
I discovered the Instant Pot a few years back and it has since rocked my world. Originating in Canada, it has since taken the U.S. by storm with its multi-function design that combines a slow cooker, rice cooker, pressure cooker, and more into one device. Before the Instant Pot came into my life, I was very hard-pressed to make meals at home. Part of it was meal planning, but the execution had a lot to do with it too. I wore myself out mentally just trying to figure it all out. Today? Even with a full-time job and a baby, I make meals at home most days of the week.
Here are a few reasons you may really like the Instant Pot if you have ADHD.
I Don’t Have To Remember To Thaw Meat
I don’t plan well enough that I can have raw meat sitting in the refrigerator. And it’s a pain remembering if the meat is still good. Thus, all my meat gets frozen. Only problem with that is if you don’t remember the night before to take out what to thaw (which ALSO forces you to decide what you’re doing for dinner the next day), it’s a pain in the ass. Yeah, it’s a first-world problem. But when you’re contending with the millions of other decisions you make in a day, taking this out of the equation can be huge.
I Don’t Have To Stand There And Watch My Food Cook
When I’m cooking said meat, the last thing I want to be doing is having to stand there and watch it while it cooks. I either get completely bored and try to multitask or I’m just miserably browning meat or flipping chicken breasts thinking of all the million other things I should be doing. Now? I drop that meat into the Instant Pot and use that time to knock out another task while my dinner cooks. I’m literally setting it and forgetting it. Some people really get into it and have one pot for veggies and/or grains and another for meat, but for me all I need is my one LUX60 6-quart model.
Meal Planning is a B-R-E-E-Z-E
This is the best part. With the meat portion of my cooking taken out of the equation – the rest is a breeze. All I have to do is throw a steamer bag of veggies in the microwave, then a steamer bag of rice, quinoa or couscous. If you’re feeling really sassy, you can buy spice blends like Trader Joe’s 21 Season Salute or Chili Lime Seasoning Blend and mix and match your meats, veggies, grains, and spices for an unlimited amount of easy foods made with whole ingredients. Want to add some fruit in there? Grab some frozen bags of that, too (but make sure it’s the sugar-free kind). You can also try the tons of recipes out that are out there – including my two favorite Instant Pot comfort foods. Another seasoning to try is the Everything But The Bagel seasoning, which you can pretty much put on anything.
Smoothies Also Help When You’re Learning How To Eat Healthy With ADHD
Research suggests that eating blueberries, dark chocolate, green tea, and avocadoes increases productivity. There are many health benefits that you don’t want to miss out on with these food gems. I’ve gathered the best smoothie recipes for each one and included some powders that would pair nicely. See if this helps your ADHD, one smoothie at a time!
As far as supplies, here are a few things you may need before getting started. First, you’ll need to decide if you’re a make-it-as-you go type or the prep ahead type. The make-as-you-go will yield fresher smoothies and require fewer supplies. However, the make-ahead method is super convenient (especially for our ADHD brains).
If you’re the make-and-go type, all you need is a single-serving blender with a built-in drinking cup. I use the Epica Personal Blender with Takealong Bottle. You actually can use this for make-ahead blenders too, but I prefer to use a full-sized one. I have a very basic Hamilton Beach blender for when I’m doing make-ahead smoothies and it works great. More things you’ll want if you’re the make-aead type include freezer-safe mazon jars (for smoothie storage) and freezer bags (to store fruits and greens.)
I must admit when I first heard of avocadoes in my smoothie, I was a little grossed out. I don’t know why, but I have a mayo to Avocado association. Luckily, I’ve learned to push through for the greater good, such as health benefits, and sure enough, it is quite delicious. Although you’re probably used to seeing avocadoes in dips and sandwiches, they actually make a pretty great smoothie ingredient.
1 ripe avocado, pitted and peeled
1 banana, peeled
1 cup coconut milk (or your favorite kind of milk)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus more to garnish (optional)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
handful of ice cubes
Be careful when you pit an avocado! Many emergency room visits are noted as being related to big knives and avocadoes. I would suggest using something like this, so that you can enjoy your brain-boosting smoothie at your home and not in the ER.
Green Tea Smoothie
1 Large Mango fresh
2 frozen bananas
1 cup light coconut milk
2 large handfuls of baby spinach
2tsp Matcha Green Tea Powder
Might I add, using a blender on the go is extremely convenient. I actually load mine full of ingredients, then take it to work with me and blend it either in the car or in the break room. Check this one out, an Amazon’s choice that has over 8,000 good reviews.
Dark Chocolate Smoothie
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup whole milk1/2 ripe banana
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa (Hershey’s Special Dark)
2 teaspoons agave nectar, maple syrup, or honey
Pulse ice cubes in blender to crush. Add milk, banana, cocoa, and agave nectar and blend until frothy. Serve immediately. Throw in some of this organic fudge protein powder. Its not secret that protein optimizes brain function, and helps with brain to heart balance.
It’s no secret that blueberries are good for the brain. They’re packed with antioxidants that protect brain cells from free-radicals. Try out this recipe for a brain boost.
1½ cups plain unsweetened almond milk
3/4 of a medium frozen banana
1 cup frozen or fresh blueberries
1 cup chopped kale
5 unsalted whole almonds
2 teaspoons raw honey
Puree all ingredients in a blender until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.
To provide even more of a brain power delight, throw in some scoops of Perfect Keto MCT Oil Powder. MCT oil is abundant in coconut oil, and its said that the fats are good for the brain. Ingredients include: MCT Oil Powder, Acacia Fiber, Stevia Leaf Powder. You can pick from Chocolate, Salted Caramel or Vanilla. With 2,330 reviews all averaging 4.4 stars, Amazon customers agree that this powder is just what your brain boosting smoothie needs.
Mint Cacao Smoothie (inspired by Daily Harvest)
1 c frozen spinach
1/2 c Greek yogurt
1/4 tsp mint extract (I use
1 TB cacao nibs
1 tsp vanilla extract (I use
Desired amount of water
Make Your Own Recipe
If you are in the mood to experiment, try this mix-and-match recipe template:
1 cup of frozen fruit (your choice, but include at least a few sliced bananas) and a few pinches of chopped spinach or kale
1 cup milk (or your base of choice)
1/2 scoop of your protein powder of choice (I use Designer Whey Vanilla)
1 tablespoon flax seed (I use Nopalina)
1 teaspoon olive oil
A few combinations to try include:
- mixed berries (strawberry, blueberry and raspberry)
- tropical (mangoes, pineapple, banana, and coconut)
- green (apples, spinach, bananas, pineapple & kale)
- blueberry and chocolate
- raspberry and peach
- acai and cherry
Cold Brew Smoothie
Need your caffeine and smoothie fix in one cup? Try this copycat Starbucks concoction from Cupcakes & Kale Chips, which includes:
- Brewed coffee
- Banana date fruit blend
- Plant-based protein blend
- Almond butter
There’s no one way to heat healthy with ADHD. It’s going to depend on where you are at on your health journey, and what works best may be a moving target. The best approach is one that is backed in science and includes a healthy dose of self-compassion. There are so many challenges with ADHD to choose from – feel free to tackle them one at a time. Don’t feel like you have to have all of this figured out at once.