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Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders: A Perfect Cover?

By Rachel D. Peterson BA, Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, PhD, & Brian Fisak, Jr., MS
Reprinted from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
2004 Volume 2, Number 5
©2004 Gürze Books

Researchers have suggested that certain individuals with an eating disorder may identify themselves as vegetarians to conceal extreme dieting. Vegetarianism could easily provide a rationale for disordered individuals to avoid any high calorie food containing animal products (e.g., meat products, butter, cheese, eggs, milk).

What Exactly Is a Vegetarian?

Vegetarians are a diverse group and greatly range in their level of animal product restriction. The types of vegetarians are as follows:

  • Quasi-vegetarians are the least restrictive group. They do not consume red meat, but do eat some form of white meat.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians consume egg and dairy products, but do not eat meat.
  • Ovo-vegetarians consume egg products, but do not eat meat or dairy.
  • Lacto-vegetarians consume dairy products, but do not eat meat or egg products.
  • Vegans do not consume any type of animal product (e.g., meat, egg, or dairy products).

A Supported Risk Factor?

There are also diverse reasons for individuals to practice a vegetarian lifestyle, and these include perceived health benefits, spirituality, and cultural influences. Sometimes people choose this "diet" because they think it will help them lose weight.

Rates of vegetarianism among females hospitalized for anorexia nervosa are much higher than the proportion of vegetarians in the general population. However, a recent study comparing vegetarian and nonvegetarian college students found no differences in eating behaviors between the two groups. Overall, it appears that individuals diagnosed with an eating disorder may be more likely to be vegetarian, but people who maintain a vegetarian lifestyle are not necessarily more likely to have an eating disorder.

Determining Unhealthy Patterns

In general, choosing to eat a vegetarian diet is not harmful in itself. When paying close attention to proper nutrition and assuring adequate protein intake, vegetarians can maintain good health. Rather than focusing on whether vegetarians exhibit more eating problems than nonvegetarians, the more relevant question may be which vegetarians exhibit unhealthy eating patterns? Certain clues may help to identify when a vegetarian diet is being used to cover up an eating disorder:

1. Body Weight

Is the vegetarian maintaining a healthy weight? Vegetarians, on average, tend to weigh less than nonvegetarians, however, people weighing less than 15 percent below their recommended weight (based on height, body type, and genetics) may be of concern. Monitoring for healthy weight is important.

2. Body Image

Body image disturbance, a strong predictor of eating disorders, is an important consideration when detecting the presence of an eating disorder. Indicators of poor body image may include self-deprecating comments or hiding ones body shape under large clothing. Recent research found that, as a group, vegetarians did not report more body image dissatisfaction than non-vegetarians. Therefore, when someone who has adopted a vegetarian lifestyle also expresses being unhappy with their body shape or weight, it may be important to consider the extent to which their vegetarianism reflects a problem.

3. Food Choice Motives

The choice to become a vegetarian is often based on beliefs about the ethical treatment of animals, health, and ecology. Food choice motives, such as health and weight control, differ between vegetarians and nonvegetarians. Vegetarians are more likely to make food choices based on health concerns, natural content, political values, and ecological welfare—motives that research has shown are not connected to eating disturbance. However, choosing a vegetarian diet as a means of weight control may be a warning sign. Further, inconsistency between stated reasons for vegetarianism and other nondiet related behaviors might help to determine the true motivation behind someone’s vegetarianism. For example, if a person cites the ethical treatment of animals as a food choice motive, yet continues to wear leather clothing or consume a variety of animal products, he or she is not being consistent.

4. Age

Age may be a factor in screening vegetarians for eating disorders. Researchers who found differences between vegetarians and nonvegetarians on eating related measures focused on a younger population than studies that found no differences. Consequently, it may be beneficial to closely monitor the diets of young people choosing to become vegetarians.

Education Is Key

While the choice to become a vegetarian does not in itself indicate an eating disorder, warning signs such as a low body weight, poor body image, weight control as a food choice motive, and a young age may help to discriminate between true vegetarianism and the use of it to hide an eating disorder. Parents of young vegetarians can help by explaining that a healthy vegetarian diet involves gaining nutritional knowledge to make appropriate food choices and maintain a healthy body weight, and by making healthy substitutes readily available.

If approached correctly, vegetarianism may be a healthy alternative to consuming animal products. When eating disturbance masquerades as vegetarianism, however, early detection is important.

About the Authors

Rachel D. Peterson, BA, is a Clinical Psychology Doctoral student at the University of Central Florida.

Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Eating, Appearance, and Health at the University of Central Florida.

Brian Fisak, Jr., MS, is a Clinical Psychology Doctoral student at the University of Central Florida.


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