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Nutrition and ADHD

by guest writer Julia Washington

In my earlier years of motherhood, I worked and went to school full-time and felt I was failing to provide healthy meals. I was fortunate enough to live near a grocery store, but that store was more expensive than the discount store twenty minutes away. Our small kitchen with minimal storage made buying canned or packaged items with a longer shelf-life difficult. After many attempts to plan, shop, meal-prep and other things, it became clear to me that whatever it was that made a person successful in doing these things, I didn't have.

When I discovered that neurodivergent people, specifically those with ADHD like myself, often struggle with making and eating regular meals in traditional ways, it all finally made sense to me. As a kid, my mother and grandmother never let us go hungry by making three meals and preparing snacks every single day. I felt awful for not being able to follow in their footsteps when it came to this domestic discipline. There was freedom and relief that came when I learned that it wasn't me but rather my brain wiring. There was also hope for me to learn the best ways to provide nutritional meals and snacks for my family, even if it looked different from what I experienced growing up.

"There was freedom and relief that came when I learned that it wasn't me but rather my brain wiring. "

After researching solutions, it became apparent that most nutrition advice was geared towards those who have easy access to grocery stores, are neurotypical, and have some means. Because I was a working single mother, I struggled with feeling defeated by the information I found.

Traditional advice like "Plan your meals and snacks" felt overwhelming. Initially, I thought it was overwhelming because of my limited or different capacity. Still, when I dug deeper, I realized that locating the meal's ingredients in the store was not only stressful but challenging for me to deconstruct the recipe. I also struggled to know what cost-effective snacks to buy that wouldn't leave us groggy and bloated. I hated that I didn't have the magic touch of my mother and grandmother to know and understand instinctively how to bring delicious and healthy meals into my home.

Nutrition is a hurdle for many people. Balancing healthy food choices and everyday life is easier said than done. Many roadblocks can get in the way of nourishing one's body, especially if you have a demanding lifestyle or are living with ADHD. In my case, I had both.

When it became clear that traditional tips wouldn't work for me, I needed to figure out what would. I tend to hyper-focus on my work resulting in time blindness. So I needed to figure out how to work with this rather than ultimately change who I am and cause conflict with my given strengths.

Grabbing on-the-go meals or snacks or making quick, impulsive decisions when experiencing hunger is a recipe for disaster. Still, there are some things you can do to ensure you're being proactive for your daily and long-term nutritional health.

Over the years, I have had to modify traditional tips so they work for me, enabling me to make good choices for myself and my family. All too often, well-intentioned individuals don't always understand what it's like living with ADHD. So they offer tips that appear as easy solutions but have proven for me to be difficult to navigate.

If you're like me, getting distracted happens often, and the next thing I realize, it's 3 p.m., and I haven't eaten anything. Starving and cranky, I get into my car and drive to the nearest drive-through because I can't make one more decision. I can't focus on cooking what's in my refrigerator, and my hyper-focus to eat kicks in because I am hungry and agitated. I know that if I pull into my local golden arches, I can order a number seven and snack on some fries on the drive home, which satisfies my hunger immediately. The downside is the inevitable physical icky feeling afterward and the following energy crash, sending me into a spiral all over again.

Once I realized this was unsustainable and destructive for my physical and emotional health, I was determined to find solutions that worked for me.

Please know that these tips do not replace speaking with your doctor or a registered dietician nutritionist. If you suspect you are living with undiagnosed ADHD, talk to a professional who can help you seek an assessment.

The following tips are just some ways I've learned to co-exist with ADHD successfully.

Tip Number One: Simplify and Automate

Before doing anything else in the morning, make breakfast and automate it.

I knew that if I didn't eat breakfast, I would be hungry by noon, and by 2:00, I would be cranky, agitated, and unable to focus. Because I am not a morning person, the frantic morning rush can consume me. I firmly believe that if the sun's asleep, I should be sleeping too, but that's not how the world works. Because I know I struggle with the demands of the morning hours, I set several alarms to help me get out of bed to make breakfast.

When I say "automate it," I mean I chose something easy to make daily and know I won't grow tired of eating. Something simple with few ingredients, so I don't have to think too hard about prep or cook time.

Tip Number Two: "Do Not Disturb"

Put your phone on "Do Not Disturb" when preparing food.

After years of finding cold food in the microwave, leaving the oven on with no food, or half-chopped vegetables on the cutting board, I needed to find a way to make it stop. It was not just social media notifications that were an interruption for me. Text messages from friends or family members would pull me away from my task, leading me down the never-ending path of distraction. My dad would ask me if he had left something at my house. I locate the missing item. Walking back to the kitchen, I see something else that needs to be addressed; maybe the blankets on the couch are askew. I fix those, then notice the plant looks a little sad. I water the plant, only to see there's a stack of books misplaced, so I put them back where they belong, then discover the dog's water bowl is empty, so I refill that, finding my hairbrush on the bookcase next to the dog's bowls, so I return that to where it belongs and on and on. And by the time I'm back in the kitchen, it's been two hours, and now I'm too hungry and cranky to cook or decide what to do.

Which triggers, "Go to the drive-through and just order soup."

Putting my phone on "Do Not Disturb" while I cook creates the space to focus on the task at hand.

Tip Number Three: Surviving the Grocery Store

One piece of advice I repeatedly received over the years was how I needed to meal prep. For me, this isn't sustainable. I won't spend 4 hours on a Sunday preparing the same meal for lunch to eat Monday-Friday. I will grow bored of this or worse, won't buy enough food to make it last five days.

Plus, extensive grocery shopping can be a bit overwhelming for me. My family is small, just two people, and American pre-packaged food products cater to large families.

I also know I need to incorporate fruits and vegetables into my diet, but the prep work involved in getting produce ready for consumption is one of my least favorite and most aggravating tasks. My favorite fruits are the most frustrating to prepare, which causes the entire process to feel like a defeat before I even begin.

I knew I needed to find a solution that worked for my family and wouldn't break the budget. In my mind, food waste is part of breaking the budget. When food goes bad in my refrigerator, I only think about how I could have used that money elsewhere.

When I shop at the grocery store, I come prepared with a list like most people, but that doesn't mean the grocery store isn't overwhelming. Having to deconstruct meals into ingredients and knowing the right amount to purchase is something my brain refuses to do, even with a recipe in hand.

Over the years, I have discovered what works best for me. My list for the store is non-traditional. I list what I need for breakfast, which is never more than two ingredients. Two ingredients are easy for me to remember. The main thing on my list is "check the prepared foods section." My local grocery store offers pre-cut fruits, vegetables, sandwiches, salads, and even full meals. This convenience has been a game-changer for my family and me. And because these premade meals and snacks are prepared fresh daily, I know I am getting quality ingredients. These pre-packaged items are priced by weight, so I look for the lowest cost, which helps the budget. Purchasing pre-packaged serving-size items is another way I know I am buying the right amount of food, eliminating waste.

By the end of my workday, my executive functioning is in "low-power" mode, and deciding what to eat for dinner can be overwhelming.

Tip Number Four: No Guess Work

My solution for dinner is subscribing to a meal kit service. A specialty service such as this isn't for everyone, as many services can be expensive. Still, because my household is a family of two, it is a good fit that reduces food prep time and waste and costs about the same as ordering a meal from a restaurant. Each meal comes with a vegetable and is restaurant-quality food. By the end of my workday, my executive functioning is in "low-power" mode, and deciding what to eat for dinner can be overwhelming. The meal kit makes dinner easy. All we have to decide is which kit to make. Everything you need is in the bag, including the prep instructions. The portions in these kits are perfect, so I am not risking over or under-eating.

When I switched to these techniques, I also had to make other changes to the household budget to make it work, but I knew it would benefit us in the long run.

March is National Nutrition Month, first celebrated as a week in 1973 to bring awareness to the benefits of healthy foods. Since then, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has provided resources and community outreach to ensure people know and understand the importance of nutritious meals.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers some great advice, and to learn more about this year's theme and information, you can visit their website

As I mentioned, if you have concerns about your eating, nutritional needs, and food sources or feel you may have undiagnosed ADHD, it's important to speak to your doctor about resources and support. If you are a member of VirtuALZ, you can contact your care navigator about resources and how VirtuALZ can support you.


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