Vegetarian Diets and Disordered Eating Behaviors
Every few years, another study comes out that shows vegetarian teens or young adults to have higher rates of eating disorders than non-vegetarians. The April 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA) has the most recent one: Adolescent and Young Adult Vegetarianism: Better Dietary Intake and Weight Outcomes but Increased Risk of Disordered Eating Behaviors.
Because eating disorders can result in serious illness, suffering, and death, I do not want to downplay the importance of studying them. However, given that a vegetarian diet is promoted and generally thought of as a good way to lose weight, it should come as no surprise to anyone to find that vegetarians have a higher rate of disordered eating behaviors since many young people try the diet in order to lose weight.
In this study, the researchers’ definition of vegetarian included anyone who had considered themselves vegetarian for over one month, whether they really were vegetarian or not; 25% ate chicken and 46% ate fish. And to be considered someone who engages in disordered eating behavior, all someone had to do was exhibit an unhealthy weight-control behavior or binge eating one time in the previous year.
It’s not surprising that many people who engage in disordered eating behaviors will at some point call themselves vegetarian for at least a month. When you draw a cross section of everyone who is seriously dieting combined with everyone who has cut out at least red meat, you are bound to find some overlap between the two groups.
To actually study if going vegetarian causes people to develop eating disorders, you need to start with a group of people (some vegetarian) who have not previously engaged in disordered eating behaviors and then follow such people through time to see if the vegetarians are more likely to develop eating disorders.
In better news, among the older cohort in the JADA study, current vegetarians were less likely than never vegetarians to be overweight (17% vs 28%) or obese (6% vs 14%), and vegetarian adolescents and young adults reported the highest fruit and vegetable intake. The authors observed that current vegetarian adolescents appear to be at decreased risk for using alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs.
To be frank, I would guess that even among people without a previous history of eating disorders, vegetarians are more likely to develop orthorexia, an eating disorder characterized by excessive focus on eating healthy foods. We should be aware of this possibility.
Here are two videos on orthorexia: