A new study on “vegetarian” diets and eating disorders was published in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.(1) The findings suggest than women with a history of disordered eating are more likely to have been vegetarian for weight control reasons than women who had never had an eating disorder.
As in most studies on this topic, the term vegetarian was poorly defined. Subjects were simply asked “Have you ever considered yourself a type of vegetarian (eg, not eating beef but eating other meat; not eating any meat at all)?” Obviously, many of the subjects who answered yes to this question were not in fact vegetarian. This was also a small cross-sectional study; the size and design mean that the findings should be interpreted with caution.
In commenting on the study, one eating disorders expert observed that vegetarianism “sits with a fixation around food and weight and calories.” That’s an unfortunate perception. And it’s also not necessarily what this study showed. For one thing, there were also vegetarians in the control group of this study–that is, women who had never had an eating disorder. The difference was that none of them were motivated to be vegetarian because of weight control.
This reinforces some earlier findings that I wrote about last November. That is, women and girls who use vegetarianism as a way of reducing calories are more likely to experience disordered eating patterns compared to those who adopt vegetarian diets for other reasons. This shouldn’t come as much of a revelation: Risk factors for eating disorders include perceived pressure to be thin, body dissatisfaction, and dietary restraint.(2) Weight loss itself can trigger an eating disorder. Since vegetarian, and especially vegan, diets are often promoted as a way to lose weight, it’s hardly surprising to see girls and women with eating disorders choosing to eliminate animal foods from their diet.
Obviously, though, many vegetarians and vegans are not “fixated” on calories. (Or even if they are, it’s not their primary reason for avoiding animal foods.) As the authors of this study noted, from an “eating disorders perspective,” it might be less concerning when people are “sincerely motivated to adopt vegetarianism for primarily non-weight reasons (eg, ethics).”
1. Bardone-Cone AM, Fitzsimmons-Craft EE, Harney MB, et al. The Inter-Relationships between Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders among Females. J Acad Nutr Diet 2012;112:1247-52
2. Ozier AD, Henry BW. Position of the American Dietetic Association: nutrition intervention in the treatment of eating disorders. J Am Diet Assoc 2011;111:1236-41.