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Vegetarianism, eating disorders, and teens

Posted Apr 06 2009 7:03pm
I know I'm not the first to blog on this subject, especially due to the fairly wide-ranging coverage of some new research that shows a relationship between vegetarianism and eating disordered behaviors in teenagers. Those current and former vegetarian teens showed higher levels of both binge eating (with loss-of-control) and "extreme unhealthy weight loss behaviors," respectively, than those teens who were never vegetarians. Young adult former vegetarians also showed higher rates of unhealthy weight loss behaviors.

The authors of the study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, said that current vegetarian teens had "healthier" diets than non-veggie teens, "with respect to fruits, vegetables, and fats." They also had lower BMIs. The problem is that if this lower BMI is due to unhealthy eating (into which category does fall too many veggies at the expense of fats and other macronutrients), then it's really not all that "healthy," is it?

Except no one really mentioned that.*

That vegetarianism can be a mask for eating disorders is pretty well-known, although not all vegetarians have eating disorders. What I didn't see mentioned--and what prompted me to write this, since others did a pretty good job of covering the subject--is the chronological relationship between these unhealthy behaviors and vegetarianism. What the authors implied seemed to be that the ED behaviors likely preceded the decision to become a vegetarian, which certainly happens. What is also possible is that a teen decides to cut out meat for ethical reasons (or for whatever reason that's not related to weight loss), and then slides into the eating disorder.

If he or she isn't eating enough (calories, fat, other micro/macro nutrients), they could be more likely to binge as the body responds to malnutrition. For those genetically predisposed to anorexia, it could trigger further restriction. Yet this idea wasn't really mentioned or even proposed as a possible hypothesis, and I really wish it was.

I'm not saying that vegetarianism is wrong or bad or any of that. I'm not especially carnivorous myself. But the relationship between vegetarianism and EDs may go both ways, and I think it is really important that people begin to recognize that.

It is important to note that the study didn't measure eating disorders, just the associated behaviors. However, many teens who engage in these unhealthy behaviors go on to develop full-blown eating disorders, so the findings are still significant.

*Granted, I couldn't get ahold of the full text of the article, but this question wasn't posed in any of the news coverage that I saw, either. Not that this always says very much.
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