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Forget to Eat? A Guide to Mechanical Eating for Neurodivergent Adults

An image of a food clock with text that says "Forget to Eat? A Guide to Mechanical Eating for Neurodivergent Adults"
“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? 

Caption: A green thought bubble with an empty plate, for, and knife is surrounded with reasons neurodivergent adults forget to eat. The reasons include: medication side affects, reduced interoception, hyperfocus, decision paralysis, sensory sensitivities, executive functioning, and rigid routines - A Guide to Mechanical Eating for Neurodivergent Adults

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. 
  • 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.
  • 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.

A beige and pink clock is surrounded by various fruits and vegetables that include watermelon, oranges, apples, and grapes. The heading "mechanical eating: eating on the clock" is written above the clock.

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.

  1. 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.
A list of strategies for remembering to eat - A Guide to Mechanical Eating for Neurodivergent Adults
  1. 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. 
A group of 3 people are hiking up a trail
  1. 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
  1. 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.

4 tips for mechanical eating include: 1) three meals and two to three snacks throughout the day, 2) do not go over four hours without eating, 3) plan your meals ahead of time, 4) eat balanced and stay away from "dieting rules."
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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”. 

An infographic comparing Mechanical Eating vs. Intuitive Eating

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.
A dietitian is writing on her clipboard and is holding a grapefruit

We support many neurodivergent clients who struggle with low appetite. Click here to book a free 15-minute discovery call to see if we can support you!

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

References

Ashinoff, B.K., Abu-Akel, A. (2021). Hyperfocus: the forgotten frontier of attention. Psychological Research, 85(1), 1-19. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31541305/ 

Center For Healthy Eating and Activity Research. (2020). Scheduled Eating- Why It’s Beneficial and How to Start. UC San Diego School of Medicine. Retrieved from: https://chear.ucsd.edu/blog/scheduled-eating-why-its-beneficial-and-how-to-start#:~:text=The%20goal%20is%20to%20eat,lead%20to%20bloating%20or%20indigestion 

Chistol, L.T., Bandini, L.G., Must, A., Phillips, S., Cermak, S.A., Curtin, C. (2018). Sensory Sensitivity and Food Selectivity in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 48(2). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29116421/ 

Cortese, S., Holtmann M., Banaschewski, T., Buitelaar, J., Coghill, D., et al. (2013). Practitioner Review: Current best practice in the management of adverse events during treatment with ADHD medications in children and adolescents. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54(3), 227-246.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23294014/ 

Davis, C., Levitan, R. D., Smith, M., Tweed, S., Curtis, C. (2006). Associations among overeating, overweight, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a structural equation modelling approach. Eating behaviors, 7(3), 266-74. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16843230/ 

Harris, H.A., Bowling, A., Santos, S., Greaves-Lord, K., Jansen P. W. (2022). Child ADHD and autistic traits, eating behaviours and weight: A population-based study. Pediatric Obesity. 17(11). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35751176/ 

Limardon, J., Tylka, T.L., Fuller-Tyszkiewicz, M. (2021). Intuitive eating and its psychological correlates: A meta‐analysis. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 54(7). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33786858/ 

Motivation and Psycho-education about eating problems. (n.d.). Mechanical Eating. Retrieved from: https://mopedleicester.weebly.com/mechanical-eating.html 

Richardson, B. (2023). Why Do I Feel Guilty After Eating? 5 Steps To Stop Food Guilt. A Full Bite Nutrition. Received from: https://afullbite.com/why-do-i-feel-guilty-after-eating/#:~:text=Diet%20culture%20contributes%20to%20the,that%20amplifies%20guilt%20and%20shame

American Medical Association. (2021). What doctors wish patients knew about decision fatigue. Retrieved from: https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/what-doctors-wish-patients-knew-about-decision-fatigue 

Kaitlyn Wilson is standing outside in a cream turtleneck sweater with her arms crossed, smiling

About Kaitlyn

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!

About Jackie

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.

Check out her full bio here →

Rivah is wearing a striped shirt and a blazer, smiling

About Rivah

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.

Check out her full bio here →

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