Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder— a form of neurodivergence characterized by a shift in how the brain thinks and processes information. People with ADHD often experience an ongoing pattern of inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity that interferes with their ability to function.
Dancers with ADHD can experience a variety of challenges in the studio. When considering the parameters from The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), dancers might struggle with:
- Maintaining the focus needed to complete a class.
- Missing entire meals or snacks due to a lack of focus in the kitchen.
- Becoming easily distracted when trying to learn.
- Forgetting to eat or pack snacks
- Retaining choreography
- Excessive fidgeting, movement, or talking in classes and rehearsals
- Feelings of restlessness
- Self-control— acting without thinking
- The need for immediate gratification
- Overthinking foods
- Fixating on specific foods or food rules
Eating challenges for dancers with ADHD
Many generalized nutrition recommendations are not applicable to those with ADHD. Several personality traits also challenge a dancer’s ability to implement suggestions like getting in a variety of foods, planning ahead, and using nutrition information to make informed mealtime decisions. Common obstacles that impede a dancer’s ability to fuel include:
Difficulty with remembering to eat can result in dancers going extended periods between meals. Even dancers without ADHD often experience a diminishment of hunger cues from their busy and physically demanding schedules. Forgetting to eat a meal or snack means missing opportunities to offer the nourishment needed to replenish energy and support muscle recovery.
Though a classic trait of ADHD is inattentiveness (the inability to focus on a single task), hyperfixation is also a common presentation. Hyperfixation involves spending an intense amount of focus on one activity (or subject). According to The Attention Deficit Disorder Association, hyperfixation can leave some feeling “oblivious to the passing of time” and even “disoriented” when brought back to reality. Hyperfixation can contribute to a dancer forgetting to eat, exacerbating appetite dysregulation.
Hyperfixation can also be present as an intense and prolonged preoccupation with a specific food or food group, usually one that is preferred and familiar. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat foods that are preferred, avoiding other foods in fear of mealtime disappointment can lead to food jags that risk calorie and/or nutrient deficiencies. Food jags can also lead to an extreme dislike or aversion to those once-loved foods.
#3: Hypersensitivity and Sensory Overload
Hypersensitivity can drive experiences of picky eating in dancers with ADHD. On one end are extreme food aversions that limit a dancer’s ability to get in a variety of food groups— more bland and easily digestible foods tend to be preferred. Difficulty with mixing foods and trying new foods can contribute to an overall limited meal plan and drive frustrations when preferred foods are not accessible.
On the other end, however, is the need for immediate gratification and stimulation. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we perceive gratification and reward. Under normal conditions, a surge of dopamine occurs at the onset of a pleasurable experience like listening to music, laughing, and even eating. A suspected dopamine deficiency in the brain of those with ADHD might explain the propensity to fixate on pleasurable foods and even novel eating experiences. In this realm, stronger flavors and texture complexity might be preferred, along with an over-reliance on snack-type foods (compare the difference between eating one larger chocolate bar to the novelty of eating a variety of smaller “fun-sized” bars).
Similar to forgetfulness, disorganization can make it difficult to plan ahead for long dance days. The effort to build, store, and pack balanced snacks can become overwhelming.
Nutrition for Dancers with ADHD
Dancers are navigating a culture that sets the stage for disordered eating— and the challenges of ADHD can fan the flames of it. Working with a board-certified dietitian is encouraged, especially because many diety “tips” that supposedly help to treat ADHD symptoms can make things worse (ie. “clean” eating). To get you started, here are 5 tips for building supportive mealtime habits as you navigate dance with ADHD.
#1: Create a nourishment calendar
A key tenet of The Healthy Dancer®, whether diagnosed with ADHD or not, is nourishment. Nourishment can come in a variety of ways— food, rest, and mindfulness are just a few. But as mentioned earlier, basic nourishment can be hard for those with ADHD. Forgetting to eat, becoming overly fixated on a task, or feeling overwhelmed in the kitchen are a few reasons why.
Additionally, planning ahead can create overwhelm and ultimately, not happen. From my experience, relying on memory isn’t enough. Create a nourishment calendar, specifically with a phone. This comes with the added benefit of reminder pings, those of which can be synced across devices. When you’re at the studio, a “snack-time!” reminder can ping mid-rehearsal. Proactive fueling means honoring practical hunger and in some instances, prioritizing it over physical hunger. Your eating routine will make up a large part of your nourishment calendar. Here’s a great resource to learn more about honoring your basic needs and what else might be added to your nourishment calendar. Additional tasks to add might include time blocks for grocery shopping and meal prep.
#2: Reinvent an eating environment that works for you
For neurotypical dancers, mindful eating is a helpful practice that involves eating slowly, savoring the tastes and flavors of food, and avoiding distractions like screens during meals. But for those with forms of neurodivergence like ADHD, mindful eating might not always be an accessible option. For some, extra stimulation at meals may help to better support interoceptive awareness— particularly in sensing feelings of fullness. For others, overstimulation can lead to challenges with identifying and honoring appetite cues. Like all aspects of The Healthy Dancer®, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Exploration and self-discovery are fundamental to determining what works best for you. Consider ways in which you can explore feelings of interoceptive awareness (hunger, fullness, and satisfaction). Defining a comfortable level of fullness may take time. Starting with pre-portioned foods can help to ease the overwhelm. When time is available, create opportunities to take planned breaks throughout your meal. Building a journaling practice can help in this work.
#3: Get playful with food variety
An over-reliance on familiar foods might be mistaken for picky eating among dancers with ADHD. However, the reasons for choosing those foods might be to offer comfort, stimulation, and ease from mealtime overwhelm.
Since eating a variety of foods provides the body with a broader spectrum of nutrients, and, diets that lack variety risk deficiencies, it’s helpful to consider ways to expand youe menu. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Add one new food to a familiar meal. For example, if you typically eat bagels with butter, try adding a smear of cream cheese. If you eat typically cereal with milk, consider using your cereal as a topping for whole-milk yogurt.
- Try a new version of a familiar food. For example, if you typically eat potato chips, try salty oven-roasted potatoes. Eventually, you may feel comfortable transitioning to an entirely different potato or vegetable with similar consistency (ie. winter squash).
#4: Rely on nutrition without obsession
Like with all dancers, nutrition information is meant to support you, not overwhelm you. Dancers with ADHD can utilize nutrition without obsession, a core value of The Healthy Dancer® in learning about how food can support energy, enhance endurance, promote heart health, sharpen mental clarity, and more.
Maintaining a regular eating schedule— a meal or snack every 2-4 hours will help to stabilize energy, sustain attention, and prevent the onset of blood sugar spikes. Building balanced meals and snacks— those with a combination of complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats is another key element. Complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, provide a steady release of energy, helping to maintain focus during practice and performances. Protein-rich snacks can help dancers with ADHD maintain energy levels throughout the day. Nuts, yogurt, and hummus are excellent additions.
#5: Lean into additional resources
Neurodivergence adds unique challenges for dancers. Dancers with ADHD can be susceptible to feelings of shame and guilt when unrealistic expectations are not met. As an example, commonly eating past fullness isn’t a result of failed willpower, but rather, the need to make up for a previous caloric deficit from extended periods without a meal. Or, falling into noshing or grazing behaviors for comfort and reward. Because of this, an individualized and compassionate approach is non-negotiable. Dancers with ADHD might also be prone to feelings of shame if and when struggling to implement such tips.
Support can help if the above continues to feel unattainable and overwhelming. The Attention Deficit Disorder Association offers a wealth of knowledge for those looking to learn more about diagnosis and the helpful role of medical management for ADHD. Wise Heart Nutrition is a team of dietitians focusing on supporting patients with ADHD. Click here to check out their website and resources. Rebecca King is another great resource I recommend. Last, relying on education from credible sources, such as from a licensed mental health practitioner will be invaluable.