New Research on Weight Control, Vegetarian Diets and Eating Disorders

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.

7 Responses to New Research on Weight Control, Vegetarian Diets and Eating Disorders

  1. Sarah E August 8, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    “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.”

    I love this statement–it completely reinforces why veganism shouldn’t be touted as a weight-loss diet. I love this post and appreciate your perspectives and breakdown of the study–when JL posted it I was hoping you’d weigh in. Thank you.

  2. Gena August 9, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    Ginny,

    I posted about this on Monday (I think? It’s an exam week, so I have lost track of days), and I was hoping you would, too.

    As a vegan who is also a former anorexic, I read the article without surprise. Interestingly enough, I could not bring myself to go vegan until after my last (and final) disorder relapse, because I was too terrified of the carbohydrates that seemed germane to the diet (grains, legumes, etc.).

    However, it’s not at all shocking to me that some women use veg*n diets as a pretense to restrict food. What’s also worth noting is that a disordered person will use *any* specialized way of eating as an excuse to restrict food. For me, it was a low fat diet, then a low carb, “lean protein” diet. It might well have been paleo, fruitairianism, Atkins, or anything else. Present a disordered eater with a means of validating their restrictive tendencies, and they will.

    But the root problem isn’t really the diet in question: it’s the tendency to restrict itself. Veg*n diets are unfortunately prevalent targets because they’re mainstream, and because so many people are already vegetarian or vegan (for reasons that usually have nothing to do with weight loss); for this reason, disordered people feel as though they’re less likely to be critiqued if they choose vegetarianism over, say, the paleo diet. But it’s not the plant-based paradigm itself that causes, or constitutes the disorder; it’s the mentality of the person who is eating, or not eating, as the case may be.

    Of course, I don’t like lumping veganism or vegetarianism in with diets (paleo, low fat, or whatnot), because I don’t consider it to be a diet so much as a whole lifestyle. But I’m lumping it in because the people who use it for weight loss are approaching it that way. What’s ultimately also worth noting is that the study subjects seemed to have become veg*n after their disorders developed, or concurrently. It’s entirely different from people who approach the lifestyle for reasons of compassion, which is why some women in the control group were vegan and vegetarian, too (and not for weight loss purposes).

    Thanks for your insight.

    xo

  3. M C August 11, 2012 at 1:16 am #

    I agree. You could pick any diet that restricts food choices and you would most likely find a higher percentage of disordered eating than in the general population. So why are they picking on vegetarianism?

    This study would only have meaning to me if it compared vegetarian and vegan diets to other specific diets.

  4. Kathryn August 23, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

    The irony of studies about vegetarian/vegan diets, such as the one reviewed, is the assumption that such diets lead to weight loss. Based on personal experience, I can say that I never had a weight problem or an unbalanced obsession with food until I started trying to be a vegan 20 years ago. It has now become a daily issue what to eat, trying to stick to vegan foods while living with an omnivorous family/society, and struggling with my self image after having gained 35 pounds. Often I wish I’d never heard of the words vegetarian or vegan. Granted there are ethical reasons to follow such a diet, but for weight loss? It ain’t necessarily so….

    • kimberly September 10, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

      I think this is in response to Gina regarding her anorexia. I am vegan and have been for the last 2 years. I was also a big time wine drinker. Since I quit drinking, my doctors and family believe I have anorexia. I don’t believe that to be true, but what I am wondering is how you overcame your ED?

  5. Victoria September 12, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    It’s kind of interesting that I came upon this article tonight. My therapist was just telling me how she feels like I am only vegan because it it a way in which I can restrict all animal products from my diet, and so this restricts a major amount of food. She feels like it is much more difficult for me to remain firmly grounded in recovery from my eating disorder while being vegan. No matter how I explain the reasoning behind my entire lifestyle choice in veganism, she reels off several problems that I cannot avoid. She has seen research against soy products, especially genetically engineered or modified. There is also large amounts of MSG in the veggie products, which is difficult to avoid. But, at the end of the day, I have been a vegetarian for many more years than I have had my eating disorder. My recovery must happen while maintaining my vegan diet.

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  1. New Study Claims Link Between Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders | One Green Planet - August 16, 2012

    [...] with eating disorders have tried a variety of diets and a low-meat/no-meat is just one of them. And Ginny Messina  criticises the poor definition of “vegetarian” as some subjects might have said they avoided [...]

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