Vegetarianism and eating disorders

It's common for many people with eating disorders to be vegetarian. Many times, going veggie is a way to mask food restriction. After all, it's ethical, right?

And no doubt many people are vegetarian for ethical reasons. Some, however, aren't.

I see vegetarianism and eating disorders as a chicken and egg question. Is eschewing meat a way to hide food fears? Or did giving up meat set the ball in motion, inadvertently creating an environment of slight malnutrition where an eating disorder could creep in?

The fact is, we might never know.

But researchers did find that a vegetarian and vegan diet can cause brain shrinkage, due to a lack of Vitamin B12 in the diet. They were six times more likely to have this brain atrophy than their meat-eating counterparts.

Vitamin B12 is only found in animal sources* and "which is important for the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, and for the formation of blood. It is normally involved in the metabolism of every cell of the body, especially affecting DNA synthesis and regulation, but also fatty acid synthesis and energy production." (from the Wikipedia entry)

Anorexia is also found to cause brain atrophy- again, thought to be due to a lack of proper nutrition. No one has yet studied whether these two mechanisms are the same, or just have the same end result.

Can a vegetarian diet be healthy? Absolutely! Do you need to be very careful and seek professional nutritional counseling? Yes. Do you need to do some soul-searching and question your motives? Yes.

A vegetarian diet isn't bad, but there are risks. Just like there are risks to anything.

*Aussies, take heart. Yeast extract contains relatively large amounts of Vitamin B12, so slather that Marmite on and enjoy!

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Anonymous said...

We Aussies eat Vegemite, actually :P

On a more serious note...this post rang very true to me. I "became vegetarian" when I was 11 as the only way I could begin to exert some control over my own diet. It was the first step towards a long (and in some ways still continuing) battle with food. Within a year I wasn't eating anything I wasn't forced to and had lost 10 kilos. Within another year I'd lost nearly 10 more.

My vegetarianism was the only thing standing between me and my parents forcing me to eat the same food as them...and I clung to it publicly, even after my abusive relationship with food changed and I started secretly binging on burgers.

More recently, my father also became vegetarian, and a couple of years later went on a competely over the top diet and excercise regime which landed him in hospital.

I am now highly suspicious, whether I want to be or not, of anyone who newly claims to be vegetarian, and I find myself watching them very carefully.

Carrie Arnold said...

Sorry- I spent 3 weeks in NZ, and I couldn't remember which country ate which. I tried it a number of times, and it did grow on me. A bit. :)

But I find myself suspicious of sudden claims of vegetarianism as well. I do eat lots of veggie products, but I also eat meat.

mary said...

I think it would be easy enough to become depleted in a meat eaters diet too. My kids who became vegetarians are mindful of their needs and eat quite well and I do too when I join them. I've had some lovely feasts that were balanced and tasty. No risk of brain shrinkage here!
While we need to be watchful of those who are restricting just to restrict there can be a wholesome and filling choice no matter which way. You make a good point about being watchful though.An ED can be quite sneaky and manipulating.

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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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