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White Space + Wanting: How ADHD and weight overlap and how you can think about it differently.

It was during graduate school that I realized I was borrowing attention from food to concentrate on studying and writing. 

I would avoid eating all day so that I had enough calories left to eat while studying later in the day. This is what got me to sit down and do the work. Otherwise, I would procrastinate and move around to avoid sitting. 

I had been doing this since elementary school.  My dad did it too, but neither of us knew what was happening. 

I borrowed attention from food through high school, medical school, residency and whenever I needed to study for exams or certification. I did it when I had a pile of charts or office paperwork to get done. 

The only time I didn’t do it is when I was preparing for my emergency medicine and obesity medicine certification exams. 

Why?

ADHD and Borrowed Attention

In 2021, I was diagnosed with ADHD while getting treatment for my weight, which had gone up by 100 pounds between 2009 and 2021. 

Everything came into glaring obviousness. 

My impulsivity was epic in my friend circles. I quit my high paying government job, packed up my life and moved to Kabul over a matter of weeks in 2011. I ended relationships suddenly.  I spent money that I borrowed for school.  I could barely attend lectures and when I did, I retained almost nothing unless it was a small group learning style seminar.  I struggled to plan more than a few months in advance, always believing in my ability to “figure it out later”. I had a very hard time not speaking out of turn or being the loudest one in the room. I hate sitting still. My husband calls how I move during sleep as “the jimmy legs”.  I think best while moving.  I rely on very rigid systems of To Do lists to organize my life.  I am about 15 minutes late to everything.  I get bored so easily. 

These traits have been present and stable since childhood but are getting easier to manage as I get older and gain insight.  My brother and my father both have ADHD as do several members of my extended family. 

These traits are clearly implicated in my experience of being in a larger body. 

Everything in our brains is on a spectrum.

Here is the thing about how our brains work: it’s all a spectrum.  We use labels in medicine to describe groups of traits but we only use the diagnostic label when someone is experiencing dysfunction as a result of these traits.  That is, the traits in concert have to push a person to not operate well in the world. Not everyone who borrows attention has ADHD. Our world can be highly distracting and the context itself can induce this behaviour.  Diagnostic assessment is highly nuanced and this is not the core diagnostic feature.  

There is nothing about how I performed academically, socially or at work in my early life that would suggest I was experiencing dysfunction. 

Unless you knew that I borrowed attention from food (and coffee) all the time in order to learn and produce. 

And I was excellent at learning and producing.  My boss in Kabul told me I could “do the work of 10 people” and this was not even close to the first time I heard this. 

ADHD’s most basic pathophysiology is that there is a dopamine deficiency.  That means that any one pursuit is met with lower than normal motivation unless the pursuit itself promotes dopamine, like with pleasurable foods high in sugars and fats, or there is a cue-reward connection that makes that pursuit rewarding. 

When I started pairing food with learning and work I taught myself that sitting down and concentrating was rewarding because it was an opportunity to eat rewarding food.  Doing this led me to restrict at other times which reinforced the rewarding nature of sitting and working. This happens with all dieting cycles which is – again – why diets don’t work. 

Do that for 30 years and the cue-reward cycle gets pretty tight and pretty hard to break. 

How to work with it. 

I have benefited from behavioural change thought work, from medication where indicated and from the diagnosis itself: it was relieving to know that my personality – which has been described as “a lot” – was part of a complex pattern of neurologic signaling operating below my awareness and not just… “a lot”. 

The diagnosis actually increased my agency and desire to improve my experience of life. It did not absolve me of accountability over this experience but showed me where the levers of change lie. 

When it comes to weight and ADHD, there is a well established bi-directional connection.  Not everyone in large bodies has ADHD and not everyone with ADHD is in a large body.  

But for those who have both, there are common underlying genes and neurologic signaling that promote both.  These conditions aren’t reliant on a single gene, a single set of environmental or in utero exposures or a single underlying mechanism.  

They both reflect widely misunderstood inner ecologies where dopamine signaling isn’t well-regulated for many reasons. 

When you map these two experiences onto each other, what happens?

Wanting.  

A lot of wanting. 

I call myself a Big Eater because I have powerful food (and other things) related wanting.  

How to use White Space in Responsive Eating™ to Consider Wanting

And I needed to be able to name, describe and develop an inventory of signals that reminded my frontal cortex (my noticing mind) that I was experiencing wanting.  And then I could decide what I wanted to do about it: eat, not eat, change environments or move. Or nothing at all.   

I had to stop telling myself that I was a bad person for wanting. That’s where Responsive Eating™ came from: the belief that I deserved an enormous neurologic break from the constant self-flagellation for being a Wanter.

And this is where I want to talk about White Space. 

Mindfulness makes me absolutely crazy inside.  It brings out all of my hyperactive and judge-y instincts.  But I need it because I need the White Space. 

I have (somewhat accidentally) been to the Buddha’s Bodhi Tree (Tree of Awakening) in Bodh Gaia, Bihar which is a very remote part of North East India. While there, I could get into it because I could pace the grounds with the Monks and devotees.  I have studied with renowned yoga and meditation teachers but struggled to retain the practice. All habits and routines are hard when the brain isn’t immediately rewarded by them and I am very reward-driven. 

The point is that I have tried hard to be more “centred” in the normal ways but because I didn’t understand why I was always left of centre, I didn’t know how to get there.  As I shared above, I have been helped by thought work and medication. 

But a practice I find a more appealing antidote to wanting is White Space. 

Less, but better.

I am inspired by Greg McKeown’s Essentialism where he talks the “less but better” ethos wherein there is less kinetic energy of work and attention being thrust in every direction (sidebar: this very phrase could be what they write on my epitaph) and more patient, easy energy in one worthwhile direction. 

In tech and design, White Space is about unused space, bandwidth and frequency.  Its intentionally unmet potential.  It is freedom, unembodied. 

White Space is about making the choice to pursue clarity, instead of more of anything. It’s about using blocks of time for creativity and imagination.  I am personally trying to use my White Space time to hang with my toddler because she’s always in a White Space dreamland and I am learning a lot from just being with her.

White Space is appealing to me over the culturally-loaded notion of mindfulness because it comes with a tacit set of flexible options: unbook meetings, reduce the number of patients I am seeing, decommit from things I said yes to because I just always say yes and move arbitrary deadlines.  No props or incense or chanting or mantras. 

And then all of a sudden: White Space on my calendar. 

White Space in my mind. 

White Space in which I can decide what I am going to do moment to moment instead of relying on the crushing mandate of my schedule, which I have weaponized my entire life to kindle my own hypodopamine state.  

Guess what happens when White Space appears?

White Space and Wanting.

Wanting settles.

Buddha knew this. If only I had heard it when at his tree way back in 2006. 

Wanting responds to rest, nourishment, acceptance and belonging.   

In my case, rest has always been the hardest.  This threatened nourishment through diet cycles.  And my body size and my personality – flavoured heavily by ADHD – influenced where I found acceptance and belonging. Rest has been cast as a weakness in my cultural milieu but when understood as White Space, as opposed to quiet or stillness which the ADHD mind finds so painful, rest becomes possible – even wonderful.

In my Responsive Eating™ course and live sessions, we build out personal inventories of wanting and that which accelerates and calms it down.  This is critical thought work for anyone using food to borrow attention and encourage you to take the free version available at drashleywhite.com.

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