Diet and OCD: Is There a Link?

Scrupulosity Video Post

Jaimie Eckert

Published on Aug 18, 2020; Updated on Aug 18, 2020

I’ve never been a fad “dieter,” but I believe the food we eat has a strong impact on our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual lives.

One of the first commandments God ever gave to human beings involved the foods they should and shouldn’t eat (Genesis 2:16-17). Before Samson was born, God gave special instructions as to what the pregnant mother and the son born for the deliverance of Israel should avoid eating (Judges 13:2-5). Of the few details we know about John the Baptist, one significant detail is the surprising simplicity of his diet (Matthew 3:4).

The food we eat does impact multiple spheres of life. Diet is involved in weight, heart health, longevity, brain health, memory, emotional health, and even spiritual acumen.

eating healthy for OCD

On this site, we talk specifically about scrupulosity — that is, religious OCD. So the question arises — if diet can impact all those areas of life… ??

Can diet affect our OCD, as well?

Join me as I embark on a journey to find out.

Diet and OCD: A Real Can of Worms — Uh, Beans.

I eat pretty healthy. Sort of.

I’ve eaten a vegetarian diet most of my life, but it hasn’t always been a healthy one. See, my mom used to work in a deli, and she got grossed out by the compromised integrity of meat handling practices.

As a kid, we replaced real meat with fake meat and tofu, and heaped on the carbs.

As an adult, I remained vegetarian, and married a fellow vegetarian (half our family on both sides is vegetarian or vegan — so it’s not a “scrupulosity thing,” it’s a lifestyle choice we feel is meaningful.)

My vegetarian diet isn’t perfect. I eat a lot of carbs, and probably a bit too much oil and sugar.

too much sweets for OCD

But I’m fairly healthy. As a “responsible” adult, I eat a salad every day. I eat fruit with my breakfast cereal. About a third of my diet is fresh fruits and vegetables. I use olive oil instead of nasty oils. I eat nuts and seeds instead of dairy to get my calcium.

Not perfect, but not bad, either. It never really crossed my mind that diet might be implicated in obsessive-compulsive disorder.

An Intriguing Idea

A few months ago, I came across a fascinating article on Medium. The headline boldly declared,I Had Severe OCD for Decades, and then I Changed my Diet,” by John Zoshak.

Surprise of surprises, Zoshak didn’t have just any old OCD — he had scrupulosity (which is what we’re all about here at scrupulosity.com)!

After contracting Crohn’s disease, Zoshak made some dietary changes to deal with gut health and noticed a very significant decrease of symptoms. He says,

I did all of these things in hopes of healing my chronic physical illness — what I did not expect was a near complete elimination of my OCD symptoms. About three months after initiating the new diet, exercising, meditating, and adhering to my drug regimen — I woke up one day and realized I wasn’t experiencing any symptoms. I wasn’t stuck in my head anymore, and I found that although weird thoughts occurred, I could more easily set them aside. I was incredulous. OCD was a specter haunting my life for decades and then one day, it vanished. What could have caused this to happen?

John Zoshak

He hypothesized that his dietary changes were responsible for this incredible lifting of symptoms. A follow-up article described his new diet: low carb, high protein, high fats (the good kind), and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Somewhere he mentioned the word “paleo,” and my vegetarian bias kicked in.

This isn’t for me, I thought. I can never eat animals.

If an OCD diet meant chomping on meat, I figured I would have to just suffer through my obsessions. I filed Zoshak’s article in the back of my mind and moved on.

A Non-Inflammatory Diet for OCD

Until yesterday. I stumbled across an article entitled, “Brain Inflammation and OCD.”

It piqued my interest.

The article described a study done with 40 participants — 20 who had OCD, and 20 who did not. They scanned their brains for signs of inflammation, and discovered that the people with OCD had 32% more brain inflammation than those without OCD.

That statistic is HUGE!

I quickly googled to find out what can cause brain inflammation, and the data was all there. Everything that Zoshak cut out of his diet is the stuff that causes brain inflammation.

Refined carbs. Sugar. Bad oils and fried foods. Processed foods.

people with OCD love a carb-rich diet

I couldn’t help but do a little self-reflection. Sure, I don’t eat much fried or processed food, but I eat a lot of refined carbs and sugar. Could it be possible that the foods I eat cause brain inflammation? Could this be exacerbating my OCD symptoms?

I decided this data was too good to let it slip past. I had to find out.

The OCD Trial Diet

One day of thinking and a shopping trip later, I’m ready to dive into the experiment.

Here’s the plan.

Four weeks. Lower carbs, higher protein, higher fat. Lots of intentionally anti-inflammatory foods like nuts, leafy greens, and turmeric.

And we’ll observe — what happens to the background static of OCD?

Does it go down? Does it remain the same? Yes, I’ve had my scrupulosity under good control for some years now, but the background noise is always there, always needing a bit of maintenance. If there’s something I can do to improve even more, I’m ready!

Especially if there’s something in my journey that will help you.

That’s why I’ll be sharing a four-part blog series as I go through this experiment. I don’t think it will be easy, but maybe you’ll send me some cheers in the comments to keep me going!

(I mean, if only you could see how much kale I just bought.) ??

I don’t have an exact diet I’m going for. I’m not really a big fan of labels. What I can say is that I usually eat about 60% carbs, 15% protein, and 25% fat. I’m hoping to bring that to about 40% carbs, 40% fat, and 20% protein. I’ll be removing most grains from my diet — including

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Baked goods and sweets
  • Breakfast cereal

I’ll also be removing sugar. That’s right — no sugar for an entire month. Thankfully, since I already don’t eat much processed food, it’s pretty easy for me to isolate sugar sources in my diet. This includes

  • My daily Mars bar (noooooo…) ?
  • Condiments like ketchup or salad dressings
  • Sweetened beverages
  • Added sugar to sauces and recipes

I’ll be removing nasty oil sources, such as

  • Fried foods
  • Vegetable oils
  • Hydrogenated margarine
finding the right kind of fat for an OCD diet

But I’m not merely subtracting. For a healthy OCD diet, I’m also adding. I’ll be emphasizing foods that are helpful for reducing inflammation:

  • Leafy greens (especially kale)
  • Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage and broccoli
  • Fruit (especially those high in antioxidants, like citrus and berries)
  • Cholesterol-free protein sources like beans and soy (cholesterol is known to increase inflammation, so it’s important to continue avoiding it)
  • Egg whites (the cholesterol in eggs is only found in the yolks — however, the egg whites are a nutritious vegetarian source of protein)
  • Nuts, seeds, avocado, and olive oil for healthy fats
  • Superfoods for inflammation, such as turmeric, ginger, and garlic

The Experimental Diet Begins

It’s August 18 — day 1 of the anti-inflammatory OCD diet.

For breakfast I made a bowl of unsweetened chia pudding, just by mixing chia seeds and soy milk and letting it thicken in the fridge. I added chopped nectarines and had a dozen almonds and a grapefruit on the side.

Surprisingly, it was tasty, even without the added sprinkle of sugar. And I didn’t get my first hunger pangs until noon.

For lunch, I made a gargantuan kale salad and topped it with sautéed mushrooms, which are a surprisingly rich source of ergotheonine, a substance that protects against cell damage. I also added a handful of toasted sunflower seeds, a few strawberries, and a cup of gorgeous green edamame. Instead of a sweetened dressing, I splashed a simple olive oil and lemon mixture on the whole salad.

low carb lunch

For dinner (which is usually light), I’m planning on an egg-white omelette full of vegetables and colored yellow with turmeric (since I’m removing the colorful but cholesterol-y yolk).

So far, it’s been tasty and satisfying. I am excited to see if an anti-inflammatory diet makes a difference for my anxiety. But I have two main concerns:

  1. Will I lose weight? and,
  2. Will I get unbearable carb and sugar cravings?

I know it sounds uncommon to hear a woman say so, but I don’t want to lose weight. This morning I weighed in at 52.5 kg (about 115 pounds). Since I’m 5′ 4″, that gives me a BMI in the lower-middle side of “healthy.” Losing 10 pounds would put me in the “underweight” category. But I’ve been around 52 – 54 kgs for most of my adult life, and I have a positive body image. I like the way I am.

I don’t want to lose weight, and am a little worried that cutting my carbs might make that happen.

My other fear is that I’ll get such terrible food jealousy while I watch my husband eat bread and pasta that I’ll ditch the whole experiment. I’m an HSP, so yes — I do get hangry. I hope I will still manage to feel satiated during the course of the trial!

And if not… ?

Conclusion

Stay tuned, and check back to read my progress over the next four weeks. I’ll try to put out progress reports on Wednesdays to let you know what I’m eating and how it’s affecting my OCD awareness (if at all).

Remember, the brain is an organ. Just like the kidneys and liver and heart need special care, the brain does, too.

I have a colleague in the seminary who likes to say, “we’re not brains on sticks.” What he means is that any form of dualism that places the physical in one box and the mental/emotional/spiritual in another box is inappropriate theology. The brain has no way of interfacing with the world except through our bodies, and thus, the things we do in the body — eating, sleeping, exercising, experiencing life — affect the mind.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey to understand a bit better how we can help our OCD brains achieve strength and wellness. What do you think will be the results after four weeks? Have you ever tried a diet to help your OCD? Let me know about it in the comments below!

Best wishes on the journey,

jaimie-eckert-signature
  • Hi, let us know if you ever finish this experiment. One of my sources of anxiety (in fact I obsessively ruminate about it!) is that as a (very headstrong) boy of 7, I decided to become vegetarian (although not vegan until adulthood). Looking back, this coincided with the onset of my severe chronic OCD that I have had in one form or another ever since.

    I worry that the lack of nutrients from animals (esp Omega 3 and animal proteins) may have impacted my brain development to have caused or exacerbated my OCD permanently. My mother did her best to much sure my diet was healthy, but less was common knowledge in the 90s, especially about the importance of Omega 3s and DHA not being readily bioavailable in plants, so I did not supplement (and didn't eat fish). I also have read some studies that brain development in males could be more adversely impacted by vegetarianism in childhood than for females.

    What do you think about this and do you think my vegetarian diet throughout childhood and adolescence may have been causative factor in my development of severe chronic OCD?

    • Hi Joshua,
      Those are really good questions to ask. I don’t have an answer for them. I’m in agreement that a vegetarian/vegan diet, if done incorrectly, can leave us with many lacking nutrients. And although the plant-based diet is superb for preventing heart disease, cancer, obesity, and a host of other killers, we have to make sure we get all our nutrition. That’s why I prefer the term “plant-based diet” over the term vegetarianism or veganism. Veganism only talks about what you leave OUT (meat and dairy). But looking back, during childhood we ate a lot of empty carbs and sugar, which are technically “vegan.” French fries and Oreo cookies are vegan, but they aren’t healthy! I don’t know if that had an impact on brain development, but it’s something I’ll look into.

      As an adult, I supplement B12 with oral vitamins and I get my omega 3’s with ground flaxseed almost every day (my understanding is that this form is more effective than the supplemental omega 3 oils). Adding a heaping tablespoon of ground flaxseed to your fruit bowl every morning is an easy way to get your daily dose. As far as DHA, I’ve not worried about that but might start worrying about it if you tell me I should, lol. 🙂

      I really don’t have an answer for you about diet as a causative factor during the developmental stages of brain growth, but there does seem to be evidence that poor diets in adulthood can exacerbate symptoms. That’s been the best I’ve been able to find so far!

  • its so wonderful, actually I suffer from OCD and recently i decided to change my diet. is it possible to know how your diet goes on?

    • Hi Ana,
      Unfortunately I didn’t complete my experiment (see my reply to Jeff). But generally speaking, I eat a plant based diet and have done so since I was about 7. My brother had a bad case of asthma and the doctor said it might help to remove milk and cheese from his diet, so our whole family decided to do it together with him. We all had such great health improvements that we never went back. Back in the 90’s, veganism was kind of a “hippie” thing (which was weird, since none of us were hippies, although I do remember having a lava lamp and a few tie-dye shirts, but I think most 90’s kids did!) But 90’s version veganism was more of a “thou shalt NOT eat” diet which just restricted the what you couldn’t eat. Today I much prefer the term “plant based” because it emphasizes what I DO eat. (almost) every day, I try my best to eat legumes, whole grains, cruciferous vegetables of some kind, allium vegetables of some kind, berries, other fruits, plant-based fats, and flax seeds. I follow Dr. Gregor pretty closely, the author of “How Not to Die” (he has some great resources at nutritionfacts.org). I have been on this diet for quite a while and I can’t imagine eating any other way. But it’s hard to tell how much it affects my OCD because I’ve eaten this way for so long. 🙂

    • Hi Jeff,
      My self-experiment got interrupted by chaotic social situations where I was living overseas…bank runs and grocery stores not being stocked properly etc. I didn’t finish the experiment (and any result would be anecdotal at best because one person isn’t a large enough sample to create a statistical result). BUT I do think the author I referenced (who claimed to cure his OCD with diet) is still probably onto something. I have been vegan for a long time and prioritize healthy eating, so the changes I saw with my experimental diet were small but still positive. I think the biggest impact would be seen in someone who eats dirty and makes a shift to really healthy food. That’s just a good idea for anyone with any mental health disorder, as we know that the brain is an organ that needs an optimal diet to work well.
      Sorry I didn’t finish! Maybe I’ll gather some test subjects and run an experiment on a bigger group in the future! ;P
      Jaimie

  • Thanks for raising awareness to the link between diet and OCD. That's not something I've heard much about. I'll be interested to hear how the diet works out. One of my friends recently had to drastically change her diet due to health reasons. She also eliminated carbs and sugars and she had a major sweet tooth. Now she's used to it and doesn't crave sugars anymore. So, it can be done.

    • Thanks for bringing this up. If you are taking a curcumin supplement — which is an extraction of only part of the turmeric plant — there is an oft-quoted study from the 1990’s that shows curcumin is absorbed better when paired with black pepper. However, if you are taking turmeric in its whole form (root or powder), you probably do not need black pepper to help with the absorption. Whole plants generally have all the constituents in them for bioavailability, but when humans start messing around and making artificial extractions of this or that substance, that’s when we start getting issues with bioavailability!

      On a side note, black pepper in high doses can affect the absorption rates of a lot of different compounds, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. Here’s an article that gives a good explanation: https://organicturmeric.com.au/really-need-black-pepper-absorb-turmeric/

      So yes, if you’re buying an expensive curcumin supplement you may benefit from taking it with black pepper, but if you’re eating whole dietary turmeric, it’s probably not necessary. Thank you for mentioning this!

  • https:undefinedundefinedwww.reddit.comundefinedrundefinedOCDundefinedcommentsundefinedxvpyjundefinedocd_and_inflammation_ibuprofenundefined?utm_source=xpromo&utm_medium=amp&utm_name=amp_comment_iterations&utm_term=control_2&utm_content=post_body

    This is an interesting link. It talks about food and the ocd connection. When you mentioned inflammation of the brain I wondered well could ibuprofens lessen this? It naught be worth a try. Apparently someone on this site finds relief from doing just that!! I know I’ve had infections probably more than the normal person. I wonder if this has contributed to brain inflammation. Apparently strep throat can cause ocd. Another curious nugget.

    • It’s an interesting thought! I would be hesitant to take ibuprofen daily because NSAIDs taken long-term can be harsh on the kidneys and liver. If it’s possible to use dietary interventions to reduce inflammation, without the damages of long-term NSAID use, that would probably be better!

  • Jaimie I am so excited that you’re doing this!! I think I read the story about the guy was scrupulous and used a diet change. I often wondered if it was just a placebo effect or maybe his medicine for OCD finally “kicked in”. I’ll be excited to read about your results. Also thank you very much for posting your YouTube ‘s. I found them helpful

    • I know, right? I’ve wondered about the placebo effect, too. Or maybe it was the fact that he started exercising at the same time. There are a lot of possible explanations for why one guy could experience such great improvements, and what I’m doing is clearly not a scientific setup nor can it be considered statistically significant in any way. But it’s definitely worth a try, and if my journey helps someone else, that will be even better. 🙂 Glad to have you around the blog!

  • Oh, this is exciting! You seem very determined, and you have your family to support you and help you on this journey. I'd give it a try myself, but my current life circumstances don't allow it. You could also try vlogging this experiment. I really hope it turns out successful.

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