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.