Vegetarian Diets and Eating Disorders

A study published in the journal Appetite took a new approach to examining the relationship between vegetarian diet patterns and eating disorders. I just wrote it up for the ADA’s vegetarian nutrition newsletter, and it’s such interesting research, that I wanted to share it here, even though Jack has already blogged about it.

Past research has suggested that young women who follow “vegetarian” diets are more likely to have restrained eating habits, or a tendency toward eating disorders—probably because some women with eating disorders adopt a vegetarian diet as a socially acceptable way of controlling food intake.

But these studies have typically lumped vegetarians and semi-vegetarians together and then compared this rather diverse group to omnivores. This new study is different, however, because it compared different subgroups of vegetarian and semi-vegetarian women.

In addition to describing their own general eating habits, the college-age women filled out questionnaires about their eating behavior and their attitudes toward food. They also answered questions about the factors that affected their food choices. The women were classified as vegetarian (including vegan), pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian (no red meat), flexitarian (limited red meat), and omnivore.

There were several interesting findings. First, the semi-vegetarians and flexitarians showed more restrained eating behavior compared to both the omnivores and the vegetarians. In fact, the vegetarians and pesco-vegetarians were not at any higher risk than the omnivores in this study. Not only that, but among the vegetarian and “vegetarian-oriented” women, the more restricted their diets—that is, the fewer animal products they ate—the less likely they were to show signs of disordered eating.

The researchers theorized that the reason for this might be that semi-vegetarians and flexitarians are more likely to restrict animal foods as a form of weight control than vegetarians. They found that  “consistent with their restraint scores, semi-vegetarians and flexitarians reported that they were more concerned about weight control and less concerned about animal welfare than the other subgroups of vegetarians.”

This gives us some important insight into the issue of veganism and eating disorders. When young girls and young women adopt a vegan ethic, and change their diet accordingly, there is no reason to think they are at any greater risk for an eating disorder. However, a focus on weight control—no matter how it’s achieved—may raise risk for restrained eating habits.

Reference: Forestell CA, Spaeth AM, Kane SA. To eat or not to eat red meat. A closer look at the relationship between restrained eating and vegetarianism in college females. Appetite 2011. Epub ahead of print.

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19 Responses to Vegetarian Diets and Eating Disorders

  1. Audrey November 30, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

    Really interesting! Thank you.

  2. Rebekah November 30, 2011 at 2:38 pm #

    Interesting study!

    I read The Vegetarian Myth last year and along with much other misinformation, the author claimed that veganism causes eating disorders because nutrient deficiencies mess with our brains. I’m really glad to see that scientists are studying this phenomenon, because the link between veganism and eating disorders just keeps people from taking the concept of becoming vegan seriously.

    Something that I don’t see in the studies, but have noticed in my contact with other vegetarians and vegans, is that sometimes a person who has an eating disorder will try out vegetarianism for weight loss purposes, only to find out about all of the ethical issues, and then they choose to stick with it. That person may or may not continue to struggle with their eating disorder, even while vegan, but it is certainly not the vegan diet that caused it.

  3. Melissa November 30, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    I developed an EDNOS well after being vegan/veg for a long time. Mine was triggered by losing a lot of weight via counting calories (and getting in that mindset) coupled with an anxious personality made worse by a bad marriage and ugly divorce. Veganism was never the trigger and I wasn’t vegan to lose weight. In fact, focusing on WHY I’m vegan (animal rights) has been helpful in getting recovered. Veganism and distance running (gotta fuel to run well) were two things that made kicking the ED brain a bit easier.

    Very good study!

    • nicole November 30, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

      Good for you for recovering!

      • Melissa December 3, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

        Thanks. It’s still bumpy and I have super bad days but it’s about a billion times better now then it was. Baby steps!

  4. Linda December 1, 2011 at 7:45 am #

    What an incredibly interesting posting!

    After a lifetime of weight cycling, I agree with your conclusion: “….a focus on weight control—no matter how it’s achieved—may raise risk for restrained eating habits.”

    Last month, I was nearly unable to find an individual health care insurance plan, based solely upon BMI (I am in the mildly obese category). The one I had for several years had shot up 25% a year for the last few years, and was no longer affordable.

    I had adopted the HAES philosophy, and wanted a health-sustaining, ethically sound lifestyle without focusing on every calorie going into my mouth, but the outside forces made me think otherwise. I am now religiously tracking my food and activity on MyFitnessPal.com with great success. It has a format reminiscent of Facebook, and allows people to create communities, and message boards. This has helped me find plant-based eaters from around the world to share actual food diaries with. I find it really helpful, but notice that some people near their ideal weights seem to use the resource in unhealthful ways. That’s true of the omnis and plant-eaters, BTW.

  5. Natalie December 1, 2011 at 2:55 pm #

    I was flexitarian when I struggled the most with bulimia. I reserved red meat for days when I went on major binges. Now I’m vegan and I have a much healthier relationship with food.

  6. myvegancookbook December 1, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

    So happy to hear about this report. I’ve been blessed out by a RD who told me leaving meat and dairy out of my diet was a form anorexia and not natural. I’ve also had vegan haters tell me this. I hear it a lot. This should squash their argument ;)

  7. mary December 2, 2011 at 6:42 am #

    Thanks for this. It’s a really critical topic.

  8. Gena December 2, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    I’m delighted that you posted this, dear Ginny, and I’m going to link back to it soon with some of my thoughts. It fits in really nicely with my Green Recovery series, and it also echoes my story (when I was mostly vegan for health alone, I was still in the throes of my third anorexia relapse; when I became interested in animals and adopted veganism as an ethos of compassion and responsibility to creatures other than myself, I relaxed, gained the weight I needed, and never looked back).

  9. barefeet December 3, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    Someone should do a study on how many vegans used becoming Vegan to aid them in overcoming their EDs. There seem to be many of us who found that taking our emphasis off of weight and placing it in how we affect the world around us has allowed us to create a healthier relationship with food. It seems to me to be a really healthy way to be more emotionally balanced. EDs can be a hell of self absorption. People in the middle of binge or of starving themselves aren’t thinking of other beings and they aren’t valuing themselves as a potential part of a solution to suffering. They are focused in on themselves, how they feel and look, and what they can do to be other than what they are. Vegan lifestyle takes that and turns it on its head.

  10. Sarah December 3, 2011 at 9:10 pm #

    I’m so glad to have found your website! I’m currently trying to transition to a vegetarian/predominantly vegan diet so I look forward to exploring more of your site.

    I find this article fascinating. I have to say, when I became vegetarian for ethical reasons as a teen I was more committed and had a healthier mindset re, my body and food than when I became a vegan a couple of years ago for health & weight reasons. Now I’m trying to find the right balance! :)

  11. Andrea December 4, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    Good post Ginny. I do agree it’s misleading to associate vegetarian diets with eating disorders – if someone has a tendency towards disordered eating, then they will often try all kinds of diets in a bid to control weight. I know a woman who tried to ‘go vegan’ because she thought she’d get slim – but she’d tried every ‘fad’ diet in the book by this point and fully admitted she had an eating disorder.

    And what about people who try Atkins or low-carb, high animal protein diets – has there been any research to say excessive meat-eating is linked with eating disorders? I don’t know but I’d happily point this converse perspective out to anyone who felt a vegetarian diet was linked to disordered eating!

  12. Ginny Messina December 5, 2011 at 12:36 pm #

    Thanks so much for these excellent comments. I agree–in theory at least, since we don’t yet have the studies to back it up–that veganism could certainly be viewed as a help to recovery.. It does indeed encourage people to view food as a way of making a difference for someone else–animals–rather than a way to lose weight. I think ethical veganism is the world’s healthiest relationship to food!

  13. selena December 6, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    people tend to be surprised when they find out i’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life (bmi is around 40). the stereotypical picture is still that of some skinny health- and animal-rights obsessed person who spends most of their days trying to locate the exact farm where their soybeans were grown.
    (for me it was about animal-rights, not weightloss. but i’m not that strict on animal-rights either, f.e. veganism is a bridge too far)

    it’s my experience that there are indeed a lot of food-averse vegetarians, but in all those cases the anorexia was there before the vegetarianism.

  14. vegetarian December 6, 2011 at 10:39 pm #

    interesting articles! thanks!

  15. TheCornerGirl January 31, 2012 at 6:57 am #

    I wanted to add my two cents’ worth as well – I have been struggling with anorexia type II for almost a year now (I’m in my early twenties), and I developed my eating disorder shortly after losing a bunch of weight on a very restrictive diet, though I had always had a tendency towards food restriction.
    I’m vegetarian now, and not for weight loss OR for ethical reasons. I simply feel like my relationship has improved significantly when I am somewhere in-between vegan and vegetarian. I can enjoy cooking for myself again without immense guilt. Even though I’m still in the throes of this disorder, and have to struggle daily to eat, becoming a vegetarian has helped me SO much to avoid purging my food or choosing the wrong foods (carbs/sugar/fat) to eat. Becoming a vegetarian helps me ensure that what I DO eat, COUNTS!
    I understand that vegans/vegetarians get ‘mad’ at people who go vegetarian for weight loss, but in my opinion converting to veganism also is to try and adjust your mindset to a more peaceful outlook on all humanity and animals – so getting angry at people because they are adopting the same lifestyle as you but for different reasons seems hypocritical to me. I’m glad someone wrote this article, it was very interesting to me!

  16. 7.2 Greens Fanatic February 9, 2012 at 10:54 am #

    Hi,

    Thank you for sharing this informative post. I have developed an eating disorder when i was in Junior high due to poor self-image and with the help of professionals and loved ones, i was able to get back on track. Now i am fully adopted to a vegan lifestyle and by watching carefully what i eat, i make sure that i am getting the right amounts of nutrient intake. Do you know of any foundation or institution where i can become a volunteer to help those people undergoing the same thing as i did? Thanks!

  17. June March 14, 2014 at 7:37 am #

    I don’t think the real issue is that vegetarianism or veganism cause eating disorders. The real problem is that people who already have eating disorders become vegan or vegetarian to hide their problems. It isn’t so much about what you eat or how much. An eating disorder is all about how you think about food. An obsession with food preparation, ingredients and what you can’t or shouldn’t have is not healthy and a sign that something is very wrong.

    Sadly I think a lot of the above commenters have traded one issue for another if they believe that a highly restrictive diet has helped them overcome food obsession.

    That said, it is perfectly possible to be a healthy vegetarian or vegan. Anyone who is severely underweight is going to have health problems down the road no matter how much they protest or how much yoga they do.

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