ADHD and Weight Control:
an Interview with Barbara Luther
Barbara Luther s struggle with her weight began on the Missouri farm where she grew up, and where her mother baked a double batch of chocolate chip cookies and two cakes every day. We were a big farm family, Luther said. We worked hard and ate robustly. In high school her father began to call her fat, and in college she didn t notice the pounds pile on. "I wasn t really paying attention to it," said Luther. "I'm one of those ADDers who lives in her head, and was not paying much attention to my body."
In fact, back then Luther didn t even know that many of her struggles, weight related and otherwise, were due to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, not having been diagnosed with ADHD until age 45. Luther was also not aware, until recently, of the link between ADHD, obesity and eating disorders. More than 60 percent of those seeking medical weight loss help also have ADHD, said Luther, who became an ADHD coach in 1997. The medical field is just beginning to understand this link.
ADHD and Obesity
According to some recent studies, there is a possible link between the gene known to be associated with drug addiction and impulsivity, and ADHD, Luther explained. These studies show a possible connection between ADHD symptoms and adults with obesity and binge eating. Should this be the case, treatments for weight loss would need to be different if the person has ADHD as opposed to just being obese.
You can know quite a bit and still not really understand how it s impacting you, Luther said. We may have thought we understood it, but we didn t grasp the strong connection between the difficulty around impulsivity and weight loss. And yet, proper weight management relies on our ability to control our temptations, Luther pointed out. Lack of self-regulation, poor decision-making, sleep issues and depression& all these can adversely affect someone trying to lose weight.
And eating is self-soothing, added Luther. When the brain is tired or stressed, we don t know what to do to give it support. So, we often get up and get something to eat. We fall into a mindless unhealthy habit. It is the same reason there s a strong correlation between ADHD and alcoholism or drug addiction we impulsively try something new, soothing, or risky. We do it a few times because it is novel or fulfills a need, then we become caught in the addictive habit loop.
Plus, the temptations are so numerous when it comes to food, Luther points out emphatically. You can t drive a mile without seeing fast food signs, and for those with ADHD, self-regulation is very difficult. You may be able to ignore the first few signs, but by the time you see the 10th one, you pull in.
According to Luther, mindfulness also plays a huge role. At least it did for me, she said. On my own personal journey, I had to address mindfulness first. I had to stop and look at what I was eating every day. I wrote down everything that went into my mouth and made sure I weighed myself every day.
That kind of structure is essential, Luther insists. It helped me learn what the signals were. Is that a hunger signal, or an emotional one? Writing it down helped me remember. We resist recording our eating big time. We feel it s a hassle, but it s key that we do it. When I get away from writing down what I eat, thinking I know how to eat now, the weight comes back on, Luther confesses. If I m not writing it down, I can t remember through a day what I ve eaten and then I m off eating too much again.
Luther, who lost 80 pounds before getting married at age 21, has yo-yoed up and down several times since then, always regaining what she lost and then some.
Planning is Essential
Dieting takes so much focus on something that just doesn t seem that important to us ADDers, she said, pointing out how often those with ADD find themselves ravenous with nothing to eat in the house. Food prep and planning menus is boring, and it s no fun to figure out what to purchase if you even get yourself to the grocery store, Luther said.
What did help Luther was learning how to keep certain things in the house for quick meals that she could throw together without a lot of hassle. I had my five favorite breakfasts, lunches, and dinners and could turn to those in a pinch.
About four years ago, when Luther once again lost a considerable amount of weight (over 100 pounds), she said she was tired of feeling awful and at first just started recording what she ate and eating a Mediterranean type diet. I wanted to ease my way into it, Luther said. I didn t want to diet; I wanted to find a plan that I could live with and lose the weight slowly. I never set a bigger goal than 10 pounds.
Begin with Baby Steps
I became really curious, Luther said. After losing the first 10 pounds, then the second, I just started feeling better and wanted to see if I could feel even better.
As she began to lose weight, she felt really good about herself. I was proud of myself, Luther said, and enjoyed my body for the first time since I was a teen. My knees didn t hurt. My back didn t hurt. I started working out after I dropped 50 pounds.
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