Diet and OCD: Could What You Eat Make a Difference in Your Symptoms?
“You are what you eat.”
No doubt you’ve heard this phrase before. Obviously, we’re all very familiar with the importance of eating a healthy diet. We’ve learned that unhealthy junk food can lead to health conditions like obesity, heart problems, and diabetes.
But did you know that what you eat also affects your mental health? It’s true; a healthy diet has been linked to better mood, less anxiety, and stronger mental wellbeing overall. This is even true for people who live with mental illnesses, including OCD.
Is there a magical food that you can eat more of to cure yourself of OCD? Sadly, no. But making lifestyle changes like eating a healthy diet can go a long way in supporting your brain health and making sure that your OCD symptoms are as manageable as possible.
Your Diet Affects Your Mental Health
If you’re wondering whether changing your diet could make a difference for your OCD symptoms, you might be onto something. The idea that what we eat affects our mental health was brushed off as hippie pseudoscience for many years. But recent research actually shows us that what we eat makes a huge difference to our overall mental health.
After all, your brain is an organ just like your stomach or your heart — and what we eat affects our organs. Scientists have found that the food we eat literally changes our brain structure, which can lead to certain mental health symptoms (or the alleviation of them).
Specifically, foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are good for your brain. When your brain needs to use oxygen, it also produces cell-damaging waste; the process of this is called oxidative waste. Nutritious foods protect our brains from oxidative stress, which leads to better mental health overall.
Researchers have studied the differences between traditional Mediterrenean or Japanese diets and the typical American diet. Mediterranean and Japanese diets usually include more fish, whole grains, fermented foods, fruits, and vegetables than American meals. American food also includes more processed food and refined sugars.
What the research has found is alarming: people who eat an American diet are up to 35 percent more at risk for developing depression.
Most research that has studied the effects of food and nutrition on mental health have studied food’s impact on depression, specifically. They have found that having low levels of the following nutrients can cause us to have a higher risk of depression::
- Omega-3s (a healthy fat that’s found in fish and nuts)
- Vitamin B12
Unfortunately, the American or Western diet has lower levels of all of these nutrients than the Mediterrenean or Japanese diets. Many scientists believe that this directly impacts the prevalence of mental illness in the United States.
On top of these specific nutrients, it’s also important to fill your gut with healthy flora, or bacteria. There are countless research studies that now prove the connection between the gut and the brain. Many of us take probiotics for better digestion and more energy. It turns out that probiotics (which introduce “good” bacteria to your gut) are just as important for maintaining good mental health. Researchers think that over 90 percent of serotonin is produced in our gut and gastrointestinal tract.
That’s why the fermented foods that are so common in the Japanese and Mediterrenean diets are so important. The healthy bacteria found in these foods helps your gut flora flourish, which, in turn, does wonders for your brain and mental health.
In general, what you eat affects how you feel. Although we used to think this only applied for how we feel physically, research has proven that what we eat affects how we feel emotionally just as much. If we want to achieve wellness in a holistic sense, we need to pay attention to what we put into our bodies.
Could Eating Well Help Your OCD?
So if what we eat can make such a difference to our overall mental health, can it help us with our OCD as well? There’s some evidence that points to the fact that yes, some foods we eat can improve – or worsen – our OCD symptoms.
Dietary changes are not FDA-approved to treat OCD, nor should you ever stop your professional OCD treatment without talking to a doctor. If you’re looking for a magical “OCD diet” that will cure you of your symptoms, you’ll be disappointed to hear that no such thing exists. OCD recovery is a complex process that usually includes a combination of CBT intervention, psychiatric medication, and lifestyle changes.
However, there is some evidence that suggests that a healthy diet could play a role in making your OCD symptoms more manageable. Best of all, eating healthy foods doesn’t have any negative side effects, and will benefit other parts of your overall health as well. And the better you feel overall, the less stressed you’ll be. And the less stressed you are, more manageable your OCD will be.
Vitamins and minerals for OCD
More research needs to be conducted on what specific foods can help OCD sufferers feel better. However, the following are just some of the vitamins and minerals that you should make sure you’re getting enough of if you have OCD. Research has shown that not having enough of these nutrients could be associated with OCD (as well as other psychiatric disorders).
By getting enough of these vitamins, you can ensure that your brain is in the best condition it can be to manage the effects of OCD. Antioxidants like vitamin C and beta-carotene especially have been found to decrease symptoms of anxiety; when you’re living with OCD, anything that lessens fear and anxiety even slightly is something that’s worth trying.
On top of these vitamins, the brain chemical called serotonin is essential to our overall mental well-being. Serotonin plays just as large of a factor in OCD as it does in depression, so eating a diet that maintains healthy levels of serotonin levels in the brain could scientifically make a big difference to the intensity of your OCD symptoms.
The amino acid tryptophan has been linked to the regulation and production of serotonin in your brain. You can make sure your brain is getting enough tryptophan by eating foods like:
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy (like cottage cheese)
- Beans and other legumes
- Nuts and seeds
- Dark chocolate
Many of these foods will also supply you with other nutrients that are good for your mental health; for example, nuts and seeds are filled with omega-3s that are important for your mood.
OCD and blood sugar
Some researchers have theorized that OCD symptoms might be linked to the levels of blood sugar in your body. It’s been suggested that insulin resistance might lead to hypoglycemia (unstable blood sugar levels), which leads to a release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Some scientists think that OCD may be connected to blood sugar in this way.
We need more research to know for sure whether or not this is true. But eating healthy foods to better manage blood sugar doesn’t come with any harmful effects, and is good for our overall health. Avoid refined sugars and processed food in general..
Foods for OCD and mood issues
OCD and depression are also highly linked. Any food or nutrient that has been shown to improve your mood is likely to make you feel better overall. To optimize your diet for a better mood and less depression, be sure you’re eating enough:
- Fish, nuts, and other sources of omega 3s
- Whole grains
- Fruits, veggies, and other foods with Vitamin C
In general, eating healthy foods that are recommended for optimal brain health in general is likely to help (or at least not harm) your OCD symptoms, as well. OCD is a disease of the brain, so when our brain is in good shape, it’s better prepared to combat the symptoms of OCD.
Foods that Could Make OCD Worse
There are also certain foods and ingredients that are best to avoid if you have OCD, panic attacks, or severe anxiety. Although more research is needed to say conclusively whether some of these foods worsen symptoms, there is some evidence that points to the fact that at minimum, they could make your anxiety symptoms worse.
Like we discussed before, there’s a theory that says that OCD might be linked to unstable blood sugar levels, so it might be helpful to avoid foods that further destabilize our glucose levels, like foods that are full of refined sugars.
Whether or not this theory is true, though, sugary foods have a known link to heightened anxiety. Given that feelings of anxiety and worry is one of the most common symptoms of OCD, it would behoove anyone living with OCD to try to avoid refined sugars as much as possible.
Coffee and other caffeinated beverages
Coffee actually has an interesting relationship with OCD; research hasn’t shown conclusively whether caffeine is good or bad for OCD symptoms. There is a lot of evidence, though, that caffeine increases anxiety symptoms, so having too much caffeine could make you feel more anxious, worried, and fearful.
Be mindful of your caffeine consumption, and pay attention to how you feel after you’ve had a cup of coffee. If you notice your anxiety or OCD is worse on days you’ve had caffeine, try cutting it out altogether.
There has been some research conducted that suggests that dietary glutamate, specifically monosodium glutamate (MSG), worsens OCD symptoms. MSG is a common additive found in many processed foods, including fast food (especially Chinese food) and potato chips.
We need more research to know for sure whether MSG worsens OCD. However, MSG has other proven health consequences, like neurotoxicity and reproductive damage. If you can, it’s best to avoid foods with MSG altogether.
Alcohol has been so normalized in our society that we often view it as harmless, but in reality, it’s far from it. Especially when you’re living with a mental illness like OCD, you should avoid consuming any drug — including alcohol.
It’s tempting to indulge in an alcoholic drink to try to escape from the symptoms of OCD, but remember that this relief is only temporary. When the effects of alcohol wear off, your OCD will come back stronger than ever.
Tips to Start a Healthy Diet
If you’re like most of us, then this isn’t the first article you’ve read that has told you about the importance of eating a healthy diet. Especially when we suffer from disorders like anxiety or OCD, it’s crucial to take care of our bodies and avoid foods that make symptoms worse.
At the same time, your relationship with food might be complicated. Many of us eat not only for health and caloric purposes, but for comfort.You might have tried to give up unhealthy foods like alcohol or caffeine before, but found it too difficult to keep up with.
If you’re struggling with eating healthy food, follow these tips. One step at a time, you’ll be able to implement a healthy diet into your daily routine.
Set realistic goals
If you’re having 10 cups of coffee throughout the day now, it might not be realistic to set a goal to stop drinking coffee altogether. Or maybe it is; you know yourself best. The point is to set goals that are realistic for you. Think about what you know about yourself. Are you someone who’s able to stick to goals, even when they’re hard, with a bit of willpower? Or do you need to take things one step at a time?
Remember your motivations
Often, people make inspiration boards of what they want their body to look like after they’ve lost weight by eating healthy. But this isn’t about your body — it’s about something much more important than that: your mental health.
Remind yourself of your “why”. Of course, maybe part of your “why” is to lose weight, gain muscle, and feel more confident. But don’t forget that a healthy diet can also make OCD symptoms more manageable, too. What would life be like if your OCD was under control? How would it be better? What would you do with the time you gained back from your compulsions?
Out of sight, out of mind
This is a coping tool that’s often taught to people recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction: be careful with what you keep in the house. The idea is that you’re less likely to eat unhealthy foods if they aren’t closeby. Sure, you could go to the store to buy some, but you’re much less likely to put in that effort than to snack on unhealthy food when it’s already around and easily accessed.
When you go grocery shopping, don’t buy foods that you know make your OCD worse. For example, if you’re trying to stop drinking wine every night, don’t buy a bottle of wine.
Mindful eating is a practice taught by both psychologists and Buddhist spiritual teachers. The idea is to be completely present with your food, and only your food, when you’re eating. This will help you to notice when you’re satisfied, and prevent you from snacking mindlessly just for the sake of snacking.
Too many of us eat while we’re watching TV or scrolling social media. The next time you sit down for a meal, try turning all of your electronics off. Really use all of your senses to fully experience your meal. What does it look like? What colors are present? What does it smell like? Take some time to inhale the aroma of your food before taking a bite. Chew slowly and savor each bite before reaching for the next forkful.
Don’t get obsessive
As we’ll talk about later, anything can become a compulsion — even healthy eating. Make sure that your OCD isn’t taking over your eating goals. If you notice that your diet is becoming a compulsive behavior – if you’re eating (or not eating) to avoid the anxiety that an obsessive thought brings – then talk to your mental health provider.
Forgive yourself for mistakes in your healthy eating journey. If you eat some junk food one day, it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. Your OCD may trick you into all-or-nothing thinking, but try to remember that this is irrational. You can still be eating a healthy diet, even if you had a hamburger one day.
OCD, Compulsive Dieting, and Eating Disorders: A Special Warning
Of course, this is OCD we’re talking about, so anything can become an obsession or a compulsive behavior. If you decide to make changes to your diet to try to improve your OCD symptoms, make sure that those changes don’t become a compulsion in and of itself.
This is an especially important warning to heed because of the relationship that OCD has with eating disorders. Although eating disorders and OCD belong to different categories of mental illness, they share many similarities in the way they present. The behaviors that people with eating disorders present with – like refusing food, purging, or binge eating – can be viewed as compulsive.
Researchers have studied the links between eating disorders and OCD. They’ve found that eating disorders and OCD often appear together in the same person, and that people with eating disorders have a much higher rate of OCD than the general population.
Moreover, people with OCD often suffer from a mental illness called body dysmorphic disorder. This mental illness leads people to see or feel their body in a distorted way that isn’t representative of the truth. Often, people with body dysmorphic disorder develop a disordered relationship with food and eating to try to get closer to their ideal body shape.
If you find yourself wanting to change or control your diet for unhealthy reasons, then talk to a doctor about how you can eat healthily and take care of your mental health at the same time. For example, if you’re changing your diet primarily to change your body (in an inappropriate or unhealthy way), or you’re using your new dietary changes to avoid the anxiety that an obsessive thought brings, then be careful.
For example, let’s say Anna lives with OCD. She reads this article, and decides that she wants to start eating a healthy diet to manage her symptoms better. She starts on a Mediterrenean diet, filled with fish, healthy fats, and fruits and vegetables. It starts off well, but soon, her OCD starts filling her mind with obsessions.
Anna starts having intrusive thoughts like, “I didn’t eat enough veggies today, so I’ll probably feel really terrible. I might even have an intolerable OCD spike and not be able to work. I better eat this full bag of carrots, just in case.” Or, “Did I really eat that piece of fish for dinner last night, or am I remembering wrong? What if I actually ate a cheeseburger instead, and I just don’t remember? That means I’m going to gain weight!”
In general, if you have been diagnosed with an eating disorder alongside your OCD (or are experiencing the symptoms of one), ask a professional for advice on how you can eat in a way that’s truly healthy for both your body and your mind.
Other Lifestyle Changes for OCD
Obviously, healthy food choices can’t replace evidence-based treatment for OCD symptoms, especially if they’re severe. The gold-standard in OCD treatment is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy called Exposure and Response Prevention (or ERP), which helps OCD sufferers to learn to sit with obsessions instead of reacting to them. Psychiatric medication, especially a class of antidepressants called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), have also been found to be effective in decreasing OCD symptoms.
On top of professional mental health treatment, though, there are also other lifestyle changes you can make that will help you to better manage your OCD symptoms. These lifestyle changes likely won’t cure you of OCD, but they can make a difference in how you feel, especially if you experience depression alongside your OCD.
Some of the things you can do to make sure you’re living a life that supports your OCD recovery are:
Get good sleep
Getting enough restful sleep each night is one of the best things we can do for our overall health, both physical and mental. Our brains work better when they’re rested, so make sure you get between 7 to 9 hours of restful sleep each night.
Exercising keeps our brains healthy. When we exercise, hormones in your brain are released that are responsible for regulating and uplifting your mood. Experts recommend that you try to get at least 15 minutes of intense exercise or 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day.
Surrounding yourself with social support is one of the most helpful things for your mental health. Whether you’re part of an official OCD support group or it’s your family and friends who are there for you, stay connected and don’t isolate. If you don’t have any support in your life, online OCD communities can be helpful places when used correctly.
Recovery From OCD Is Possible
Your OCD recovery plan is likely to include a combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes like changing your diet. It might also include self-help tools, like our Impulse Therapy program. No matter what your unique treatment plan looks like, recovery from OCD is within reach with the right help.