Vegetarian and Vegan Diets Do Not Cause Eating Disorders

A study published in this month’s Journal of the American Dietetic Association found a higher incidence of eating disorders among young girls who follow vegetarian diets. This isn’t news, and it’s not a concern for vegetarians, either.

Over the years, a number of studies have found that a relatively high number of girls with eating disorders are vegetarian. But there is no evidence that following a vegetarian diet causes eating disorders. It’s actually pretty silly to think that giving up meat could cause someone to develop anorexia!

Rather, it is likely that girls with eating disorders often choose vegetarian diets as one of many ways to control food intake and mask their eating disorder. Previous studies bear this out.

However, a number of news and food industry sites, including the industry website Food Navigator, placed their own spin on the story—suggesting that the study showed vegetarian girls to be at increased risk for problems like anorexia and bulimia. There is just no evidence that this is true.

Eating disorders are serious, and family members should watch for symptoms. Red flags include the following:

  • Refusal to eat, excuses for not eating, skipping meals
  • Extreme weight loss and denial of weight loss
  • Denial of hunger
  • Emotional apathy
  • Rigid meal and eating rituals
  • Repeated weighing
  • Complaining about being fat

    The Mayo Clinic offers a more comprehensive list. Vegetarian or vegan diets do not cause eating disordera!

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    6 Responses to Vegetarian and Vegan Diets Do Not Cause Eating Disorders

    1. Anonymous April 2, 2009 at 4:41 pm #

      Hi Virginia

      I saw your article on DHA and vegan diets. Whether from algae or fish, humans need DHA in their diet. Humans are unable to produce DHA and there is no substitute. Deficiency of DHA is associated with arguably preventable chronic conditions. The notion that fish oil used in quality supplements compete with dietary fish supply is unfounded.

      You may be interested to know that most algae-source DHA supplements are sold in gelatin capsules. Doesn’t make sense, and I thought you’d like to know.

      Gretchen Vannice, MS, RD
      Omega-3 Dietitian

    2. Ginny Messina April 2, 2009 at 5:27 pm #

      Hi Gretchen,
      Thanks so much for your comment. You can leave comments over on the Examiner site as well, where the DHA article appeared. But I’m happy to chat with you here, too!

      To the best of my knowledge, DHA is not considered an essential fat. There is no RDA for this fat. The only essential fatty acids are linoleic and alpha linolenic acid. We can, in fact, make DHA from alpha-linolenic acid. Granted, it’s not a very efficient process and that’s why there is debate about whether DHA is essential or not. Certainly, some nutritionists suggest that it is. But right now, it’s not recognized as an essential fatty acid.

      I’m not an expert on the effects of fish consumption on the environment, and was referring to an article in the Canadian Medical Journal. I think there is a legitimate debate on this issue–as well as a legitimate debate on the effects of DHA supplementation. Personally, I do take DHA supplements. There are several on the market that are vegan–made from algae and in non-gelatin capsules.

      I guess we still have a lot to learn about the effects of DHA and the needs for this fat. As a vegan dietitian, of course, I’ll always recommend that people get their DHA from vegan sources!

      ~Ginny

    3. Eating Consciously April 3, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

      Well said, Ginny.

      I also wanted to point out that I have never seen an algae-derived DHA that was in a gelatin capsule. I’m not saying they don’t exist, just that I haven’t seen them.

      Anyway, I too take and recommend vegan DHA even though there is still debate on whether or not is is necessary.

      And what exactly is an omega-3 dietitian? I’ve never heard that one before.

    4. Johanna April 17, 2009 at 11:35 am #

      For the curious, Spectrum children’s DHA and Spetrum prenatal DHA are both algae-derived and both contain gelatin. I know I’ve seen at least a couple of other brands, too, but since they’re usually marketed as prenatal supplements or children’s supplements, they’re often on a completely different shelf from the other omega-3 supplements, so that might be why you haven’t seen them.

    5. Ellen Jaffe Jones September 9, 2009 at 3:48 pm #

      Could you please send this to the Road Runners Club of America coaching certification program? I paid big bucks last year to take their 2 day program and was mortified as I had to endure part of their powerpoint presentation saying vegan diets are a huge red flag. In questioning the presenter via e-mail later, she said that was just her personal experience and had no research to back up what she said. I asked the slides be removed, to no avail. I cited all the vegan athlete sites, as well as mentioning that every girl I knew with eating disorders were not vegan. Thanks for writing this!

    6. chicchi May 13, 2010 at 7:10 am #

      Hi Ginny,
      This is in response to your post on veganism and Eating Disorders. I am vegan and have long since recovered from anorexia. I think it easy to see how these comparisons can be made, although if you look deeper, you can certainly see that the correlation is not as deep as it originally seems.

      People with anorexia typically develop a series of "safe" foods. These foods are low in calories/fat and someone with an ED with make just about any excuse in the book to get out of eating a particular food. My anorexia developed when I was 11 and I subsisted on an apple/day. If I knew that there was such a thing as a fruitarian, I would have gone to my grave espousing the benefits of a fruitarian diet and the evil nature of non-fruit based food. It would have been just another way to get out of yet another meal or another hospital threat.

      And yet, this doesn't take anything away from the fact that one year later I would become a vegetarian on ethical grounds after learning that a horse at a barn where I rode was sold at an auction and purchased by a slaughterhouse. Or the fact that my parents were rightfully concerned when I became vegetarian of a potential relapse.

      Whether we like it or not, there are similarities. But being an ethical vegan/vegetarian certainly does NOT cause one to develop an eating disorder. Many people become vegetarian when they are adolescents and are beginning to question societal assumptions. This often times occur parallel to when adolescents are feeling the most uncomfortable and vulnerable with their body.

      Remember that food and/or the lack of it, is used by people to fill a variety of voids in their lives, often times before appropriate coping mechanism have been developed (as in the situation with teenagers). I have known a number of people that were suffering from an ED to suddenly become “vegetarian”, yet go back to eating meat once they recovered. But there are also people like me, who are recovered and will gladly eat the occasional curry made with satisfying, yet fattening coconut milk, but would never consider eating a curry made with dairy based milk…

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