“Forget to Eat? A Guide to Mechanical Eating for Neurodivergent Adults” was written by Kaitlyn Wilson and edited/reviewed by Rivah Goldstein, MScFN, RD and Jackie Silver, MHSc, RD.
Medical Disclaimer: The information in this article is meant for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be personalized medical or nutrition advice. For a plan tailored to your needs, please consult with a Registered Dietitian or qualified healthcare professional.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links with which I may earn a small commission but at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links help bloggers like me to provide you with free content. All opinions expressed here are genuine.
Last updated: August 8, 2023
Have you ever gone a full day forgetting to eat? Our bodies tell us when to eat with feelings of hunger and fullness. However, sometimes neurodivergent folks may have difficulty recognizing these signs. Join us as we discuss a hot topic in nutrition for folks with ASD and/or ADHD: mechanical eating! This mealtime strategy can ensure you fill your body with the proper energy and nutrients it needs to thrive when you can’t rely on appetite cues.
Why do neurodivergent adults often forget to eat? Signs you may benefit from mechanical eating
If you find yourself forgetting to eat, please know that this is common for neurodivergent folks! Did you know there is research that explains why people with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) often forget to eat?
Let’s further explore these reasons:
- Medication Side Effects: Certain medications used to manage ADHD symptoms, such as stimulants, can suppress your appetite as a side effect. This can lead to decreased interest in eating or forgetting to eat because you aren’t feeling hungry.
- Reduced Interoception: Both autistic individuals and those with ADHD may have a harder time recognizing internal hunger or fullness cues due to reduced “interoceptive awareness.” This means it’s harder to recognize when your body tells you if it is hungry or full.
- Hyperfocus: Neurodivergent adults often experience hyperfocus, which is a state of intense concentration on a specific task or activity. This is also known as a state of “flow,” or being “in the zone”. When hyper-focused for many hours, you may lose track of time and forget to fulfill basic needs, like eating.
- Decision Fatigue: With so many food options available, it can feel overwhelming to decide what to eat. Some people experience decision fatigue, where they find it difficult to make a choice. In such cases, it seems easier to choose not to eat anything.
- Sensory Sensitivities: People with ASD may have impacted appetite from sensory sensitivities. Certain textures, smells, or tastes associated with food might be overwhelming or unpleasant, leading to a decreased desire to eat.
- Executive Functioning Challenges: Both ADHD and ASD can involve difficulties with executive functioning, which includes skills such as planning and organizing. Remembering to eat regularly may be challenging for individuals who struggle with these executive functions.
- Rigid Routines: sometimes prioritizing rigid routines or repetitive behaviours may trump eating, or contribute to forgetting to eat. Eating often doesn’t seem “important” because preparing food is boring and a hassle. It may feel like there are far more interesting things to do with the day than to eat.
If any of these points resonate with you, you may benefit from an eating strategy known as “mechanical eating!”
What is mechanical eating?
Mechanical eating is also known as “eating on the clock.” It is a schedule with set times throughout the day for you to eat meals and snacks, whether you feel hungry or not. Mechanical eating does not rely on hunger and fullness cues. This ensures your body is well-nourished throughout the day, when you can’t rely on your body’s natural hunger signals.
Although in this article we focus on ADHD & ASD, anyone who frequently misses meals or often forgets to eat may benefit from this strategy. We recommend working with your registered dietitian to see if mechanical eating is a good fit for you.
How mechanical eating works
Although we are giving general tips in this post, it’s important to note that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to mechanical eating. The amount of food, types of food, and designated time to eat food will differ from person to person.
- Generally, a typical mechanical eating schedule has set times for 3 meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner), and 2-3 snacks.
Keep in mind that this schedule needs to be personalized to your preferences. If you prefer to eat 3 times per day, then skip the snacks. If you prefer 1 snack, then do that! Some of our clients prefer to split lunch into two snacks, which is fine too! Meet yourself where you’re at.
There are a number of strategies you can utilize to remind yourself to eat throughout the day.
• Set timers on your phone or smartwatch to remind yourself to eat
• Schedule your lunch in your phone calendar (ie. 30 minutes for lunch every day at 12:30 pm)
• Place sticky notes with reminders to eat where you’ll see them to serve as visual cues
• Place your upcoming meal or snack on the countertop where you can see it. Again, having a visual cue is often a great reminder to eat. If something is out of sight, it’s usually out of mind.
- Spacing meals apart no longer than 4 hours can help keep blood sugar consistent, maintain energy levels, and give time for your stomach to digest food well.
Think of your day as going for a really long hike. Instead of waiting until the end of the hike to fuel your body with a large amount of food, it is optimal for your energy to eat at multiple times throughout the day.
- Sometimes it’s difficult to eat at set times. It takes time to prepare food, we get it! One strategy to make mechanical eating easier is to plan and prepare meals in advance. This ensures the types and amounts of food you choose on the day-to-day are nourishing your body and are easy to prep. Check out this blog post on Meal Planning for ADHD Adults.
- Finally, while the mechanical eating strategy consists of “rules,” it is important to distinguish these from “dieting rules.” Dieting rules foster guilt and disordered attitudes towards food, which is not what we want! Challenge the idea that certain foods are “good” or “bad,” and work on a mindset that respects your body’s needs and preferences and focuses on nourishment.
Healthy eating is all about having a positive relationship with food. This means that the focus is put on health and well-being rather than a specific body shape or size. Check out this blog post on 65 Body Image Affirmations for Self Love.
Can mechanical eating work with intuitive eating?
Have you heard of intuitive eating? If not, here’s a quick rundown: Intuitive eating is an approach to eating that emphasizes listening to and trusting your body’s internal cues for hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Essentially, the model is to eat when you are hungry and stop eating when you’re full, rejecting strict schedules.
You may be wondering how intuitive eating plays into mechanical eating. The short answer is that mechanical eating can work with intuitive eating if you use a mix of both.
For example, if you have ADHD and you don’t feel hungry during the day, you can rely on mechanical eating for your daytime meals and then practice intuitive eating in the evenings when your meds wear off and your appetite returns. You can read more about this in our blog post on “Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist”.
Interested in mechanical eating? See a Registered Dietitian!
This post is helpful for learning about mechanical eating in general terms, but we’re only hitting the tip of the iceberg! Like all strategies, mechanical eating works better when it’s tailored to your needs. Working with an expert can benefit your life by identifying what works best for you.
In terms of mechanical eating, a Registered Dietitian can:
- Ensure mechanical eating is right for you! This eating strategy is not for everyone.
- Identify any nutritional inadequacies that can be corrected through diet and supplements.
- Develop individualized strategies for your eating habits. This can boost your health and well-being!
- Support you with easy meal planning tools that work with executive dysfunction barriers.
The bottom line
Neurodivergent adults often experience forgetting meals, for a variety of reasons. One strategy to ensure your body is kept nourished is to eat mechanically, which refers to eating on the clock. Actionable steps could include speaking to a registered dietitian about mechanical eating, meal planning and preparing, and setting an alarm as reminders to eat throughout the day!
Check out these other helpful resources
- Top 5 Reasons You Need an ADHD Nutritionist
- Top 5 Reasons You Need an Autism Nutritionist
- Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist
- Protein for ADHD
- ADHD Meal Planning
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Kaitlyn is studying an honours specialization in nutrition & dietetics (BScFN) and kinesiology (BA) at Brescia University College, affiliated with Western University. Her passion lies in promoting health and well-being through optimal nutrition and physical activity. Kaitlyn has a strong interest in nutrition communications, fostered through her position as the Executive of Communications at Western University’s on-campus food pantry and confidential hamper service. She has a strong dedication to staying up-to-date with evidence-based nutrition practices. Her personal interests include cooking, reading, crocheting, and going for outdoor walks!
Jackie is a Toronto-based Registered Dietitian whose mission is to empower and support the neurodivergent and physically disabled communities through nutrition. Jackie runs a virtual private practice and blog which has simple recipes and health information tailored to these communities. She loves cooking, exercising, traveling, journaling, and spending time with family and friends.
Hello! I’m Rivah, a registered dietitian passionate about helping teens and adults with neurodivergence and mental health conditions. Additionally, I support individuals with chronic disease management, plant-based diets, and mindful eating. My counseling approach is weight inclusive, client-centered, and evidence-based where we create realistic nutrition goals, prioritizing physical, mental, and emotional health. In my free time, I enjoy reading, cooking, and outdoor activities.