Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders

When clients come to an eating disordered rehab facility, they meet with our nutritionist and go over the foods in their current eating plan. Their plans vary depending on their tastes, heritage, cultural background and eating disorder. New research suggests that a large percentage of women with eating disorders may be engaging in Vegetarianism. Today we take a deeper look.

Women who suffer from eating disorders are four times more likely to be vegetarian than women without eating disorders, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The researchers found that 52 % of women with a history of eating disorders had been vegetarians at some point in their lives. In contrast, only 12 % of women without eating disorders had experimented with a vegetarian diet.

For clinicians who work with eating disorder patients, the results of the study were not too surprising. “Going vegetarian can be another way to cut out a food category, or a number of food categories, if you become a vegan,” Vanessa Kane-Alves, a registered dietician with Boston Children’s Hospital’s Eating Disorders Program. “It makes it easier when people ask you questions about where those foods have gone. It’s a more socially acceptable way to restrict foods.”

Kane-Alves, who was not involved in the study, emphasized that the research doesn’t argue vegetarianism causes eating disorders, or is unhealthy. Instead, it suggests vegetarianism can be a symptom of an eating disorder for some women. The takeaway of this study is, as a clinician, doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist is if you have a patient who tells you they want to be a vegetarian, it’s worth exploring that more than one would have otherwise. Asking a client why they want to go vegetarian is a great start. Other extreme food restricting lifestyles are:

  • Paleo
  • Raw
  • Vegan
  • Dairy Free
  • Gluten Free

In the study, the motivation to go vegetarian was starkly different between women with eating disorders and those who were not. None of the women without eating disorders reported becoming vegetarians to lose weight. In contrast, almost half of those with an eating disorder history said weight was their primary motivator. Of the women with a history of eating disorders and a history of vegetarianism, 68 percent said there was a relationship between the two. A vegetarian diet helped them lose weight, cut calories and feel in control, they reported. In another study, of those who called themselves vegetarians upon attending treatment, five percent of those who fully recovered from their eating disorder were still vegetarians.