Key Takeaways Key Takeaways
  • Eating disorders and OCD, while seemingly disparate, share a strong connection, often overlapping in symptoms and behaviors.

  • The high comorbidity rate between both disorders highlights the intertwined nature of their characteristics.

  • Both disorders are characterized by obsessions and compulsions, manifesting differently based on the specific disorder.

The Link Between Eating Disorders and OCD

This content has been updated from previous article on February 15, 2021.

The intersection of eating disorders and OCD, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, stands out as a significant and intricate crossroads. Although commonly understood as separate conditions, these two disorders often share a common thread, revealing intriguing insights for both understanding and intervention. Even as far back as the 1930s, scientists have recognized a clear connection between OCD and eating disorders. This article uncovers the intricate dynamics between the two, aiming to enhance awareness and inform more effective health practices.

Deconstructing Stereotypes of OCD and Eating Disorders

Common misconceptions cloud our understanding of both eating disorders and OCD. Eating disorders often carry the stereotype of being a vain preoccupation of young women overly concerned about their appearance, while OCD might be simplistically imagined as an overzealous commitment to cleanliness or order. Contrary to common perception, the lifetime presence of OCD is considerably widespread, affecting 2.3% of the US population, making it far more common than initially assumed. Similarly, with eating disorders, 1 out of every 10 adults in the US will develop an eating disorder in their lifetime.

Stigmas of OCD

Eating disorders span across all genders, ages, and cultural backgrounds, with sufferers caught in a destructive cycle of food and body image obsession, often accompanied by harmful eating behaviors. OCD, on the other hand, isn’t merely about being tidy. It’s a persistent condition where individuals grapple with incessant, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and feel compelled to perform certain actions (compulsions) to alleviate their distress.

Eating Disorder Myths and Facts

Beneath the surface, there’s a significant overlap between these two disorders, manifesting in the form of shared symptoms like obsessions and compulsions. By moving past these stereotypes, we can foster a more nuanced understanding of these conditions, paving the way for improved identification, compassion, and care.

A Closer Look at Comorbidities

Understanding the intertwining dynamics of eating disorders and OCD requires examining their comorbidity rates. Comorbidity, or the simultaneous presence of two health conditions, provides us valuable insights into how these disorders may influence each other. Although research in this specific area remains relatively limited, the existing studies point towards a significant connection.

According to the International OCD Foundation, as many as 69% of individuals with eating disorders also struggle with OCD. Conversely, up to 17% of people living with OCD have a co-existing eating disorder. These figures underline a noteworthy overlap, even though they might not precisely reflect the full extent due to the high proportion of undiagnosed and untreated cases.

In addition, the similarities in symptoms often lead to misdiagnosis, further complicating the picture. It’s crucial, therefore, to raise awareness of the comorbidities of OCD and eating disorders. By enhancing diagnostic accuracy, providers can foster improved treatment approaches.

Shared Traits: Obsessions and Compulsions

At the core of both eating disorders and OCD, we find shared characteristics: obsessions and compulsions. These shared traits highlight the intricate link between these conditions.

In OCD, obsessions are unwanted and intrusive thoughts that cause distress, while compulsions are actions carried out to relieve the anxiety caused by these thoughts. Similarly, eating disorders often entail obsessive thoughts related to food, body image, or exercise, accompanied by compulsive, harmful behaviors.

Common obsessions and compulsions across the two conditions include:

  • Obsessive preoccupation with body image or weight
  • Compulsive calorie counting or restrictive eating patterns
  • Intrusive fears of contamination leading to restrictive food choices
  • Compulsive exercising as a method of control or self-punishment
  • Obsessive need for symmetry or perfection in body shape or size

Understanding these shared traits can help refine diagnostic processes and inform comprehensive, effective treatment strategies.

Misdiagnosis and the Importance of Comprehensive Understanding

The overlap of symptoms between eating disorders and OCD can create a diagnostic challenge. With such intertwined conditions, one disorder can overshadow the other, leading to incomplete diagnoses and potentially ineffective treatments. For example, a person might receive treatment for an eating disorder while their undiagnosed OCD symptoms remain unaddressed, or vice versa.

This diagnostic ambiguity underscores the need for clinicians to possess a deep, comprehensive understanding of both disorders and their potential co-occurrence. Raising awareness about the shared traits and high comorbidity rate can foster more accurate diagnoses and more effective, personalized treatment plans.

Treating OCD and Eating Disorders Together

All too often, people who live with both conditions only get diagnosed with OCD or with Eating Disorder. 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.

Embracing Hope for Recovery

Despite the complex nature of OCD and eating disorders, it’s important to remember that recovery is attainable. The first step is recognizing the presence of these disorders, followed by seeking the right kind of help. Comprehensive mental health care, encompassing a deep understanding of both conditions and their connections, can pave the path to healing.

At LifeStance, we believe that individuals should not feel deterred by the stigma often associated with these disorders. Rather, they should remember that acknowledging one’s struggle is not a sign of weakness, but a courageous step towards regaining control.

If you or a loved one exhibits symptoms of OCD or an eating disorder, reaching out for mental health care professionals help can start a transformative journey towards recovery, where understanding, resilience, and self-compassion become the guiding lights to a more fulfilling life.

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults.

Reviewed By

Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S
Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S

Nicholette is a faculty member at John Carroll University’s Clinical Counseling program, and she is also the host of the LifeStance podcast, Convos from the Couch.