A growing body of research associates ADHD with eating disorders that involve overeating. There is also scientific evidence to support a link between ADHD and obesity.

Eating disorders associated with overeating include bulimia nervosa, known as bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Both of these conditions involve eating large amounts of food in a short period. They can severely affect a person’s mental and physical health.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental condition that can produce a range of symptoms relating to the inability to focus, impulsive or hyperactive behavior, or both.

Keep reading to learn about the link between ADHD and overeating, including the causes and treatments.

A sink full of dishes, which could occur with ADHD overeatingShare on Pinterest
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As ADHD involves difficulty with staying focused, impulsive behavior, or both, people with the condition may find it hard to prioritize and plan meals. They may eat impulsively or find it difficult to notice when they need to eat. If they leave it too long between meals, they can end up extremely hungry when they finally notice that their body is in need of energy. This can result in overeating.

Evidence to support the connection between ADHD and overeating includes a 2017 study in BMC Psychiatry that showed a high frequency of ADHD symptoms among people with eating disorders, especially those with conditions involving binging and purging.

A 2017 systematic review in Clinical Psychology Review found evidence of a link between ADHD and disordered eating — especially overeating. In particular, the researchers reported a link between the impulsivity symptoms of ADHD and behaviors associated with bulimia.

In 2019, the authors of a study in PLOS ONE found that people with a type of anorexia nervosa that involves binging and purging had the highest rates of ADHD symptoms and experienced sustained attention deficits.

Research from 2018 found that after taking demographic variables and other psychiatric health problems into account, there was still a statistically significant link between ADHD and bulimia.

Researchers have not yet been able to confirm the exact reasons for the link between ADHD and overeating.

However, they believe that the links between ADHD and eating disorders could be due to the fact that people with ADHD often also have other psychiatric disorders.

The findings of a 2020 study provide another possible reason for the link. This study showed that overeating and raised levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine play a role in the relationship between ADHD and obesity. Dopamine is part of the reward system in the brain, and people with obesity may experience greater reward from eating.

This tallies with a 2019 narrative review in Brain Sciences, which found evidence of a significant relationship between ADHD and obesity in adults.

Doctors may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for people with ADHD and compulsive overeating. Research shows that this type of talk therapy can be effective for treating disordered eating, as well as ADHD and obesity.

For example, a 2018 study reported the following benefits of CBT, which lasted for at least 5 months after the course of therapy:

  • reduced ADHD symptoms
  • improved executive function
  • reduced anxiety and depression symptoms

Additionally, a 2019 study notes that experts regard CBT as the first-line treatment for binge eating disorder and bulimia.

A 2021 randomized controlled trial in Frontiers in Nutrition showed that an obesity treatment program involving CBT — which the participants received alongside physical training, nutritional advice, and physical therapy — was more effective than treatment programs involving only physical training or lectures about health.

Doctors may also prescribe medication for some people who have ADHD and an eating disorder that involves overeating. Some medications treat both of these conditions.

For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initially authorized the stimulant lisdexamfetamine dimesylate for the treatment of ADHD. However, they later approved it for the treatment of adults with binge eating disorder.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) splits most of its ADHD diagnostic criteria into two categories. The first is inattention, and the second is hyperactivity and impulsivity.

It is possible to link these criteria with forgetting to eat for a long period and then eating an excessive amount due to extreme hunger. Difficulty with prioritizing and planning meals could also be related to these symptoms.

The ADHD criteria regarding inattention are:

  • often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in school, at work, or during other activities
  • often has trouble holding attention on tasks or play activities
  • often does not seem to listen when a person speaks to them directly
  • often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace
  • often has trouble organizing tasks and activities
  • often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to do tasks that require mental effort over an extended period
  • often loses things necessary for tasks and activities, such as school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, or cell phones
  • often easily becomes distracted
  • is often forgetful in daily activities

The ADHD criteria relating to hyperactivity and impulsivity are:

  • often squirms in seat or fidgets with or taps hands or feet
  • often leaves their seat in situations when people expect them to remain seated
  • often runs about or climbs in situations where it is not appropriate
  • is often unable to play or take part in leisure activities quietly
  • is often “on the go” and acting as though “driven by a motor”
  • often talks excessively
  • often blurts out an answer before the end of a question
  • often has trouble waiting their turn
  • often interrupts or intrudes on others

Some of the above behaviors are much more likely in children. For example, adolescents and adults may remain seated when necessary but appear restless.

People with ADHD and their families can reach out to a range of nonprofit organizations for help and support, including:

For people with eating disorders and their families, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website provides:

  • a helpline with trained volunteers
  • an online screening tool to determine whether support is necessary
  • information on how to get started on the road to recovery
  • information on finding treatment
  • guidance on helping someone with an eating disorder

ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders) also provides a helpline, recovery mentorship program, and support groups.

Overeating occasionally is not usually a problem. However, it can become a problem for people with ADHD, who might find it difficult to control this behavior. Research also shows a link between ADHD and obesity.

Overeating may be a symptom of an eating disorder, such as binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.

The FDA has approved the drug lisdexamfetamine dimesylate for the treatment of both binge eating disorder and ADHD. Research also shows that the talk therapy CBT can be an effective treatment for eating disorders, ADHD, and obesity.

If a person has symptoms of ADHD, an eating disorder, or both, they should contact a doctor.