February 2, 2013 by Jeanne Rust
Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders
If you're a vegetarian, that's a refrain you're probably familiar with. Food abounds — at work, at social gatherings — but you don't partake because of your dietary restrictions. That mystery hors d'oeuvre or greasy teriyaki stick? Thanks but no thanks.
There are many valid reasons to be a vegetarian (see: the environment, your health, and the dismal state of the meat industry, for starters). But what if you go vegetarian to help disguise and aid an eating disorder?
New research suggests a large percentage of women with eating disorders may be doing just that.
Women suffering 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 percent of women with a history of eating disorders had been vegetarians at some point in their lives. In contrast, only 12 percent 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 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 dietitian with Boston Children's Hospital's Eating Disorders Program, told The Huffington Post. "It makes it easier when people ask you questions about where those foods have gone. It's a more socially aceptable way to restrict foods."
Especially as a teen, parents might be less apt to argue with you for not eating, she added.
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, if you have a patient who tells you they want to be a vegetarian, it's worth exploring that more than you would have otherwise," she said. She suggests doctors ask their patients why they want to go vegetarian.
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.
Going vegetarian in order to lose weight and control eating can also fall into the category of orthorexia — an obsession with healthy eating that can cover for an eating disorder, according to Kane-Alves.
"It's one and the same," she said. "It's all restricting food groups, spending a lot of time in your life thinking about food, preparing food, reading labels, when you don't necessarily have to."
She pointed out, too, that only five percent of those fully recovered from their eating disorder were still vegetarians.
"We always try to respect vegetarian eating practices, but what this suggests is that maybe we should have different recommendations for vegetarians with eating disorders who are trying to get better," she said. "We need to at least have a discussion with the person about how it might be getting in the way of their recovery."