Vegetarianism, eating disorders, and teens

I know I'm not the first to blog on this subject, especially due to the fairly wide-ranging coverage of some new research that shows a relationship between vegetarianism and eating disordered behaviors in teenagers. Those current and former vegetarian teens showed higher levels of both binge eating (with loss-of-control) and "extreme unhealthy weight loss behaviors," respectively, than those teens who were never vegetarians. Young adult former vegetarians also showed higher rates of unhealthy weight loss behaviors.

The authors of the study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, said that current vegetarian teens had "healthier" diets than non-veggie teens, "with respect to fruits, vegetables, and fats." They also had lower BMIs. The problem is that if this lower BMI is due to unhealthy eating (into which category does fall too many veggies at the expense of fats and other macronutrients), then it's really not all that "healthy," is it?

Except no one really mentioned that.*

That vegetarianism can be a mask for eating disorders is pretty well-known, although not all vegetarians have eating disorders. What I didn't see mentioned--and what prompted me to write this, since others did a pretty good job of covering the subject--is the chronological relationship between these unhealthy behaviors and vegetarianism. What the authors implied seemed to be that the ED behaviors likely preceded the decision to become a vegetarian, which certainly happens. What is also possible is that a teen decides to cut out meat for ethical reasons (or for whatever reason that's not related to weight loss), and then slides into the eating disorder.

If he or she isn't eating enough (calories, fat, other micro/macro nutrients), they could be more likely to binge as the body responds to malnutrition. For those genetically predisposed to anorexia, it could trigger further restriction. Yet this idea wasn't really mentioned or even proposed as a possible hypothesis, and I really wish it was.

I'm not saying that vegetarianism is wrong or bad or any of that. I'm not especially carnivorous myself. But the relationship between vegetarianism and EDs may go both ways, and I think it is really important that people begin to recognize that.

It is important to note that the study didn't measure eating disorders, just the associated behaviors. However, many teens who engage in these unhealthy behaviors go on to develop full-blown eating disorders, so the findings are still significant.

*Granted, I couldn't get ahold of the full text of the article, but this question wasn't posed in any of the news coverage that I saw, either. Not that this always says very much.

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Cammy said...

I wonder if the binging behavior could specifically be related to anemia, if teens first embarking on vegetarianism aren't getting enough protein in their diets. I know for me personally, I feel weak and often just can't get full/satisfied if I don't have meat or a significant substitute once a day. I do about two vegetarian days a week for environmental reasons, but if I do them back-to-back I end up feeling low energy and generally icky. Having your system out of whack from subsisting purely on produce and carbs could really alter your appetite and create a variety of problems. Everyone's system is different, though, obviously. I've done fieldwork with vegans that put out amazing amounts of effort and performance while living on pretty much flour, rice, and Lara bars at the research station.

Carrie Arnold said...


That occurred to me. It would be interesting to see if the binge foods of veg/non-veg people are different.

As for the vegan comparison: I don't know how well their bodies would hold up long term, nor do they necessarily have the extensive damage done by AN that either you or I do.

Laur said...

If people are committed and do their research veganism and vegetarianism are very healthy ways of life, and do not=subsisting on flour and rice.

I think there may be binge cravings when any nutrient is lacking, not just iron.

The complications may come when one individual tries to combine vegetarianism or veganism AND other dietary restrictions, such as occur with dieting and EDs.
For instance, a healthy vegan will eat beans, nuts, and seeds as sources of protein, but if that vegan is afraid of carbs or fat, because of an ED, that makes it very hard to find anything to eat.

I think that often vegetarianism comes first, and precedes an ED in some people, but I do not think it CAUSES the ED.
I think that:
1.) people who are compassionate twd animals are also likely to be the sensitive people who are prone to EDs,
2.) for SOME people, vegetarianism is just an excuse to cut foods out and narrow down what they are allowed/expected to eat, but this is not why ALL vegetarians do it.

Carrie Arnold said...


You're right- there are healthy ways to be vegetarian.

I think not that veg can CAUSE an eating disorder, but that it could trigger one by creating low-level malnutrition. And in vulnerable people, this could lead to further food restrictions. This is the biological/neurochemical pathway that I don't think people pick up on, not even professionals. And I think it's worth discussing and investigating (where veg leads to ED, as opposed to ED leading to veg).

Anonymous said...

I really want to see more research on the issue.
My dear D who was always slender, became a vegan and I firmly believe that triggered the ED for her.
She has the classic personality traits and has never been physically robust. I think the lack of what she needed nutritionally even for a short time was enough to trigger the ED.

Anonymous said...

i became vegetarian following the onset of my eating disorder because it would help me when i was out with friends, or whatever, and restrict the choice i'd have in restaurants and fastfood places, hopefully willing me to make better decisions.

however, i've slowly gotten to a stage at which i don't want to go back to meat. ever. i'm not a true vegetarian, as i eat fish, but i am on the verge of quitting it through disgust. meat disgusts me now, and i'm a bit shocked that it got this bad for me. i was brought up on a farm, too, so this shouldn't be a problem. my boyfriend is NOT a happy bunny.

so vegetarianism, initially, was a weightloss thing, but i'd go back to it if the mere thought of it didn't make me feel nauseous. :(

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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