Taylor Wark

Taylor Ashley, RP #11063 is a Registered Psychotherapist at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples and individuals 11yrs and up through anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. Learn more about Taylor here.

Mechanical Eating vs. Intuitive Eating: ADHD Struggles

Intuitive eating has become the new buzzword in eating disorder recovery and the health industry. At the most basic level, intuitive eating is listening to our body’s hunger cues and cravings, then respecting what our body asks for. Our bodies are innately designed to know when to eat, how much to eat, and what to eat depending on the nutrients it needs to properly function. This is why we crave things like salt, sugar, carbs, and even vegetables. Often people who have not learned intuitive eating find it unfathomable that others crave ‘healthy food’, but it’s true. If we listen to our body, it will tell us what it needs.

Normalizing our brain and body’s ability to eat intuitively and making this the end goal of eating disorder recovery or healthy living is not necessarily something that happens naturally.

Intuitive eating assumes everyone has the innate ability to tune into their body’s responses, when in fact, very few people are taught this as children. Most of us grew up relying on others to feed us, tell us when we are hungry, and what we should be eating. Only in recent years has the idea of childhood intuitive eating, and feeding your child the rainbow (nutrition), really gained traction. Therefore, individuals do not view intuitive eating as a skill that needs to be learned, but as something they should ‘just know’ how to do, which is not the case and further perpetuates the idea of ‘something is wrong with ME’.

There are two main struggles that come with wanting to start intuitive eating:

  1. Individuals have usually been dieting for so long that they no longer have reliable hunger cues.
  2. Individuals with ADHD have probably never experienced hunger cues or do not have accurate cues due to flooded nervous systems.

This is when mechanical eating is introduced to treatment.
What is mechanical eating and why is this the first skill I work on with clients who struggle with hunger cues, having a history of eating disorder, and/or ADHD?

Mechanical eating is simply the act of eating at certain times of the day, even if you do not feel hungry, without question.

Mechanical eating helps to re-establish hunger cues when our brains cannot trust our body’s natural cues (either due to our own actions or our brain’s chemical imbalance) and begin to safely re-nourish ourselves. Mechanical eating aims to lessen the internalized guilt of eating, lessen food rules, and allow the individual to have pre-set, balanced meals, and snacks.

Mechanical eating goes against everything we are told in our society of “listen to your body” or “only eat when you’re hungry”, which is why most clients struggle when I first introduce this concept.
The most frequently asked question I get is: If I eat even when I’m not hungry how is that building back trust in myself?

Great question!

We lose our natural and appropriate hunger cues when our body has stopped trusting us to feed it proper nutrients. Think of our bodies as a toddler who cries to get their parent’s attention. If the parents ignore the toddler long enough, the toddler with probably scream louder. But if the parents ignore the toddler long enough, the toddler will go quiet. It will learn that parents cannot be relied on to meet their needs, and the toddler with find other, probably less healthy ways, to get their needs met. This is what we do to our bodies when we ignore our natural cues because of food rules or diet-culture beliefs.

When we begin to feed ourselves consistently and reliably, our body slowly rebuilds its ability to let us know when to eat and what to eat; in other words, our bodies begin to heal.

With ADHD it’s a bit different. Individuals with ADHD tend to have lower dopamine levels but high serotonin levels.
Low Dopamine = low hunger cues
High Serotonin = suppressed hunger cues

Therefore, individuals with ADHD typically cannot interpret hunger cues reliably OR they do not experience hunger cues, making it hard to determine what their body needs to function.

ADHD often contributes to eating disorders due to the brain’s dysregulated chemicals. Eating disorder behaviours encourage the brain to release more dopamine and decrease serotonin, making the individual feel more positive and increasing the feeling of control. This chemical change is also the reason ADHD and disordered eating behaviours often co-occur and are so difficult to challenge. If our brains feel better when we restrict, how do we begin to argue with our brains that restricting is not the right answer?

Mechanical Eating

Mechanical eating helps individuals with ADHD learn to eat at structured times of the day vs. waiting to be hungry, it establishes a routine which typically helps the ADHD mind, and it fuels the body so the brain can emotionally regulate more effectively, which is a large part of why the ADHD brain defaults to disordered eating behaviours.

Although it would be nice for intuitive eating to be the end goal, sometimes this is not realistic due to mental or physical health or medications that impact hunger cues. This is why normalizing intuitive eating as being the ‘natural’ option for healthy living is problematic. Some people CANNOT intuitively eat no matter how much they want to, and this is not a character flaw.

Intuitive eating and living an embodied life can be practiced, just like any skill, but it doesn’t need to be the measuring stick that equates to a healthy relationship with your body or food.

What ought to be normalized is eating balanced meals, regularly, by whatever means are available to you. Tips I have found helpful for mechanical eating with ADHD and in general include the following:

  • Setting alarms every 3 hours – this is an auditory reminder and can help if you tend to hyper-fixate on tasks.
  • Set visual reminders on your phone if you worry about an alarm disrupting others.
  • Meal prepping allows you to quickly grab something to eat without having to think about what to make. This normalizes eating regularly if putting together meals is stressful and decreases food guilt.
  • Carrying snacks with you prevents food scarcity thoughts/behaviours, normalizes snacking regularly, and gives choice as to what snacks are comfortable and safe for each person’s needs.

Taking care of yourself should always be the goal of eating disorder recovery and improving well-being. This looks different for everyone because it should look different. Remember a one size-fits-all approach is not the goal of our health and well-being.

Taylor Wark

Taylor Ashley, RP  #11063 is a Registered Psychotherapist at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples and individuals 11yrs and up through anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. Learn more about Taylor here.

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