Women with ADHD face unique challenges when it comes to eating. Research has shown that women with ADHD are up to 3 times more likely to develop an eating disorder such as bulimia or anorexia. We sat down with certified nutrition coach and body positive advocate Natalie Joffe AADP, to get some advice.
KS: For women who may experience anxiety or may find themselves battling cravings, what tips would you have for understanding and tackling this issue?
NJ: Cravings can have several origins. It is important to first take a look at your overall diet. If you are not eating enough calories, enough carbohydrates or getting enough variety or satisfying foods, you will notice cravings, especially for carb rich foods. As an aside, many fad diets restrict all of the above, creating a vicious cycle of cravings.
If you have covered these bases and notice cravings arising during stressful times, the first step is to recognize and name that you’re having emotions. “Okay, this is stress and right now in this moment I want to use food to help soothe that stress.” Simply naming what is going on without judgment, can help to diminish the intensity.
Then the next step is to start to practice creating some space between the craving and reaction. Try doing one small self-soothing or self-care activity first before going to food. So perhaps first have a cup of tea, or take a nice shower, or put on some favorite lotion and then eat. Overtime these other soothing activities will become enough most of the time to where you will not need the food, or it will lower the craving intensity to where you can make another choice.
KS: What about those time when we are just super upset and nothing can calm us down? Are there any concrete things that people can do?
NJ: When shit’s real, you want to eat 20 cupcakes and nothing’s going to stop you, you need to have a squeaky toy for your brain.
Go into your living room and do jumping jacks while singing “row, row, row your boat.” It sounds ridiculous, but it’s going to completely switch the direction of your brain.
Afterwards you’re still going to think about the cupcake, but the emotional intensity behind it isn’t quite going to be there. That one is silly, but find a squeaky toy that works for you. Something like jumping up and down, splash your face with ice water, hold something extremely cold or put an ice pack on your face. If you’re in front of the fridge, open the freezer, grab the ice pack. It’s a squeaky toy. It’s a shock to the system. If you jumped into a freezing lake, eating 20 cupcakes is not going to be the top thing on your mind anymore.
KS: To recap, it sounds like, in the moment, find a metaphorical squeaky toy to pull us out of our head and into our physical body in a way. Whether it’s with doing jumping jacks or putting cold water on our face, pulling us out of the emotions of the moment and then, longer-term, thinking about meditation or mindfulness practice as a way to work on a deeper level.
NJ: Yes, exactly. Meditation is has been shown to one of the number one ways to help regulate emotions. I know as soon as I say meditation a lot of people automatically stop listening. But there are so many ways to be mindful. This does not mean just sit in the lotus position and say “om.” It can be through creativity. It can be through walking. Mindfulness can be brought into so many aspects of your life. There’s a lot of other ways to create practice of focus outside of meditation.
KS: Do you have a favorite Mindfulness App?
NJ: My favorite one is called Headspace and I love it because it is geared towards the average, everyday person. It’s very approachable. They have different series. They have series for creativity. They have series for anxiety. You get to choose which 30-day track is right for now and it is designed also in such a way that it’s a program, so one day follows the next, which is something that’s easier to stick with than trying to commit to “Okay, I’m going to go online and find a guided meditation to do.” I know with women with ADHD that accountability and that tracking can be helpful. The meditations are also short, which is helpful. Like I said, there’s meditations for eating, for walking, for a whole range of things. You can find one that’s really personalized and that interests you.
KS: On the topic of food, for Women with ADHD we sometimes forget to plan ahead and then all of a sudden we’re starving. What tips would you have in terms of eating healthy when you’re on the go?
NJ: Buy some pre-made, non-perishable foods that you can just go right now and put it in your car, put it in your purse, if you’re traveling, throw a whole bunch of stuff in your luggage. This might look like things like trail mix or energy bars, so that you aren’t caught in a situation where you don’t have anything on hand. I like Trader Joe’s single-serving packages of trail mix. That can be easy to stash in your purse, you don’t need to bring a giant tub of trail mix. It’s just easy, grab, go, single-serving portions.
Another tip, too, is I recommend setting some sort of reminder. Whether it’s just a little alarm in the middle of the day that reminds you to check in and say “Have I eaten, when was the last time I’ve eaten?” Because that will prevent getting to that spot where you realize “Oh my God, it’s been six hours and I am ravenous” and then overeating. That, while traveling, can be helpful.
KS: For grocery shopping, do you have any tips on ingredients labels or brands that you like?
NJ: Going to the grocery store, seeing so many options and then trying to look at the nutrition labels and trying to understand what to choose can be overwhelming. I would say, the biggest thing is:
If you are eating real food you’re already winning.
For example, a turkey sandwich is more nutritious than skipping lunch and filling up on a frappuccino from Starbucks. Even if you heat up a frozen burrito for dinner, that’s something real and better than only eating popcorn.
Nutrition is a continual process of refinement. Meet yourself where you are and then working from there. It’s easy to get caught up in what the person next to you is doing or where society says you should be.
KS: Do you have any parting words to share? Like a mantra or positive message you tell your clients to remember when they’re feeling low?
NJ: Nutrition is a journey and every choice is data collection. Your relationship with your body and with food is like the relationship with a significant other. It takes communication, compassion, grace and team effort. You’re not alone and it takes time, so be gentle with yourself.
For women with untreated ADHD, eating disorders can result from self-medication. Work with your doctor to ensure you have an ADHD treatment plan that works for you. While treating ADHD won’t automatically prevent an eating disorder, it may help relieve the urge to self-medicate. If you think you may have an eating disorder learn about treatment and get help.
About the Author
Natalie Joffe AADP is a certified nutrition coach, certified Body Trust® provider, and body positive personal trainer passionate about helping her clients transform their lives through healing body shame, diet cycling and disordered eating. Based in Seattle, Natalie works with clients locally and out of state, and enjoys leading customized wellness retreats. With two ADHD siblings, she has firsthand experience with the unique health and wellness challenges associated with the condition.