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How Do I Know if I’m Actually HUNGRY🍕, or Just Seeking DOPAMINE🧠?


This is the new-age old question. 


Here are some of the questions we frequently get asked by clients and members of our Eating with ADHD® Neurished community:


“Shouldn’t I just KNOW when I’m hungry?”

“Why can’t I tell the difference between hunger and seeking dopamine?” 

“Isn’t it ‘bad’ to use food for a dopamine hit, if I am not hungry?”  


Does some of this brain chatter sound familiar to you? Want some answers? Read on!!


Bringing awareness to, interpreting, and responding to our internal cues (which include both hunger and a need for dopamine) takes time and practice to learn and feel comfortable with, especially for those of us living with ADHD. 


ADHD Brains are Different  

As neurodivergent humans, we tend to have…

  • 🧠 Lower Interoceptive Awareness 

    • Difficulty recognizing and understanding the sensations going on inside of us that communicate what our bodies need in any given moment - this includes hunger, thirst, needing dopamine or stimulation, feeling emotions, and even having to pee! 
  • 🧠 Less Reward Center Activation

    • Reduced activity and availability of the neurotransmitter dopamine (which stimulates the reward center) in our brains to help regulate mood, motivation, pleasure, and attention. In addition, activation of our reward centers actually requires MORE stimulation than neurotypical brains, which feels a bit ironic, given the lack of dopamine available to make this happen.


Neurological differences mean that executive dysfunction is REAL for our neurospicy brains! Compared to our neurotypical friends, ADHDers internal needs and cues are not always as obvious or clear-cut, AND we NEED those extra sources of dopamine and stimulation, which can be easily accessed through food. 


Because our brains function differently than many other brains out in the world, it can be hard to find non-diet and weight-inclusive resources, info, and support for navigating life and eating with ADHD. In fact, you may have found that the typical advice and standard approaches to eating “intuitively”, being “mindful”, or building body awareness have left you feeling more confused, misunderstood, and maybe even sent  you  down that dreaded spiral of shame.


But LUCKY YOU! You have come to the right place to answer this new-age old question: am I hungry or seeking dopamine? 


Hungry With ADHD 

🌀“I don’t feel hungry…doesn’t that mean I’m not hungry?”🌀

You might be familiar with the most commonly talked about hunger cues, which, for many neurotypical folx, can be easily noticed when the body needs food.

  • The cartoon-like stomach rumbles
  • The “hangry” snappy mood shifts

…but for those of us with attunement to body cues, or interoceptive awareness, our inner-world clues can easily go unnoticed and/or unattended to when we’re hungry. This means that ADHDers can benefit from having a larger library of these cues, which provides more opportunities for our bodies to get our attention.  


There are many body cues that point towards empty on our hunger-odometer that signals the need for nourishment. Some additional hunger cues (that might be easier for ADHDers to notice) can look like…

  • Low energy
  • Poor concentration or focus 
  • Inattention 
  • Shakiness
  • Weird taste in the mouth
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability or frustration


ALSO! The higher the intensity of hunger, the louder (and usually more uncomfortable) the cue becomes!

Becoming familiar with, observing (with curiosity), and prioritizing your relationship with your own hunger cues, can provide helpful insight and data about your in-the-moment hunger needs. That information will help you determine how best to respond and attend to your body.

Want to know more about what  else gets in the way of noticing hunger cues? We have some amazing learning opportunities available for you in our Neurished Membership

  • Hunger and Fullness Cues workshop replay (and workbook)
  • Eating with ADHD® Foundations course lesson: Exploring Hunger


The ADHD Hunger Check

🌀“I feel some of these cues, but what if it’s not actually hunger?”🌀

While these cues can be an indication of hunger, feeling them doesn’t ALWAYS mean that you are hungry. There are other reasons you might feel tired or irritable, but checking in with hunger is always a great place to start. We recommend doing a quick hunger check when you notice even the most subtle potential hunger cues. 

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you get closer to knowing if your body (and brain) need fuel:


  • Has it been >4 hours since I’ve eaten?


      • If yes → you are likely hungry and need to eat


  • Did I skip any meals or snacks earlier in the day?


      • If yes → you are probably hungry and would likely benefit from eating


  • Did I feel full and satiated when I last ate something?


      • If no → you are probably hungry and would likely benefit from eating


  • Are there reasons I might need some extra fuel today (more movement, cold weather, working your brain extra hard, didn’t eat enough yesterday, etc.)?


    • If yes →  you are probably hungry and would likely benefit from eating


REMEMBER: There is no perfect formula, no "yes or no", "right or wrong" way when it comes to our determining our hunger… it’s all about noticing, getting curious, and doing some experimentation, and then noticing what happens in order to gather more info for the future. It’s kind of like a science project, and there is no way to “fail” at it. Self-compassion is key in this process! 💜


Ok. So what does it mean if you determine that you are not in fact experiencing cellular hunger, but you keep finding yourself reaching into the bag of potato chips for just a few more? 


There are many reasons this could be happening, but the one we are going to dive into here is dopamine seeking.


Seeking Dopamine Through Food and Eating

🌀“Okay. I checked in & I’m not hungry, but I’m still eating. WTF!?”🌀

Again, ADHDers often intentionally seek out sources of enjoyment & stimulation because our brains have lower levels of dopamine available and fewer transporters to move that dopamine where it needs to go. 


Rewarding activities, experiences, sensations, foods, substances, etc. can help boost our dopamine levels, and this activates the reward center in the brain, which results in feeling more focused, motivated, and relaxed. 

Our voyage to find dopamine can be a conscious or unconscious way of attempting to self-regulate and alleviate some of our less sexy symptoms of ADHD. 

Read: Dopamine seeking is an effective and necessary strategy/tool for ADHDers! 

And for many of us, food/eating can be an accessible and reliable source of stimulation and dopamine. At Wise Heart Nutrition, we believe that stimming (and more specifically, eating food for stimulation) is a useful tool for emotional regulation and dopamine activation. 


So let’s make one point clear here…


🔊🔊🔊 Even if you’re not physiologically hungry, turning to food in order to get that quick and easy hit of dopamine is still PERFECTLY OKAY/NORMAL/ACCEPTABLE/ALLOWABLE/VALID


Honor Your Dopa-Needs

🌀“Can I use food to fuel my body AND get more dopamine?”🌀

Finding ways to stimulate dopamine through our eating experiences can actually be an incredibly helpful tool for ADHDers. Here are some quick and easy ways to harness some extra dopamine from food next time you need it:

FOODS THAT PACK A PUNCH are going to provide more dopamine:

  • Foods that are sour or spicy get our taste buds stimulated
  • Crunchy foods provide a lot of sensory experience
  • Novel foods, or foods that aren't available all the time (like the little Cadbury eggs that are only sold in the Spring) are exciting and rewarding. 


As adults, we are taught that it's rude to play with our food.  But ADHDers get a lot of dopamine from ENGAGING MORE ACTIVELY WITH OUR FOOD

  • String cheese is way more fun to eat than just a block of cheese 
  • It's entertaining to throw cashews in the air and see how many in a row you can catch in your mouth 
  • It's interesting to construct and combine foods on our own, like when we eat a charcuterie board or "adult lunchables"
  • Even arranging food in a pleasing way on the plate, or adding some fun garnishes can up the dopamine hit


And of course, HOW AND WHERE YOU EAT matters too. Maybe you skip lunch because who wants to sit at a boring table and eat a PB&J alone in silence? Not me! But you might get some extra joy and dopamine when you… 

  • Take that PB&J on a walk around the block in the sunshine
  • Eat it with a friend, a fun coworker, or a loved one
  • Watch the latest episode of Great British Baking Show while you eat

🌀“But what if I don’t want to always rely on food for dopamine?”🌀


Food is a tool, and we believe no toolbox is complete without a handy collection of other gizmos and gadgets (in addition to food) to move us back into balance.


A favorite tool that we like to share with our clients and Neurished Members is the mighty Dopamine Menu which we blogged about a few months back. 


If you want to get better acquainted with the concept of radical permission around food and eating, check out our Is it Ok to Use Food to Cope with Emotion?” blog from back in the day. 


Better yet, share your experience navigating this new-age old question with other ADHDers who are also working on figuring this food stuff out! Chat and connect with a wonderful community of folx that GET IT, and be part of a safe space where tools and experiences are shared and celebrated in our Neurished Membership!!

TLDR; What’s The Take Away?


The truth is, Eating with ADHD® involves an ongoing learning process of getting to know and bringing awareness to our internal cues, especially regarding hunger and dopamine needs. And because ADHDers struggle with interoceptive awareness, these cues can be less obvious, or feel unclear. And our higher need for dopamine and stimulation can make all of this feel even more confusing and complicated.


So remember, some hunger cues that tend to be easier for ADHDers to notice can include low energy, poor concentration and focus, shakiness, or headaches. And depending on your level of hunger at any given moment, these cues can range from very quiet, to screaming loud.


Seeking dopamine through activities, experiences, and food is common for those with ADHD, as they are all useful tools in helping us regulate dopamine which helps our attention, motivation, and pleasure. 


And yes! It's perfectly OK to eat for dopamine and stimulation even when we’re not physiologically hungry. Food is enjoyable, satisfying, highly stimulating and can help  regulate dopamine levels and activate that reward pathway, which can support motivation, focus, relaxation, and so much more!



Interested in learning more about Eating with ADHD®? Try out a month with our low-cost, HIGH value Neurished Membership, designed for ADHDers who want to break free from the chaos and overwhelm in order to discover more joy, freedom and ease with food and eating! (And, since it’s a monthly membership, if it doesn’t feel like a good fit, you can cancel at any time!)


Need more individualized support? Submit a prospective client inquiry to work with one of Wise Heart Nutrition’s ADHD Dietitians!



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