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Is Food Variety Important and Possible with a Neurodivergent Brain?

 

Are nutritional guidelines helpful for everyone?

Dietary variety (eating lots of different foods from all the different food groups) has long been considered a pillar of “good nutrition”. Blanket dietary recommendations like this are intended to support the greater population, but when these guidelines are solely focused on nutrients and physiological health, many groups of people get overlooked, left out, and placed in a disadvantaged position where health and wellness (when measured by whether or not a person is meeting a given recommendation) are essentially out of reach. And when these folx continue to chase after an impossible standard, other aspects of health (mental, emotional, relational, financial, etc.) suffer… and that isn’t really supportive of health at all. 

 

When we talk about health, instead of trying to fit everyone into one box, we need to consider and understand what is REALISTIC, CONTEXTUAL, ACCESSIBLE, POSSIBLE, and SUSTAINABLE, and we need to recognize that these factors are going to be different for everyone. 

 

For many neurodivergent’s, (one of many marginalized identities that isn’t considered within these one-size-fits all guidelines), the constant struggle of trying to fit into the boxes of what is “right”, “good”, or “responsible”, when it comes to food and nutrition (among other things), often leads to stress, guilt, shame, a sense of failure, and in some cases, even disordered eating. This isn’t because ADHDers, Autistics, and other neurodivergent folx aren’t working hard enough or aren’t motivated enough. Actually, it is because nutrition “standards” are meant for neurotypical brains and require high levels of executive functioning

 

So what do we do about this? Well, as a neurodivergent-affirming, intuitive-eating dietitian, I like to encourage my clients to get curious about what might be lacking or missing from the guidelines and then decide if and when the information (rather than the “rule”) embedded in these nutrition “standards” can be helpful, neutral, or possibly even harmful for them. 

 

Why is it so hard to eat a variety of foods with a neurodivergent brain?

As an example, let’s go back to that commonly known nutrition advice that we must eat a wide VARIETY of foods from each food group in order to be “healthy”. This guideline doesn’t take into consideration that eating a wide variety of foods may not always (or even sometimes) be all that realistic, contextual, accessible, possible, and/or sustainable for someone with decreased executive dysfunction. Hello internalized ableism!

 

Here is a list of some common characteristics / experiences related to executive dysfunction that might provide more insight into the difficulties of eating a variety of foods with a neurodivergent brain:

 

  • Hyper-sensitivity can result in high sensitivity and aversions or preferences toward specific tastes, textures, and mouthfeel of foods. Meals and snacks can end up more bland or are made up of “simple” foods which get repeated frequently.

 

  • The increased need for stimulation (dopamine hit) can lead to seeking out bold, intense, or complex tastes, textures, and mouthfeel of foods. Under-stimulating foods have the potential to feel boring and uninteresting which can limit options.

 

  • A desire for familiarity can come from a desire to just reduce steps, and make things easier. Repetition (daily, weekly, seasonally, situationally) of familiar and easy foods means fewer choices (preventing decision-fatigue), and less risk for overwhelm (avoiding analysis-paralysis), fewer steps or things to think about (reducing procrastination), and lowering the risk of disappointment (regulating emotions).

 

  • Novelty seeking can turn into hyper-fixation on one or a few specific foods that are interesting and enjoyable. This is because novelty activates dopamine and serotonin (neurotransmitters associated with ADHD) to stimulate the reward center in the brain (which is often under-stimulated), which makes us feel good. Neurodivergent folx will become fixated on a food that is known to be pleasurable (rather than risk disappointment or a less rewarding experience), but eventually, the reward wears off and that food can suddenly feel uninteresting, or even disgusting. 

 

 

Ok, so what’s the big buzz about variety, anyway? 

The benefits of eating a variety of foods boils down to two main things - nutrition profile and supporting the digestive tract. Basically, the more variety of foods and food groups you consume, the greater your potential for expanding your nutritional profile and meeting all your nutrient needs, specifically on a micronutrient level (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients). Eating a variety of foods will maintain the muscles of the digestive tract and can encourage things to move along at an appropriate (and hopefully comfortable) rate. Also, the greater diversity of intake, the higher your chances are for feeding and multiplying all of the different types of beneficial gut bacteria.

So yes, variety most certainly has its benefits

 

 

But does that mean less variety is “bad”?

Not so fast. We have to remember that for the majority of history, humans haven’t had the access to a variety of foods at all times, like many of us do now. Historically, it was common to eat foods that were accessible and easy to find within a given region of the world, when they were available. For example, the traditional diet of Arctic people was limited to fish, seal, whale, caribou, and waterfowl, and with cold temperatures and short summers, fruit and vegetables were sparse to non-existent. While this diet would not be considered nutritionally diverse (read: not an example of “eating the rainbow”), dietary patterns like this have been sustaining lives for many thousands of years. Our ancestors endured because they habitually ate (and even enjoyed) the same types of foods from season to season, year after year. Aiming for anything else would have risked their survival. 

 

 Why does any of this matter? It is a very simple example of why the rationale behind encouraging or pursuing variety may be beneficial for some, but isn’t always a helpful, or even health-promoting goal for everyone. At Wise Heart Nutrition, we like to say that it is important to invite both compassion and nuance into consideration when talking about food and eating experiences of neurodivergent folx. Yes, eating a variety of foods can be valuable and supportive of nutritional health, but only if someone is ready, and has the skills, resources, and capacity to do so, and if it doesn’t lead to the detriment of other aspects of health and wellbeing. And if they aren’t there yet, or even if they never land there… that’s ok too! 

 

It feels important to note that if someone is truly not getting enough variety, the body is both incredibly wise and impressively resilient. Most often, it will ask for (and actually even demand) what it needs. This is part of why we have cravings. And, if those needs aren’t met, the body will continue to do its job of pushing us towards what will help us survive. We are biologically wired to eventually seek out the variety that our bodies require.  

 

It is also true that extremely limited food choices can lead to nutrient deficiencies and impact health. Nutrient deficiencies do occur, but are most often due to likely elimination of an entire food group (for example not eating ANY grains) or if there is another underlying physiological cause (such as Celiac disease), or in cases of significant overall malnutrition from not eating enough in general. If you are concerned about possible nutrient deficiencies, please seek out the support of a medical professional for proper assessment and treatment. 

 

What can YOU do with all of this information?


If you find yourself struggling with food variety, it might be helpful to zoom out and evaluate:

1) if you are eating consistently throughout the day (at least every 3-4 hours)

2) if you are eating enough (both honoring hunger and allowing for fullness) most days

When these 2 basic food needs are met, it can be easier to focus more on variety without feeling overwhelmed. Establishing this foundation will help your body learn to trust that it will be fed reliably and abundantly before you experiment with mixing up the types of food you are choosing.

 

If you are ready, and you WANT to increase variety in your diet (vs feeling like you SHOULD), but don’t know where to start - here are some neurodivergent-friendly tips: 

  • Keep doing what already works for you, but spice it up! Continue to enjoy your ole’ reliable foods, but try changing out or adding in a new spice, or some herbs. It’s easy to forget about the micronutrients packed into those small packages, but they absolutely count! 
  • Rather than feeling like you have to reinvent the wheel, what if you could take a side-step? For example, if you enjoy broccoli, you may be able to tolerate cauliflower; if you like peaches you may also like plums. Always make your adult lunchables with turkey and havarti? Swap in some salami! Exploring different foods with either similar textures or flavors, or within the same food group may feel easier and more approachable. 
  • Finally, pair familiar foods with something new. This can be accomplished at home by adding a new food to an existing meal (like adding some sliced tomatoes as a side to your mac and cheese). Or perhaps explore at a restaurant by ordering novel appetizers along with your favorite dish, or sharing small plates (including one you know you like) with friends as a way to try new foods together.  

 

 

TL;DR :)

  • Blanket nutrition recommendations are not always realistic, contextual, accessible, possible, and/or sustainable for someone who is neurodivergent, and has decreased executive dysfunction (or someone who has other marginalized identities).
  • While having variety in your diet can provide some great benefits, it is not always going to be the most helpful or health-promoting thing to focus on.
  •  Variety is a component of Gentle Nutrition, but not a requirement for being able to practice Gentle Nutrition.
  • The basic needs that make up the foundation for feeding yourself as a neurodivergent person are eating enough food, eating consistently, and eating in a way that accommodates your unique sensory and executive function needs.
  • Instead of trying to fit into one-size-fits-few guidelines, give yourself permission to investigate and maybe even throw out some/many of the tropes about “normal” eating that weren’t crafted with your brain in mind.
  • When exploring your relationship with food and eating, always invite compassion and curiosity to your table. 

 

 

At Wise Heart Nutrition, we specialize in working with neurodivergent clients! If you are struggling we are here to support you in better understanding your brain and healing your relationship with food / eating so that you can feel less of the chaos, overwhelm, shame, and exhaustion, and discover the confidence, freedom, and peace that you deserve in your life! We offer a FREE 15-minute discovery call, which you can book here, by clicking the links on our provider information page.  

You can also join our amazing Intuitive Eating with ADHD™ Facebook group for additional community and support! *Be sure to answer ALL the required membership questions and read/agree to the group rules!*

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