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The Link Between Eating Disorders and OCD

woman crying in front of scale
By LifeStance Health on February 15, 2021

In popular culture, eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) conjure up very different images. When people think of eating disorders, they often imagine teenage girls eating very few calories and being obsessed with looks. On the other hand, the term “OCD” may bring up images of someone scrubbing their hands.

At first glance, it’s hard to see how these two types of mental health conditions are related. However, when you take a look at the primary symptoms of OCD and eating disorders, it becomes clear that there are strong connections between the two.

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How Many People with Eating Disorders Have OCD?

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of the link between OCD and eating disorders is the rate of comorbidity. That is the number of people with eating disorders who also have OCD and vice versa. Unfortunately, there are relatively few studies into this link. However, the research from existing studies is convincing.

The International OCD Foundation reports that up to 69 percent of people with eating disorders also live with OCD. On the other side, up to 17 percent of people with OCD also live with an eating disorder.

It’s important to note that these figures are hard to get exactly right because so many people with eating disorders never get the treatment they need. Furthermore, the similarities between OCD and eating disorders mean that people are sometimes misdiagnosed with one when they have the other. That’s why understanding the similarities and differences is so vital.


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Obsessions, Compulsions, and Eating Disorders

The two main characteristics of OCD are obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions. Obsessive thoughts are unwanted, intrusive, and often disturbing thoughts that repetitively go through the person’s mind. Compulsive actions, or simply compulsions, are behaviors that people with OCD carry out because they feel like they must.

Often, compulsions are related to intrusive thoughts. For example, someone may believe that if they don’t complete their compulsive action, something terrible will happen.

Eating disorders often including obsessions and compulsions as well. Obsessions are usually tied to body image and food. People with eating disorders may obsess over every morsel of food or ounce of fat on their bodies. Sometimes, these obsessions also revolve around exercise and the calories it burns.

Much like with OCD, eating disorders are characterized by harmful behaviors that are tied to these obsessive thoughts. While each eating disorder is different, compulsive behaviors are present in most cases. For example, people with bulimia nervosa and those with binge eating disorder compulsively binge eat. They do not want to eat large quantities in short times, but they feel as though they are unable to stop.

Treating OCD and Eating Disorders Together

All too often, people who live with both OCD and an eating disorder only get diagnosed with one or the other. This could be because the conditions share so many similar characteristics or because one is more severe at the time someone seeks treatment. However, it’s important for people with comorbid disorders to get treatment for their whole mental health at the same time.

Sometimes when a patient gets treatment for an eating disorder, those symptoms may subside while OCD symptoms worsen. Similarly, if someone gets treatment for only OCD, their eating disorder can worsen. That’s why comprehensive mental health care is crucial. With a team of compassionate specialists, people can recover from both eating disorders and OCD.

You're not alone.
Our providers can help.