Is it an Eating Disorder or OCD?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and eating disorders have a complex and intertwined relationship with overlapping symptoms and shared underlying psychological mechanisms.

ocd eating
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and eating disorders, like Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa, can exhibit overlapping symptoms because they share similar features, particularly around ritualistic behaviors. Both conditions can involve intense distress and anxiety, particularly if the person is prevented from performing their rituals. Therefore, it can sometimes be challenging to distinguish between these disorders based on symptoms alone, which is why professional evaluation is crucial.

OCD is a mental health condition characterized by recurrent, intrusive, and distressing thoughts and repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing anxiety.

Eating disorders encompass a range of psychological disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, which all involve disturbances in eating patterns and body image. 

These are both disorders of control that involve a vicious cycle of obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior. They are disruptive, debilitating, and can significantly interfere with daily activities, relationships, and overall quality of life. 

Additionally, both OCD and eating disorders are often associated with perfectionistic tendencies. This perfectionism can contribute to a constant feeling of dissatisfaction and the need to engage in obsessive rituals or behaviors to meet these unattainable standards.

Diagnoses often overlap as OCD and eating disorders frequently coexist, influencing and exacerbating each other’s symptoms.

Research has found that up to 69 percent of people with eating disorders have been diagnosed with OCD. Additionally, 10-17 percent of people with OCD have been diagnosed with an eating disorder (Neziroglu & Sandler, n.d.). 

Living with both obsessive-compulsive disorder and an eating disorder can be extremely challenging and can significantly impact a person’s daily life. These two conditions can interact and exacerbate each other, leading to additional distress and difficulties.

This intricate relationship presents unique challenges for individuals experiencing these conditions and requires a comprehensive understanding to guide effective treatment


FeaturesEating Disorders (EDs)Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Intrusive thoughts and preoccupationsObsessive thoughts are centered around food/body image/weight.

The focus of obsessions primarily concerns related to body image or food.
Obsessions might include a strong fixation with dirt or germs, worry that something is incomplete, thoughts about violence or hurting someone, or extreme concern with order, symmetry, or precision. 

People with OCD can experience obsessions and compulsions related to body image and food; however, OCD is commonly associated with obsessions and compulsions centered around cleanliness, symmetry, and orderliness.

Additionally, individuals with OCD may experience intrusive thoughts and anxieties about food contamination, fear of consuming specific types of food, or concerns about food preparation methods.
Compulsive BehaviorsCompulsive behaviors are centered around food, eating habits, and weight control.

These behaviors include using food rituals, counting calories, exercising obsessively, purging, and/or severely restricting.

Compulsive behaviors also can manifest as body checking, weighing yourself, measuring body parts, or repeatedly looking in the mirror (Reas et al., 2002; Shafran et al., 2004; Vocks et al., 2008).

Compulsive behaviors in OCD are not exclusively related to eating or weight.

Examples of OCD-related compulsions include repeatedly checking locks, alarm systems, ovens, or light switches; excessive or ritualized hand washing/cleaning; ordering or arranging things in a particular way; or rituals related to numbers, such as counting, repeating, and excessively preferencing or avoiding certain numbers.

OCD compulsions can be related to food and eating. These might include eating foods in a specific order, chewing a certain number of times before
swallowing, or adhering to rigid mealtime schedules.
Some individuals may engage in excessive or compulsive exercise as part of their eating disorder, driven by a need to control weight and shape.
Diagnostic CriteriaHelp individuals control their food intake by restricting, binging, purging, or exercising excessively.

Goal is to control one’s weight, shape, and size.
Specific criteria outlined in DSM-5:
(1) Presence of Obsessions, Compulsions, or Both.
(2) Time-consuming
(3) Not Attributable to Substances/Medical Condition
CausesThe cause of eating disorders is not fully understood. There may be a variety of different causes, including:
– Genetics and family history
– Biological factors, such as
changes in brain chemicals 
– Other mental health issues, such
as anxiety, depression, and
OCD, can increase the likelihood
of developing an eating disorder
– Severe stressors or traumas
– A history of weight bullying
The cause of OCD is not fully understood. Theories include:
– Biology (e.g., brain abnormalities)
– Genetics and family history
– Learning from your environment 
– Stressful life events or traumas
Aim of BehaviorsGet rid of the unwanted and anxiety-provoking intrusive thoughts. 

Reduce negative affect (anxiety) related to the obsessions

Prevent something bad from happening
Get rid of the unwanted and anxiety-provoking intrusive thoughts. 

Reduce negative affect (anxiety) related to the obsessions.

Prevent something bad from happening.
Examples of Treatment Options (note: these are not the only options available)Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Nutritional Counseling
Medication (in some cases)
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Focus of Obsessions and Compulsive Behaviors

Both OCD and eating disorders involve the presence of obsessions, intrusive, persistent thoughts, and preoccupations that are difficult to control.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that a person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession. Compulsions often reduce discomfort, unease, or dissatisfaction when something feels incomplete.

However, the focus of these obsessions and compulsions differ.

Individuals with OCD, and individuals with eating disorders, both perform compulsive behaviors to manage their anxiety and reduce negative affect.

OCD typically involves a range of compulsions, often unrelated to body image or food (e.g., contamination, symmetry, numbers), while eating disorders primarily revolve around obsessive concerns about food, dieting, and body image.

For instance, someone with an eating disorder might develop strict rules around eating (e.g., only eating specific foods, or at specific times), and become very distressed if these rituals are disrupted.

Yet, OCD compulsions are diverse and not exclusively related to eating or weight, whereas in individuals with eating disorders, compulsive behaviors are centered around food, eating habits, and weight control.

Both conditions can significantly interfere with an individual’s ability to carry out their daily activities and responsibilities.


The exact cause of neither OCD nor eating disorders is fully understood. The causes of these disorders are complex and multifactorial, involving a combination of genetic, neurobiological, and environmental factors. 

Evidence suggests that OCD and eating disorders can run in families (Trace et al., 2013; Pauls, 2022). People with a family history of OCD or a family history of an eating disorder are at a higher risk of developing the disorder, indicating a genetic predisposition.

Additionally, abnormalities in brain chemistry and imbalances in certain neurotransmitter systems (specifically the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine), are believed to play a role in both the development and regulation of OCD and of eating disorders.

Environmental factors, such as stressful life events, childhood trauma, significant life changes, or histories of abuse, can contribute to the development of OCD and eating disorder symptoms in some individuals (Rosso et al., 2012; Degortes et al., 2014) 

Psychological factors can also play a significant role in developing these disorders. Perfectionism and feelings of inadequacy or a need for control are often present in individuals with OCD and eating disorders (Williams & Levinson, 2021).

Additionally, individuals with certain personality traits, such as high levels of anxiety or impulsivity, may be more prone to developing these disorders (Lilenfeld et al., 2006)

Aim of Behaviors

Both individuals with OCD and individuals with eating disorders often experience high levels of anxiety and emotional distress related to their obsessions.

The difference is that people with an eating disorder typically do not view their obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors as problematic, as these thoughts and behaviors help maintain the condition and align with the disorder.

The individual might even misperceive them as a means to cope with, or express feelings about, issues of control, self-perception, and self-worth. 

People with OCD, on the other hand, typically find their thoughts and behaviors burdensome and distressing. Thus, they will engage in compulsive behaviors in order to get rid of the unwanted and anxiety provoking intrusive thoughts and reduce their distress related to the obsessions. 

Ritualized eating patterns seen in patients with eating disorders, such as arranging food in a specific way and cutting food into small pieces, are phenotypically similar to rituals, such as washing and avoidance, seen in OCD (Kinkel-Ram et al., 2022).

Treatment Options for OCD and Eating Disorders 

Treating both OCD and an eating disorder simultaneously can be complex and requires a comprehensive approach.

It often involves a combination of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), medication management, and support from a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals, tailored to each individual’s specific needs. 

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)


  • One of the most effective treatments for OCD is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), particularly a specific form called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP).
  • ERP involves gradually exposing individuals to situations or thoughts that trigger their obsessions while refraining from engaging in their compulsive behaviors.
  • This helps individuals learn to tolerate anxiety and break the cycle of obsessions and compulsions. ERP is considered the first-line treatment for OCD.

CBT For Eating Disorders

  • CBT is also used in the treatment of eating disorders. It focuses on identifying and modifying unhelpful thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors related to body image, food, and weight.
  • CBT also helps individuals develop healthier coping strategies and establish regular eating patterns.
  • Because eating disorders typically result in numerous medical complications and nutritional deficiencies, so working with a registered dietitian or nutritionist is crucial in treating an eating disorder. 


Medications for OCD

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine, sertraline, or fluvoxamine, are commonly prescribed medications for OCD. SSRIs can help reduce the intensity of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.
  • Other medications, such as clomipramine, may also be used for OCD treatment. Patients who do not respond to one SSRI medication can sometimes respond to another.
  • A combination of CBT and SSRIs is considered the “first-line” treatment for OCD, especially if symptoms are significantly impacting an individual’s daily functioning. 

Medications for Eating Disorders

  • As of 2021, there are no FDA-approved medications for the treatment of anorexia nervosa.
  • However, in some cases, medication may be prescribed to address co-occurring conditions, such as depression or anxiety, that commonly accompany eating disorders.
  • It is important to note, though, that medication alone is not considered a primary treatment for eating disorders.

Other Treatment Options

Other Treatment Options for OCD

  • Other therapeutic approaches, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), can be beneficial in combination with CBT and medication.
  • These approaches help individuals develop acceptance and mindfulness skills to better manage their OCD symptoms.

Other Treatment Options for Eating Disorders

  • Family-Based Treatment is often used for adolescents with eating disorders.
  • It involves involving the family in the treatment process, with parents taking an active role in helping their child restore weight and normalize eating behaviors.


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Williams, B. M., & Levinson, C. A. (2021). Intolerance of uncertainty and maladaptive perfectionism as maintenance factors for eating disorders and obsessive‐compulsive disorder symptoms. European Eating Disorders Review, 29(1), 101-111.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Julia Simkus

Editor at Simply Psychology

BA (Hons) Psychology, Princeton University

Julia Simkus is a graduate of Princeton University with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She is currently studying for a Master's Degree in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness in September 2023. Julia's research has been published in peer reviewed journals.