Vegetarians and eating disorders

8 posts / 0 new
Last post
Joined: 05/31/06
Posts: 4780
Vegetarians and eating disorders

Being a teenager means experimenting with foolish things like dyeing your hair purple or candy flipping or going door-to-door for a political party. Parents tend to overlook seemingly mild, earnest teen pursuits like joining the Sierra Club, but a new study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association suggests that another common teen fad, vegetarianism, isn't always healthy. Instead, it seems that a significant number of kids experiment with a vegetarian diet as a way to mask an eating disorder, since it's a socially acceptable way to avoid eating many foods and one that parents tend not to oppose.
The study, led by nutritionist Ramona Robinson-O'Brien, an assistant professor at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Minnesota, found that while adolescent and young adult vegetarians were less likely than meat eaters to be overweight and more likely to eat a relatively healthful diet, they were also more likely to binge eat. Although most teens in Robinson-O'Brien's study claimed to embark on vegetarianism to be healthier or to save the environment and the world's animals, the research suggests they may be more interested in losing weight than protecting cattle or swine. (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)
For one thing, many young "vegetarians" continue to eat the white meat of defenseless chickens (25% in the current study) as well as the flesh of those adorable animals known as fish (46%), even when they are butchered and served up raw as sushi. And in a 2001 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers found that the most common reason teens gave for vegetarianism was to lose weight or keep from gaining it. Adolescent vegetarians are far more likely than other teens to diet or to use extreme and unhealthy measures to control their weight, studies suggest. The reverse is also true: teens with eating disorders are more likely to practice vegetarianism than any other age group.
In a research venture called Project EAT-II: Eating Among Teens, Robinson-O'Brien and her team surveyed 2,516 young Minnesotans, ages 15 to 23. Of the respondents, 108 (or 4.3%) described themselves as currently vegetarian, another 268 (10.8%) said they were former vegetarians and the rest were lifelong meat eaters. The researchers found that in one sense, the vegetarians were healthier: they tended to consume less than 30% of their calories as fat, while non-vegetarians got more than 30% of their calories from fat. Not surprisingly, the vegetarians were also less likely to be overweight (17% were heavy vs. 28% of non-veggies). (See pictures of fruit.)
But approximately 20% of the vegetarians turned out to be binge eaters, compared with only 5% of those who had always eaten meat. Similarly, 25% of current vegetarians, ages 15 to 18, and 20% of former vegetarians in the same age group said they had engaged in extreme weight-control measures such as taking diet pills or laxatives and forcing themselves to vomit. Only 1 in 10 teens who had never been vegetarian reported similar behavior. (Read a brief history of veganism.)
This disparity in extreme behavior disappeared between current vegetarians and lifelong meat eaters in the older cohort, ages 19 to 23, with about 15% in each group reporting such weight-control tactics. But among former vegetarians, that number jumped to 27%. The findings suggest that age matters when it comes to vegetarianism: teenage vegetarians as well as young experimenters — those who try it but abandon it — may be at higher risk for other eating disorders compared with their peers. But by young adulthood, many still-practicing vegetarians have presumably chosen it as a lifestyle rather than a dieting ploy, the study suggests.
That being said, even among the young adults, current vegetarians reported binge eating more often than their peers, which the authors theorize can be explained by the fact that vegetarians are simply more aware and disciplined about what they eat and are, therefore, more likely to report overindulging. (It could also be that vegetarians are hungrier in general and somewhat more prone to bouts of binge eating.)
The authors suggest that parents and doctors should be extra vigilant when teens suddenly become vegetarians. Although teens may say they're trying to protect animals, they may actually be trying to camouflage some unhealthy eating behaviors.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1889742,00.html#ixzz1Smpm3mmt

Bolding mine.

Do you believe that vegetarianism can be a trigger or is a side effect of an eating disorder in those especially vulnerable to them (teens)?

If your teenager (or younger child) stated that they wish to be a vegetarian (and you cook/feed your family meat) would you allow it, regardless of age? Would you ask the child to cook their own meals, or would you cook separate, non meat dishes for that child? Would you insist that the child eat meat while in your home?

Conversely, if you are veg, and your child or teen stated that they wished to consume meat, would you cook it for them? Is there a certain age where you would allow your child complete dietary choice autonomy?

RebeccaA'07's picture
Joined: 11/19/07
Posts: 1628

Interesting study. Not sure on the first point, I suppose that teens use many ways to hide eating disorders so it's not surprising that they use this. If we were a vegetarian household and my teen wanted to eat meat, I would go over risks/benefits of each way and ultimately let her decide. If she doesn't eat it at my house, she's going to get it somewhere so I don't see the difference. And same thing, if my teen came to me wanting to become a vegetarian and we were not, I would go over everything with her and then provide her with nutrutional options that didn't contain meat. Either way, she would be eating at my house.

zefroim's picture
Joined: 05/18/06
Posts: 126

Interesting findings. The thing that stuck out for me was this:

And in a 2001 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers found that the most common reason teens gave for vegetarianism was to lose weight or keep from gaining it.

If this is true then I would say that teenagers need much more education on healthy eating. Lean protein is one of the best things to eat when trying to lose and/or maintain your weight.

Do you believe that vegetarianism can be a trigger or is a side effect of an eating disorder in those especially vulnerable to them (teens)? Probably

If your teenager (or younger child) stated that they wish to be a vegetarian (and you cook/feed your family meat) would you allow it, regardless of age? Would you ask the child to cook their own meals, or would you cook separate, non meat dishes for that child? Would you insist that the child eat meat while in your home? I certainly wouldn't insist they eat meat. We already go meatless a few nights a week. I might not always cook a separate meal for them but would have no problem stocking our house with healthy alternatives.

Conversely, if you are veg, and your child or teen stated that they wished to consume meat, would you cook it for them? Is there a certain age where you would allow your child complete dietary choice autonomy? Not sure. I think that I probably wouldn't cook meat in our home if the rest of the family was veg, but would have no problem if they ate meat outside the home.

elleon17's picture
Joined: 01/26/09
Posts: 1981

To be honest and open, this was me. Sad

I became a vegetarian in 8th grade as a way to lose weight. I said it was because I gave it up for lent and just kept going with it. It really was an excuse to live on very little calories (salads with veggies and no dressing are not enough calories in the day). In HS I would eat a packet of instant oatmeal for breakfast, one can of Juice for lunch, and then go to 3 hours of ballet/jazz after school. I hid alot of it because I would eat 'normally', but no meat at dinner with my family.

Funny (well not so to me), I was not all that thin. Not how you think I would be if you had these eating issues. I was a size 8, 5'9".

I do think this is something to watch when you teens switch suddenly in this behavior.

When I switched back to eating meat, I just replaced the bad habit with a new one, diruetics and purging. No one really knew, because like I said I never looked "bulimic", but it wasn't until I was 17 that I told my mom and slowly worked at getting over it. It has SCREWED up my metabolism. I still struggle with wanting to be unhealthy to be skinny and now I eat around 1500 calories a day (and exercise) and can't get below a size 12/14. The mental desire to do anything to be thin never goes away.

Andy1784's picture
Joined: 09/18/08
Posts: 1372

Do you believe that vegetarianism can be a trigger or is a side effect of an eating disorder in those especially vulnerable to them (teens)?
Makes sense that this happens.

If your teenager (or younger child) stated that they wish to be a vegetarian (and you cook/feed your family meat) would you allow it, regardless of age? Would you ask the child to cook their own meals, or would you cook separate, non meat dishes for that child? Would you insist that the child eat meat while in your home?
I think several of the meals I cook would still be complete without thew meat. We go meatless once or twice a week anyway. I think I would cook the same as I do only have the meat seperate for most meals and on the days that the food is not nutritionally complete without the meat, I would add a side of tofu, lentils, cup of greek yogurt or whatever.

Conversely, if you are veg, and your child or teen stated that they wished to consume meat, would you cook it for them? Is there a certain age where you would allow your child complete dietary choice autonomy?
I guess it depends on how morally against it I was. Since I'm not it is hard to say exactly what would happen. If I was a vegetarian for health reasons, I would try to educate my teen in regards to it and then probably still cook for them if they wanted a chicken breast. If I was against animal cruelty then maybe I would only let them have meat that they prepare themselves. I can't imagine that I would not ever allow meat in the house. Either way I would try to educate them on why I make the choices I do and hope that my leading by example eventually gets through to them.

Joined: 03/14/09
Posts: 624

Yes, I absolutely believe that veg*nism can be a way for some people (not just teens!) to have more control over their food, which is a symptom of eating disorders. That doesn't make it any less of a valid lifestyle choice.

On one hand, if my children chose to be a veg*n, I would on one hand be very proud, but on the other it would be very very difficult. I gave up veg*nism when I arrived in this country because it is very hard to eat a balanced diet in the budget that I have. Not to mention that my husband would not be happy without meat in his meals if the rest of us gave it up. I do not have the time or energy to cook two meals, even if there were healthy alternatives available to me. It would be great if my kids made veg*n food themselves, but they'd run into the same problems of not having items available locally for a fully balanced diet.

fuchsiasky's picture
Joined: 11/16/07
Posts: 955

I could see it happening. I think there is actually an eating disorder label for excessive restrictions on types of food. In the end it is all about control of food though. If my child were to choose to become a vegetarian we would be having a lot of conversations about the motivations behind it. It would be something to pay attention whether it was weight related or not. You have to put some thought into your food to be a healthy vegetarian.

Spacers's picture
Joined: 12/29/03
Posts: 4100

Do you believe that vegetarianism can be a trigger or is a side effect of an eating disorder in those especially vulnerable to them (teens)? No. People choose to be vegetarian because they are concerned about their health, they are concerned about animals, or both. I do believe vewgetarianism is an easy (and rather acceptable) way for someone to disguise an eating disorder. But it's not the other way around, and I think this article shows that.

If your teenager (or younger child) stated that they wish to be a vegetarian (and you cook/feed your family meat) would you allow it, regardless of age? Would you ask the child to cook their own meals, or would you cook separate, non meat dishes for that child? Would you insist that the child eat meat while in your home? N/A Blum 3 But I've had this conversation with a few friends whose children have wanted to become vegetarian. I've encouraged them to embrace it, because at that age it's almost always an ethical decision and far better IMHO to guide them to healthy decison-making than have them eliminate meat anyway and live on mac & cheese or french fries. I hated being forced to eat meat when I was child, and I avoided it as much as possible, which sometimes meant just not eating. I have no doubt that my multiple broken bones as a teenager was directly due to my poor diet. I also believe this is what led to my overeating as an adult when I discovered that there was so many more foods "out there" to eat! It's really not very hard to accomodate one veghead, slap a meatless patty on the grill instead of a burger, add some beans to taco night, leave the pepperoni off half the pizza, etc.

Conversely, if you are veg, and your child or teen stated that they wished to consume meat, would you cook it for them? Is there a certain age where you would allow your child complete dietary choice autonomy? We had this discussion recently when Tiven wanted to eat some cat food. :roll: Our stance is that we won't allow meat to be cooked in our home, but she can bring in things like lunchmeat or takeout chicken when she can afford to buy them herself. We provide her with plenty of good food & treats that are within our ethical beliefs so meat will be considered an extra like candy & gum that she pays for herself. Things like school lunches that we have no way of controlling what she orders, we just hope we've taught her well.