ADHD and Food Choices

by Bert on January 21, 2011

Look-shiny object!

Sustaining a healthy lifestyle is a challenge for everyone, but for those of us with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), some extra layers of difficulty are in play. ADHD is a condition of the brain where the the executive function of the brain in the frontal cortex is not as active as in “normal” people. While there are some advantages to this—many ADHD folks are very creative—there are also practical challenges in dealing with everyday life. The executive function of the brain does just what it implies—it directs the activity of the rest of the brain. ADHD characteristics include difficulty focusing on tasks, impulsiveness, poor time management, and loss of attention to long-term goals. These challenges really get in the way of maintaining a sustainable natural foods lifestyle!

Impulsiveness

This may be one of the biggest challenges to the well-laid plans of the ADHD person trying to adapt to a more sustainable lifestyle. Many of the ADHD folks I know are brilliant, thoughtful, responsible, creative people. They will also throw caution to the wind when presented with tantalizing food choices. There is a disconnect in the ADHD brain between long-term goals and immediate action in the moment. Despite all the education about making good food choices, in the blink of an eye the sugary muffin is out of the pastry case and on its way to our love handles and hips. Guilt may set in after, as we realize what we’ve done, but by then it is too late. And when this behavior is repeated over and over, we become desensitized to the guilt and just see it as another of our many character flaws. Oh well…

For me, the best strategy for countering impulsiveness in tempting situations is to remove the impulse factor. I have a regular coffee shop I visit on a daily basis, it’s part of my social structure, and as I began to change my food choices I didn’t want to give up the social and community connections I get from my daily visit. So I plan ahead. I made a list of all the things on the menu that support my sustainable lifestyle, and visualized in my mind making those choices. I also visualized saying “no”. So when the owner says to me, “So Bert, Kona coconut muffin today?”, I say “No thanks, I’ll have a bowl of oatmeal.” This is already programmed in so it helps take the impulsiveness out of the equation. The more we can look at specific encounters where we make poor choices, and then plan for making good choices, the better chance we have of actually executing that when the moment arrives.

So think about all of your tempting food encounters where impulsiveness has overruled your better judgment. Role play in your mind how an encounter in each situation would benefit your long-term sustainability goals. In some cases, it means making better food choices. In other cases, it may mean avoiding the situation altogether.

Time Management

Lots of us with ADHD have a poor sense of time. We poorly estimate how long tasks will take to accomplish, and this cuts both ways. Sometimes a task that seems trivial takes much longer than expected. But on the other hand, we sometimes don’t even attempt a task because we believe it will take too long (like leaving dishes in the sink rather than put them in the dishwasher, when it will literally take seconds).

A big part of this comes from not being able to visualize all the steps needed to accomplish something. This is especially evident when trying to learn new techniques (like cooking whole foods). When in fact a wonderful, healthy stir-fry could be prepared in 15 minutes, the task itself may seem overwhelming because lack of visualization of the steps. If you think about it, taking a frozen pizza out of the freezer and heating it up takes about the same amount of time.

I find that actually making a mental note of the time it takes to cook something smooths the way for the next time. So if it is the end of the day and my mind wanders to the frozen pizza, I can remind myself that while the stir-fry may have more steps, it is still about the same amount of time. And the benefits are far greater.

Don’t let the fear of time preparation deter you from making healthy meals. Keep a log of how long it really takes, including clean-up, and you will have a much better sense of what kinds of sustainable choices you can make based on the time you have available for the tasks. And remember, as you become more experienced, the time will be even less.

Long-Term Goals

As our ADHD brains jump about from one thing to another, it’s easy to lose sight of long-term goals. There is often a big disconnect between the abstract goal in the future and the activities required in the present moment to reach those goals. Impulsiveness, as mentioned above, is a big part of this. But beyond that, without steady top-of-mind reminders, goals that excite us in March may fade in July. We need a strategy for keeping those goals top of mind.

How this happens for each of us is different. For me, I decided to teach and write about those things which are my greatest challenges. It keeps the subject top of mind. And the old adage, if you want to learn something teach it, is very true in this case. I would encourage anyone who is working through some of these challenges to share your experiences with others through writing, teaching or even more casually in groups and general conversation.

Coaching can also be invaluable (it is for me). Having a periodic check in with someone who has your best interests in mind, understands your challenges and it is not wrapped up in other parts of your life can also help keep your long-term goals front and center. I am happy to coach any of my ADHD brethren on maintaining sustainable food goals. And if you are looking for more general ADHD coaching, I can make an excellent recommendation.

ADHD adds some extra challenges to maintaining a sustainable natural foods lifestyle. But with thoughtful preparation and a little help, success is within your grasp.

Photo credit: Flikr in Time

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