Content Warning: This post is about difficulty with food. If you have experienced, or are recovering from, disordered eating you may find some information in this post triggering or distressing. The question of “why can’t I eat” is a sensitive one. Please proceed with caution.
Note to My Readers: I am not a medical doctor or a nutritionist. If you believe you may be experiencing disordered eating, please seek medical help immediately. The information provided in this post is in no way intended to be medical advice. The intent of this website is to offer my personal experiences in a way that may validate others’ similar experiences, provide a sense of community, and acknowledge the many difficulties faced daily by people who have ADHD – both pre- and post-diagnosis.
I learned a new term this week that applies to my entire life – “food boredom”. It’s not clinical, I heard it on Twitter, but I think it can be applied to two scenarios in the realm of ADHD:
- When you decide to cook something, or order a meal at a restaurant, and you’re sure you want to eat it all, then you get a couple bites in and suddenly you can’t eat it anymore
- When you become obsessed with a snack or type of food and want to eat it constantly, so you stock up at home and devour it for a few days or weeks, but then become so tired of it that you might go months or years without being able to touch it
For my neurotypical friends, maybe you’ve experienced either of the two scenarios a handful of times. Try to imagine it happening every day.
Food and Me
Food and I have always struggled to be close friends thanks to persistent food boredom, and our relationship is rockier than ever now that I’m on ADHD medication.
Some days, I eat normal. I can have breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack or two, and I feel satisfied at the end of the day. I have room for dessert, and I have my right number of calories.
But for as many “normal” days, there are more than enough difficult days. Where food is revolting. The thought of chewing and swallowing makes my stomach turn. My mouth doesn’t know what to do anymore. I struggle to reach an appropriate calorie count – which is really important for me. I want to be healthy!
Why Can’t I Eat?
I couldn’t find much research on the links between ADHD and difficulties with food, so this isn’t particularly scientific, but I’ve identified what I believe are the reasons why I struggle to eat because of ADHD.
My ADHD Medications
A percentage of ADHD medication users (especially with stimulants) may find their appetite is suppressed while their medications are most active, which is significant because this typically occurs during the day and overlaps most mealtimes.
A percentage of ADHD medication users may also experience recurring or persistent nausea or other types of gastrointestinal distress, especially if they fail to take their medication with food. This can occur on its own, or due to specific types of foods that are no longer tolerable.
My Other Medications
A side effect of other medications that are used to treat Anxiety, Depression and Bipolar Disorder is physical difficulty with swallowing. Over time, this negative experience may cause avoidance of food to correlate with avoidance of physical discomfort.
My brain craves variety and constant stimulation. One large plate of a single food item does not satisfy those requirements, which is why I can take three bites and not want to continue the meal.
I’m not full, I’m bored, but until now I haven’t had the right language to describe it. (This would be a good moment to know that telling someone their eyes are bigger than their stomach is harmful)
I sometimes experience long periods of hyper-fixation, which can last several hours, and may cause me to miss signs that I am hungry or thirsty.
Creating Healthier Eating Habits
When I’m experiencing any of the above difficulties, I can’t just force down food. If you’re going through a similar struggle, I empathize, and you’re not alone!
But I do have some tricks to get more nutrition and calories on what I call “difficult food days”. While this is not medical advice, it may help you eat more regularly when you’re struggling because of your medication, food boredom or hyper-fixation.
Target the Nausea
If you can’t eat because you’re feeling nauseous, take care of that first. I like ginger ale, peppermint and saltines (which I recommend with ginger ale because dang are they hard to swallow).
If the nausea is due to your medication, be patient – you might only experience it for a short time when you start or increase your dose.
Prevent nausea by taking your medication with food if directed. This is hard to remember, so I recommend keeping a small snack or other physical reminder with your medication.
If it’s really debilitating, talk to your doctor. They may change your dose, prescribe a new medication, or prescribe a medication specifically for nausea relief.
Find Out What You Can Eat; Keep it Close
I can always eat soup. Despite the nausea, the boredom, or the difficulty swallowing, I love soup, especially Lipton’s Extra Chicken Noodle. You will always find at least one box in my pantry.
If there’s even one thing you can eat no matter what, keep it stocked up in your house for those emergency situations.
If you have difficulty chewing, focus your attention on soft foods like yogurt, cottage cheese, applesauce, ice cream (homemade can be surprisingly healthy), or smoothies. There’s also a lot of food you can puree with seasonings, like pumpkin, and eat like mashed potatoes. Invest in or borrow a blender or food processor.
Don’t Skip Breakfast
Eating something small in the morning – a piece of fruit, a small bowl of oatmeal, a reheated chicken thigh – can actually help you feel hungry at lunchtime.
If you aren’t hungry, try to drink 20oz of water first. The hydration may stimulate some appetite.
Add Calories Where You Can
When you’re having a difficult food day, try to add calories in small ways. Make your oatmeal with milk instead of water. Use butter instead of oil. Dip apples in peanut butter.
Small choices at each meal to beef up calories may add up throughout the day.
Focus on Fiber and Protein
Fiber and protein rich foods often come with higher calorie counts, they’re typically really good for you, and they can make you feel full for a longer amount of time.
Try to incorporate beans, meat if you eat it, vegetables, and whole grains whenever possible.
Also, consider a daily fiber supplement – most adults in the United States don’t eat a diet naturally rich in fiber and it’s so important for both your digestive and immune systems.
Eat a Little Bit of a Lot
When you’re eating out, don’t think you absolutely must order an entrée. If you feel you will experience food boredom, order two appetizers and ask someone to share. Order off the kids’ menu if they allow it. Plan to eat at a tapas restaurant, or a place that serves small plate options, so you have lots of variety.
Alternatively, eat a lot of small meals at home. You don’t have to eat three square meals a day. It’s okay if you’re eating closer to 5-7 times a day and each meal is different.
Schedule Your Meals and Set an Alarm
You may benefit from scheduling daily meals, eating at the same time every day, and/or setting alarms to remind you to eat.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
You can’t thrive without water. It’s the most essential component to living a healthy life.
There is no one specific water intake goal because it depends on your age, level of physical activity, time of year, climate, etc., but many experts say to drink at least 64 ounces of water a day.
If you are having trouble drinking water you can:
- Always keep a water bottle or glass close by – remember, out of sight out of mind; if you have water next to you constantly, you’ll eventually take a sip
- Buy a reusable bottle that you actually like, whether you prefer a straw, a wide mouth, or the type that you bite down on (I don’t know what it’s called!).
- Don’t force yourself to use something you dislike because someone recommended it, or the color is pretty
- This may require some experimentation, so borrow from a friend (please wash it thoroughly) if you want to try something new without spending money
- Make it a rule to have one 8oz glass of water with each meal and snack
- Use a water bottle with time markers
Finally, Make Your Own Food Rules
Let your meals get weird! Time to let go of this idea of breakfast only at breakfast and food needing to “match”, and never let a single person allow you to feel judged for what you’re craving. It’s more important to meet your nutritional needs than to meet society’s expectations.
Want cold lo mein leftovers in the morning? EAT IT. Want to munch on deli turkey, a popsicle, and lima beans at the same meal? EAT IT. Just please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t put ketchup on your steak.
Still having difficulty with food? You can consult a nutritionist, by finding one that offers in-person and/or online services. Find out why a nutritionist may be able to help with this article from Shape. Or, read about finding a nutritionist from Refinery29.
Alternatively, if you are looking for information or resources on disordered eating, you can start with this article from The Cleveland Clinic.
Do you have more tips for how to eat with ADHD when you’re not hungry? Drop a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram!