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When Dietary Habits Reveal ADHD Symptoms

I’ve been thinking about food a lot this week. More than other weeks, in fact.

The occasion is that I wrote two articles about food over at the AllPsych blog – one about tricking kids into eating more vegetables and one about the beliefs Americans have about “breakfast foods”. Neither of which is directly relevant to this post, except that they got me thinking about food.

Food is a fundamental part of life. For that reason, maybe food can tell us something about who we are. You know, we are what we eat and all that.

FoodOK, I’m reaching a little, but I do think our dietary habits can potentially tell us something about ADHD. At least in my case, many of my ADHD symptoms have correlates that show up in how I interact with food.

That’s because food is a reward. And people with ADHD process rewards differently. Specifically, we tend to be constantly seeking out rewards, and we often opt for immediate rewards rather than exercising restraint to pursue long-term goals.

For me, the most obvious way this tendency shows up is by consuming more unhealthy food than I’d like. Since I tend to pursue food for its ability to offer a reward, I’m naturally inclined to consume whatever food provides the biggest sense of immediate reward. Inevitably, that’s sugary, fatty, high-calorie food – the food my brain loves in the short-term but that I know my body doesn’t want too much of in the long-term.

Another consequence of pursuing food for its value as a reward is that you might find yourself eating for the sake of that reward rather than because you’re actually hungry. Snacking purely out of boredom is a behavior that falls into this category.

These dietary habits have more general ADHD symptoms that they correspond to. Eating too much unhealthy food is related to the tendency to pursue immediate rewards and the corresponding deficits in self-control that many ADHDers are familiar with. Eating without being hungry is a good example of how this tendency to seek out the most rewarding thing immediately available can lead us to do things that don’t fit with our longer-term goals or don’t even have any real purpose.

Now, I’ve been around the ADHD block, so I do have some techniques to cope with these behaviors. Maybe the most effective one is to change things at the point of supply. If you don’t buy unhealthy food in the first place, it’s a lot harder to impulsively eat unhealthy food!

So I now have iron-clad rules about certain foods I simply don’t buy. Chocolate is an example of a food that I’ll gladly eat if given as a gift, but that I never let fall into my basket at the grocery store!

The reason I find the topic of food and ADHD interesting is not just because food is interesting to think about in and of itself. Rather, since eating is a kind of reward-focused behavior that we all experience, how you approach food can potentially tell you something about how you approach rewards.

For that reason, it can be worth reflecting on what your dietary habits might reveal about your symptoms of ADHD. And if you feel like it, share any observations you’ve made about ADHD and eating behavior in the comments below!

Image: Flickr/Michael Stern

When Dietary Habits Reveal ADHD Symptoms

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). When Dietary Habits Reveal ADHD Symptoms. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Sep 2019
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