When OCD Tendencies Fuel Eating Disorder Behaviors

Males with Eating Disorders

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), like other mental illnesses, is often the subject of stigma and stereotypes. Many people may misunderstand OCD and the serious implications that come with living with this disorder.

Another aspect of OCD that is often overlooked is the increased risk associated with eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. In fact, research has identified a strong correlation between obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders, with one study demonstrating that 41 percent of individuals with eating disorders were found to have OCD [1].

Understanding the connecting relationship between OCD and eating disorders helps to further identify effective treatment methods for these co-occurring issues.

An Overview of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Millions of people around the globe are impacted by OCD, which can present at any time from preschool through adulthood. According to the International OCD Foundation, about 1 in 100 adults, or between 2 to 3 million adults, in the United States alone currently has OCD, with at least 1 in 200 kids and teenagers having OCD [2].

This mental health disorder is characterized by a recurring cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions can be defined as intrusive, unwanted urges or thoughts that can trigger feelings that are distressing.

In attempt to manage these feelings or decrease distress, a person with OCD will engage in compulsive behaviors, which are typically repetitive and done with the intention of countering an obsession.

Some of the most common obsessions related to OCD include unwanted sexual thoughts, fear of contamination and/or illness, losing control, fear of harming others or oneself, and obsessions related to perfectionism [3].Kid on Social Media

Common compulsive behaviors that are often engaged in as an effort to counter these types of obsessions include repeated checking, excessive washing and cleaning, mental compulsions, and repeating activities in multiples.

OCD is typically diagnosed when an individual is consumed with these recurring obsessions/compulsions to the point that overall quality of life is compromised and/or a person becomes unable to function in daily life.

Overlap With Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are associated with several behaviors that are ritualistic by nature and which mirror those of OCD. Many individuals with eating disorders experience thoughts and behaviors around food and their bodies that are rigid by nature, often triggering complex and recurring patterns that can result in detrimental consequences.

For example, a person with obsessive thoughts concerning weight gain may engage in eating disorder behaviors as a means of countering the resulting anxiety, including extreme dietary restrictions, purging, bingeing, over-exercising, food rituals and more.

When it comes to eating disorders and OCD, the primary obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors are surrounding body size, weight, perfectionistic eating habits and the like.

Because these disorders are thought to have many similar root causes, such as genetic predisposition, environmental stressors and more, there is significant overlap between these two mental health issues.

Eating Disorder/OCD expert and clinical psychologist Dr. Andy McGarrahan has noted, “A patient may begin to use one disorder to cope with the distress created by the other and vice versa [4].”

For example, a person experiencing distress and anxiety resulting from obsessive thoughts may turn to eating disorder behaviors as a way of coping with their overwhelming feelings.

Similarly, a person with an eating disorder may engage in ritualistic behaviors, like excessive weighing or body checking, as a means of managing anxiety or distressing thoughts. Because of the similarities between these mental health issues and manner in which these disorders feed into one another, treatment must effectively address both issues.

Seeking Out Comprehensive Care

If you have struggled with OCD and a resulting eating disorder, you have undoubtedly faced the chaos, stress, and overwhelm that comes with these co-occurring mental health issues. Perhaps you have sought help for an eating disorder or OCD but felt like you have been unable to find a resolution to these connected issues.

Because OCD and eating disorders are often comorbid conditions, effective treatment options should include a multidisciplinary approach that offers extensive therapy, medication management, medical nutrition therapy, and more.

Girl laying downIntegrating evidenced-based treatment approaches for OCD, like Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and medication with traditional eating disorder treatment may be helpful in addressing the co-occurring conditions.

Connecting to a specialist is the first step toward treating the complex issue of co-occurring OCD and eating disorders. Search the Eating Disorder Hope Specialist Directory to begin your recovery journey today.


Crystal Headshot 2About the Author: Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Her passion is to help others find recovery and healing is integrated into each part of her work.

As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her work  and nutrition private practice.


[1]: International OCD Foundation, “What is OCD?”, Accessed 19 April 2017
[2]: Ruscio AM, Stein DJ, Chiu WT, Kessler RC. “The epidemiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.” Molecular Psychiatry. 2008 Aug 26
[3]: Clark, David A.; & Radomsky, Adam S. (2014). Introduction: A global perspective on unwanted intrusive thoughts. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. Available online 18 February 2014. DOI: 10.1016/j.jocrd.2014.02.001
[4]: Mirror Mirror Eating Disorders, “OCD and Eating Disorders”, http://www.mirror-mirror.org/ocd.htm Accessed 19 April 2017

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on April 20, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 20, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com