Vegetarianism May Indicate an Eating Disorder

Vegetarians are typically making a healthy and altruistic choice but there is also a possibility that the choice is part of a decision to restrict caloric intake to an unhealthy degree.

Becoming a vegetarian is a lifestyle choice that people make for a variety of reasons, including a concern for the environment, empathy for animals or their own health. With careful planning, vegetarians can enjoy a healthy diet that satisfies all nutritional guidelines. A lesser known reason for embracing vegetarianism is as a mask for an eating disorder. New research indicates that a large number of women with eating disorders may be using vegetarianism and veganism as socially acceptable ways to disguise their problem.

The new study, which was featured in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, looked at a cross-section of 93 women who either had or were recovered from eating disorders and a control group of 67 women who never had an eating disorder. Compared to the control group, the women with eating disorders were four times more likely to have been a vegetarian at some time in their life (52% vs. 12%). There was also a four times greater likelihood that they were currently a vegetarian (24% vs. 6%).

One of the most telling findings from the study was that 68% of the women with eating disorders who were currently or had ever been vegetarian believed their avoidance of meat was related to their disorder. About half said they became vegetarian to lose weight. Researchers who conducted the study concluded that a woman’s adoption of a vegetarian or vegan diet could be an indicator for an eating disorder. Eliminating one whole class of food from the diet allows a woman with an eating disorder to reduce food intake without attracting unwanted attention.

The study also looked at whether women with eating disorder who were vegetarian continued to avoid meet after they recovered. Researcher found that 13% of partially recovered and only 5% of fully recovered women were still vegetarian. This indicates that clinicians should question the motivation of women who are practicing vegetarianism while recovering from an eating disorder.

Prior to the recent study, limited research had been done into the inter-relationship between vegetarianism and eating disorders. One study found that female college students who are vegetarian are more likely to be preoccupied with weight and to feel guilty after they eat. They are also more likely to engage in binge eating and in unhealthy weight loss behaviors, including extreme exercise, vomiting and laxative abuse.

It’s important to note that the study did not find that becoming vegetarian causes an eating disorder. The women in the study indicated that they became vegetarian after the onset of their disorder. People who are vegetarian for cultural, health or religious reasons are not at greater risk for eating disorder simply because they abstain from eating meat.