A new study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association indicates adolescent vegetarians are more likely to have an eating disorder than their peers.
The study was designed to investigate the relationships between vegetarianism, weight and dieting behaviors in teenagers and young adults. Researchers found that 15 to 23-year-old vegetarians had healthier dietary intakes and were less likely to be overweight. The active vegetarians also displayed a higher incidence of disordered eating behaviors, including restriction, binging and purging. The highest risk group was young adults who’d formerly been vegetarians, with 27 percent displaying symptoms of an eating disorder.
The popular interpretation of this study has been an attack on adolescent vegetarianism. Admittedly any diet that allows you to reject an entire food group can be manipulated to benefit an eating disorder. Vegetarianism can also be a convenient excuse for someone looking to minimize or skip meals. In these instances, refusing meat is used as a method of restriction, which is distinctly different from vegetarianism motivated by morality or health concerns.
So I feel compelled to state the obvious – just because an eating disordered person is a vegetarian, it doesn’t mean they follow a vegetarian diet because of their eating disorder. Yes, I am a vegetarian, and yes, I am a recovering bulimic and anorexic. I began cutting meat out of my diet when I was 11 years old, before I had an eating disorder. My vegetarianism continues to be an ethical choice and has nothing to do with weight loss.
However I do think my vegetarianism and eating disorder share a common trait – thinking beyond the plate. In a society that encourages inhaling mass-produced junk food on a daily basis, conscious eating is a rarity. Very few people actually contemplate what they put in their mouth or how it will affect their body. Such blind consumption contributes to a slew of health issues, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. To be aware of where your food came from, to consider the impact it will have on your body, is exceptional. At its best, this attitude leads people to adopt a vegetarian diet. At its worst, this awareness contributes to a destructive mental illness.
It makes sense that people with eating disorders would also have moral opinions about where their food comes from. When you spend hours and days and years obsessing about the effect food has on your body, you are going to think about the food itself. You consider the ingredients, the processing and ultimately the origin. Spend enough time pondering these answers and vegetarianism is practically inevitable. But that does not mean the vegetarianism is disordered, it merely means the disorder helped bring you to vegetarianism.
Even when they coexist, a vegetarian diet and an eating disorder do not need to be codependent. You can recover from an eating disorder without consuming meat. My treatment team was very respectful of my beliefs. They helped me setup a meal plan that incorporated alternative sources of protein. One staff member even made special trips to the natural food store and brought me black bean burgers every week. They proved it was possible to refrain from meat while learning to eat again.
If you are a concerned parent, please realize that adolescent vegetarianism is not an eating disorder. It can be a very healthy and responsible diet. If your child decides to become a vegetarian, try to actively support that choice. Engage them in a conversation. Discuss their motivations and highlight the beneficial impact this can have on society and their long-term health. Then help your child eat a balanced diet. That may mean cooking special meals, or better yet teaching them to cook meatless dishes themselves. But don’t make them feel guilty about their choice. Mixing food with shame is a guaranteed recipe for an eating disorder. Support their decision now and you’ll build the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.