OCD vs. Eating Disorders: What Are the Differences?

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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and eating disorders are both mental health conditions that can cause a lot of distress. Both OCD and eating disorders can involve obsessions, compulsions, and rigid rules around food and eating. However, there are some key differences between the two conditions.

For instance, for those with eating disorders, their symptoms were most likely triggered by body image issues. People with OCD may have body image issues, but their obsessions and compulsion may be completely unrelated to body image (e.g., some people with OCD may avoid certain foods or food groups due to fears of contamination or may only eat at certain times to prevent something bad from happening).

Learn more about the similarities and differences between OCD and eating disorders in this article.

Symptoms

The symptoms of OCD and eating disorders resemble each other. However, there are some key differences:

  • OCD: The symptoms of OCD can be divided into two categories: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that cause distress. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that a person feels they must do to relieve the anxiety caused by their obsessions.
  • Eating disorders: People with eating disorders often are preoccupied with food, weight, and body shape. They may also have rigid rules around food and eating. Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.
OCD
  • Obsessions

  • Compulsions

  • Performs mental and behavioral compulsions to find relief

  • Obsessions/compulsions might be unrelated to body image

Eating Disorders
  • Preoccupation with food

  • Preoccupation with weight/body image

  • Rigid rules about food and eating

  • Often begins as a result of poor body image

Causes

The underlying causes of OCD and eating disorders are not fully understood, but some common risk factors have been identified. For example, both conditions tend to run in families, which suggests that there may be a genetic component. Other risk factors include anxiety, stress, and trauma.

It is important to remember that these are just risk factors—not necessarily causes. It is also possible to have OCD or an eating disorder without any of these risk factors.

Causes of OCD

Below are some potential causes of OCD:

  1. Family history: OCD tends to run in families, which suggests that there may be a genetic component.
  2. Anxiety: People with anxiety disorders are more likely to develop OCD.
  3. Stress: Stressful life events (such as the death of a loved one or a divorce) can trigger OCD symptoms.
  4. Trauma: Traumatic experiences (such as abuse or witnessing a traumatic event) can also trigger OCD symptoms.

Causes of Eating Disorders

There is no single cause of eating disorders. Instead, there are a variety of risk factors that can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Below are some potential causes of eating disorders:

  1. Family history: Eating disorders tend to run in families, which suggests that there may be a genetic component.
  2. Poor body image: People with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) are more likely to develop an eating disorder. BDD is a condition where people obsess over perceived flaws in their appearance.
  3. Perfectionism: Perfectionism is a common personality trait among people with eating disorders.
  4. Dieting: Dieting can lead to disordered eating, which can then develop into an eating disorder.
  5. Stress: Stressful life events (such as the death of a loved one or a divorce) can trigger disordered eating or an eating disorder.
  6. Trauma: Traumatic experiences (such as abuse or witnessing a traumatic event) can also trigger disordered eating or an eating disorder.
  7. Part of the OCD Spectrum: Some research has posited that eating disorders may be on the OCD spectrum. However, this has not been confirmed.

Diagnosis

OCD and eating disorders are both mental health conditions that require professional treatment. If you think you or someone you know may have OCD or an eating disorder, it is important to see a mental health professional for an evaluation.

Diagnosis of OCD

OCD is diagnosed when a person has obsessions and/or compulsions that are causing significant distress or impairment in their life. The obsessions must be excessive and intrusive, and the compulsions must be time-consuming and interfere with daily activities.

A diagnosis of OCD is typically made by a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. The professional will ask about your symptoms and perform a psychological evaluation. They may also administer a test called the Y-BOCS (Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale), which assesses the severity of OCD symptoms.

Diagnosis of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are diagnosed when a person’s eating habits cause them significant distress or impairment in their life. The person must also meet certain criteria, such as having an abnormal body weight or exhibiting signs of malnutrition.

A diagnosis of an eating disorder is typically made by a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. The professional will ask about your symptoms and perform a physical examination. They may also order laboratory tests to check for signs of malnutrition.

Treatment

OCD and eating disorders are both mental health conditions that require professional treatment. If you have OCD or an eating disorder, it is important to seek professional help.

Treatment of OCD

There are two main types of treatment for OCD: psychotherapy and medication.

The gold standard OCD treatment is exposure and response prevention (ERP). ERP involves gradually exposing yourself to your fears and learning to cope with the anxiety without engaging in compulsions. Talk therapy is not recommended in the treatment of OCD.

Medication can also be used to treat OCD. The most common type of medication used is a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs work by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which can help reduce OCD symptoms.

Treatment of Eating Disorders

There are three main types of treatment for eating disorders: psychotherapy, medication, and nutritional counseling.

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is a type of counseling that can help you manage your eating disorder symptoms. Common types of psychotherapy used to treat eating disorders include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). CBT focuses on changing negative thoughts and behaviors, while DBT emphasizes learning how to cope with difficult emotions in a healthy way.

Medication can also be used to treat eating disorders. The most common type of medication used is a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs work by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which can help reduce eating disorder symptoms.

Nutritional counseling is another important part of treatment for eating disorders. A registered dietitian or nutritionist can help you develop a healthy relationship with food and develop healthy eating habits.

Prevention

There is no sure way to prevent OCD or eating disorders, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk. If you have a family member with OCD or an eating disorder, you may be at higher risk for developing the condition yourself. However, having a family member with OCD or an eating disorder does not mean that you will definitely develop the condition.

You can reduce your risk of developing OCD or an eating disorder by getting treatment for any mental health conditions you have and by practicing healthy coping skills. Healthy coping skills include exercise, relaxation techniques, and journaling. If you are struggling to cope with stress or anxiety, seek professional help.

Summary

OCD and eating disorders are both mental health conditions that can cause significant distress and impairment. If you have OCD or an eating disorder, it is important to seek professional help.

Some research suggests that people with OCD may be at higher risk for developing an eating disorder. However, it is important to note that having OCD does not necessarily mean that you will develop an eating disorder. If you have OCD and are struggling with disordered eating, it is important to seek professional help.

Treatment for OCD typically includes ERP and medication, while treatment for eating disorders typically includes psychotherapy, medication, and nutritional counseling. There is no sure way to prevent OCD or eating disorders, but you can reduce your risk by getting treatment for any mental health conditions you have and by practicing healthy coping skills.

A Word From Verywell

If you are struggling with OCD or an eating disorder, know that you are not alone. These conditions are both very common and treatable. Seek professional help if you are having difficulty managing your symptoms. With treatment, you can learn how to manage your OCD or eating disorder and live a happy and healthy life.

Some research suggests that people with OCD may be at higher risk for developing an eating disorder. However, it is important to note that having OCD does not necessarily mean that you will develop an eating disorder. If you have OCD and are struggling with disordered eating, it is important to seek professional help.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."