Thursday, April 2, 2009

Vegetarianism and eating disorder risk

AP photo from the LA Times

First off, I find this photo absolutely hilarious! I know it is for promoting vegetarianism, but those vegetable costume cut outs are just incredibly silly. It kind of reminds me of PETA's sexy lettuce ladies who also are known for similar antics as mentioned here in the Philippines.

The story about vegetarianism and eating disorders is also found in the Daily Mail and ABC News, both of which add more details than the LA Times piece.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association looked at a self-reported survey of 2,516 young adults aged 15-23 about their eating behaviors, weight, and lifestyle. They found vegetarians on the whole ate healthier and had healthier weights than their meat-eating counterparts. However, of the former and current vegetarians, they reported they were twice as likely to use unhealthy measures to control their weight such as diet pills, laxatives, and purging than their non-vegetarian peers. About 20% of current vegetarians also reported binge eating and a feeling of loss of control.

Several questions the researchers asked were:

Does lack of meat in the diet make people more likely to binge?
Are people with a susceptibility to eating disorders attracted to vegetarianism in their teen years?

Whatever the answers are to these questions, the more important question to ask is what the motivations are for choosing a vegetarian lifestyle. This is a cue to parents to take interest in their child's answer, and if it is for weight loss, a red flag should be alerted. However, at the same time, many teens also answer that going vegetarian is about "health." This is when it can get tricky as the "health" scheme can become a guise for an already existing eating disorder or a pre-emptive eating disorder in conveniently restricting.

Sometimes I feel vegetarianism gets a bad rap in thinking that vegetarianism and eating disorders go hand in hand, but at the same time, I can ascertain why it's a big deal too. In the end, it comes down to personal choices. Hopefully, those choices will be ones that reflect true health, mindset, and beliefs and not just to determine a number on the scale..

Note: *Two related posts by bloggers Carrie (Vegetarianism and eating disorders) and Kim (Going vegetarian?)


Gaining Back My Life said...

Interesting (as always)! My sister became vegetarian right before she became bulimic.

p.s. word ver is: faces

Anonymous said...

I think it's a matter of vegetarians (and vegans!) getting all the nutrients and variety they need. I kind of doubt those vegetarians surveyed who binge are bingeing on meat. Or even protein... but perhaps lack of protein (or iron, or whatever else is more available in meat eaters diets than restrictive vegetarians) causes the urge to binge. (says the recovering restrictive bulimic vegan/vegetarian)

Kim said...

Very interesting (and timely, for me). I've decided there's no real need for me to go vegetarian right now. I don't want to mess with a good thing (and, yes, it's good right now). So, yeah. This is all very interesting. You find great news stories!

Just Eat It! said...

I always think there's risk with vegetarianism for eating disorders. Malnutrition changes brain chemistry. It's also very restrictive. I myself became a vegan because I "loved animals" (aka I wanted to restrict and lose weight).

Random Girl said...

I think that there are probably a multitude of reasons for finding such a correlation between eating disorders and vegetarianism. My personal opinion is that one very common reason for this occurrence could be due to eating disordered people's attempt to keep their disorder secret. Being a vegetarian is now widely accepted even by carnivores and serves as a convenient 'excuse' in many situations for not joining others in eating without looking suspicious. You may get questioned, but more out of curiosity about vegetarianism.

Of course I'm sure that is not the only reason why an eating disordered person might also be vegetarian (or a vegetarian become eating disordered)…but that is something that I have personally witnessed in a number of eating disordered individuals. I have also seen it be a gradual progression of restriction…where not only meat & animal products are cut out but whole other groups of foods as well. It’s just that cutting out all forms of, say, rice & pasta doesn’t have a label, like cutting out meat.

Anonymous said...

This also mentioned that quite a few of the "vegetarians" surveyed said they eat chicken or fish. I think this points to eating disordered people using vegetarianism as a cover.

I went vegetarian five or six years before I developed an eating disorder, so I don't think the two had anything to do with each other. I did eventually go vegan to cover up some of my eating habits, but it quickly became much more.

I really believed I was doing the right thing and I would eat vegan food even when there were lower-calorie non-vegan options. I'm still vegan now that I'm recovered.

I also wonder if it could be that the typical person with an eating disorder and the typical vegetarian share personality characteristics. Correlation does not equal causation; it could be that rather than one causing the other, they often occur separately in the same person.

It's certainly quite interesting.

Anonymous said...

Veg teens don't actually suffer from anemia more, since they tend to eat less junk than the average teen. It's an interesting question, which is why I think it's important to go veg for the right reasons. As an ethical vegan for six years (veg for much longer--went veg as a teenager), I don't really like how people with eating disorders have a hard time believing people can go veg without feeling restricted--it is quite possible!

Tiptoe said...

Everyone, great comments and questions asked by all.

GBML, interesting about your sister. Is she still bulimic and/or vegetarian? And has she ever thought of any correlation between the two for her?

700stories, I agree I do think it is about getting the right nutrients. That goes for any healthy eating period. It's hard to say for what is the exact cause for bingeing. My thinking is that it could be both physiological and emotional.

Kim, glad you made a decision about it. It sounds like right now why fix things that aren't broken which can be a good thing in the long run.

JEI, I agree about malnutrition. It can just screw up so much in your brain chemistry.

Random Girl, it's true that the ED thrives on secrecy, and being veg. can be an easy cover certainly.

I think the name for cutting out pasta and rice (and probably breads too for that matter) is the Atkins' Diet. :grin:

Anon1, I agree, in some cases it is undoubtedly a cover. There could certainly be similarities in personality. I don't know if much has been studied about that.

It's also great that you decided veganism was for you for the right reasons.

Anon2, I think veg. are more likely to be B12 deficient. Some, I'm sure about anemic, but others may not be. It really depends on the sources of foods they are eating.

As for your last comment, you may want to read GreyThinking's post called "a dishonest vegeatrian" ( She raises a similar question.

Random Girl said...

Tiptoe ~ lol on the Atkins

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