The Neurodivergent Relationship With Food

A woman sits at table full of food, uninterested in eating. Large dinners can be overwhelming for neurodivergent people and make it difficult to eat.

The holiday season is upon us which means: food. Especially if you’re Jewish. There are delicious things everywhere and longed-for seasonal sweets. The holiday season often brings with it large gatherings which can be more of a mixed bag for the neurospicy folk. Not only can such gatherings be loud and full of other sensory challenges, but they can also put a further strain on the neurodivergent relationship with food.

I have a very mixed relationship with food. Sometimes I look forward to eating and can get into a good structure of making meals I like. Other times I resent having to eat at all. That can be for a variety of reasons too. For me, texture is the biggest issue. If you ask me what I want to eat, I first think “What texture sounds good right now?” Too often, every texture I think of sounds terrible and suddenly nothing sounds good. However, if you just put food in front of me, I will probably eat it and usually that goes well. Other times, even safe foods can just turn into mush in my mouth and I can barely swallow it. Occasional gagging can be involved. Yes, I am grown but there are times my husband sees my face and holds a napkin out for me.

The Neurodivergent Struggle to Eat

There can be a number of reasons behind the struggle that is the neurodivergent relationship with food. Sensory issues are a big factor. I already mentioned texture being problematic but other sensory struggles with food can be how it smells or the sounds it makes while you’re chewing.

Food can also just be overwhelming. It requires a lot of decision-making and executive function skills to properly feed yourself. You’ve got to decide what you want to eat for the week. Figure out what you have already versus what you need. You’ve got to get to the store, the feeding grounds of the decision-exhaustion demon. Then you have food that needs to be put away; produce that needs to be washed. And then you need to hope for the best that the food you bought is the food you actually want to eat throughout the week.

Then, once the food is home, washed, and stored, you still have to make it. Only, making it is its own nightmare of steps that can be hard for the neurodivergent brain to follow. Better hope it comes out the texture you thought it would so it’s eatable! Finally, after all of that, you have a mess to clean and dishes to do now.

Thanks, I’d rather starve.

Autism and Eating Disorders

And that’s exactly why I’m talking about the neurodivergent relationship with food. Research has consistently found that people with autism have higher rates of anorexia. So often when we think of anorexia, we think of self-esteem issues, body dysmorphia, or an obsession with thinness. Many of us grew up hearing it was a control issue. Theoretically, I understood this but it didn’t seem to apply to my relationship with food when I know I’m not eating enough. Only once I read Autism in Heels did I start to understand my own neurodivergent relationship with food.

To clarify, I don’t mean to imply that it’s only related to control. Autism can also make it difficult for us to notice when we’re hungry and what those symptoms look like. This can get misinterpreted by the neurodivergent brain as anxiety and lead to heavy amounts of anxiety related to food. Per everything with the spectrum and co-occurring conditions, it’s complex.

I don’t want this post to be a triggering one so I’m not going to go into details about my shifting relationship with food over the years. A post for another time maybe, but for this post I’m just focusing on spreading awareness so here are some facts for you:

  • Individuals with autism can be up to 5 times more likely to develop an ED (Eating Disorder) than neurotypicals
  • Up to 20-35% of women with anorexia fit the diagnostic criteria for ASD
  • Anorexia is the most researched but all eating disorders (bulimia, binge eating, pica, ARFID, and more) occur in people with ASD
  • Routines and rituals, interoception factors, and alexithymia can all be factors
  • ED treatment designed for non-autistics is ineffective for people with autism so accurate framework is vital for receiving proper treatment

ADHD and Eating Disorders

ADHD also contributes to the problematic neurodivergent relationship with food. Notorious for our lack of impulse control, it’s easy to see how that can impact our diet choices. Our brains struggle to follow directions and put together the steps required to do something. We have to make a shopping list because if we don’t we’ll buy things we already have and a bunch of random shit. Then we get home and realize we now have doubles (and occasionally triples) of things and still have nothing to make for dinner. Cooking (and then cleaning) can be overwhelming, especially after a day of trying to function like a human. I’ll confess, there are nights I eat chips for dinner. I maintain it’s better than not eating dinner.

Research has found that people with ADHD are at greater risk for developing bulimia or binge eating disorder than people without ADHD. Many of us use snacks as a way to dopamine chase. For some, it’s while sitting on the couch bingeing both Netflix and snacks. Others sniff out the serotonin and stop at multiple tasty places on their way home. This can lead to intense cycles of shame, anxiety, and self-loathing that further fuel the urge to seek dopamine in reliably tasty treats. Beyond battles with impulse control, ADHD also impacts our ability to register feelings of hunger or being full. Many of us will forget to eat all day and then binge throughout the evening. Now to fill your neurodivergent relationship with food fact-bank, here are some facts about ADHD and eating disorders:

  • Girls with ADHD are almost 4 times as likely to have an ED than girls without ADHD
  • Information about portion sizes and healthy food are often presented in ways that overwhelm the ADHD brain which just increases stress that can trigger bingeing
  • Medications for ADHD often decrease appetite which can further impact disordered eating habits
  • ADHD is the most commonly missed diagnosis when treating eating disorders

Why It’s Important to Talk About the Neurodivergent Relationship With Food

Considering the high rates of co-occurrence between autism, ADHD, and eating disorders, it’s crucial to increase awareness. When a child is diagnosed with autism, most parents will start worrying about if their child will only have one safe food. None of them are warned to look out for possible eating disorders. And yes, they are prevalent in neurodivergent children as well as adults.

Think of how many women are just now being diagnosed with adult autism or ADHD in their 30s (guilty.) Statistically, most of them will have struggled with food in a variety of ways throughout their life. Worse is the fact that around a quarter of them likely struggled with a diagnosed eating disorder and received inappropriate treatment. If up to 20% of people with anorexia are autistic, how many autistic women over the last century have died from eating disorders because they were provided with the wrong treatment? It’s heartbreaking to think about. How many neurodivergent women today are using neurotypical framework while trying to improve their relationship with food, only to end up in another self-hating cycle? A cycle that can only increase our stress levels and make our neurospicy brains even spicier?

It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Your brain literally doesn’t fit in their brain, so stop trying to make it fit.

Getting Help For a Difficult Neurodivergent Relationship With Food

Sometimes, having the framework can make all the difference. Once you understand why you’re reacting to something the way you are, you’re more prepared to work with yourself instead of being in a constant internal battle. We’re neurospicy, we have enough internal battles to deal with so let’s try not to pile on. Journaling out your feelings when you find yourself resisting a meal or resenting food can be a good place to start. Setting timers and holding to an eating schedule can also be helpful. Try finding a meal prep plan that’s feasible for both your schedule and your weird (but lovable) brain. But most importantly, remember that this isn’t something you have to do alone.

Few people can work through such issues with sheer willpower. I have friends who are active in support groups that they’ve found helpful. Different therapies have been proven to help, especially if therapy is provided within an accurate neurodivergent framework.

Hotlines and resources vary widely depending on where you live, but if this post resonated with you and you don’t know where to start, send me an email! I’ll help you find hotlines, resources, and support groups.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply