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:

Part 1
Part 2

Erik Marcus and Ginny Messina have also written good posts on this JADA study.

6 Responses to “Vegetarian Diets and Disordered Eating Behaviors”

  1. Jack Norris on the Vegetarian Teens Study | Vegan.com Says:

    […] Thanks for visiting!Jack’s blog entry is as useful as the Time.com article is misleading. Link. Spread the […]

  2. sandi Says:

    I believe turning vegan helped me to overcome an eating disorder.
    Eating issues are usually about control and not feeling good about yourself, like you don’t matter.
    After deciding to go vegan I realized that I was in control about the choices I made and that I could make a difference in the lives of animals Everyday since becoming vegan 14 years ago I can feel good about how I chose to live.
    This was the best decision I have ever made and it’s what I’m most proud of in my life.

    If anyone reading this would like to talk about my experience I would be happy to speak with them it it would help. Eating disorders are hard to deal with. I know and truly understand.

  3. Veganman Says:

    WOW! I always considered myself an “Anti-Eating Activist”. LOL!
    Turns out I am actually Orthroexic!
    True to the Wiki definition.
    Being raised by overweight, “trash” eating carnivores who told you from day one “it’s hereditary” will do that, I guess.
    I’m not seriously underweight now, but I’m skinny for sure!
    It all makes sense now that I have the correct term.
    Time to call the Dr.

    Thanks for the information Jack!
    I never would have found it otherwise.

  4. val Says:

    To Sandi:

    Thank you so much for sharing that posting with everyone. I agree with you 100%.

    More people need to realize that not everyone who is vegan has an eating disorder, and not everyone with an eating disorder tries to be a vegan

    -val

  5. Rick Says:

    I have seen many woman on vegetarian and especially vegan diets who formerly had anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders when they were younger. They are no longer underweight and now have a better diet. I have intrepreted this to mean that the veg*n diet provides a healthier expression of the same underlying issues that first had led them to their eating disorder.

  6. JM Says:

    It’s more like, people with restricting type eating disorders (EDs) will just start cancelling out food groups in order to eat less. So no meat eliminates lots of food. Or no gluten. No animal products at all. Raw food only. Cabbage soup diet, etc. It’s just an easy excuse to say one is vegetarian/vegan to other people who are with you in food situations.

    I was not vegan when I had an ED, I was anticarb (ketogenic). Now I’m vegan becase I love animals and hate pain. That’s why I pretty much don’t have an ED anymore despite still dropping weight.

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