Vegetarianism’s Link to Eating Disorders

The term vegetarian includes a pretty broad spectrum of food habits. Many times the word is used to include anyone who uses the label whether they are strict vegetarians or semi-vegetarians. Under this broad understanding of the category research shows that young (college age) women who call themselves vegetarians are more likely than non-vegetarian women to develop an eating disorder.

This isn’t too surprising since women could use the lifestyle as a socially acceptable cloak for unhealthy controlled eating. A new study reveals that while vegetarianism is linked to eating disorders, not all vegetarians are created equal.

The study examined 93 young women who had been treated for an eating disorder and 67 young women who had never experienced an eating disorder. The comparison of the two groups was telling.

To begin with, among women with a history of an eating disorder, 52 percent had been vegetarians at one time compared to 12 percent of women without a history who said they’d been vegetarians at some point.

Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of the women with an eating disorder history was still practicing vegetarians while only six percent of women with no history were current vegetarians. Most revealing was the 42 percent of women with an eating disorder history who said they had become vegetarians in order to control their weight. That compared to those without a disordered history who said they’d become vegetarians to manage weight.

However, vegetarians, as stated above, are a diverse group and when the study breaks down vegetarianism the results offer a bit more insight. Vegetarians can be classified as full vegetarian and/or vegan, flexitarian – eating red meat within certain limits, semi-vegetarians eliminating red meats and pesco-vegetarians who include fish and seafood but no other meats along with vegetables.

Broken down into sub-categories, the vegetarians and pesco-vegetarians showed no greater risk for eating disorders than did women who were omnivores. It was the semi-vegetarians and the flexitarians who were most likely to show increased risk for becoming disordered in their eating.

This gives a certain amount of affirmation to the committed vegetarian. Evidently, the greater the dietary limits in favor of vegetarianism, the less likely that a woman suffers from or will suffer from an eating disorder. Researchers suggest that this could be because women with more flexible commitments to vegetarianism may actually be practicing the lifestyle as a means of calorie restriction rather than out of concern for health or animal welfare.

There are plenty of healthy reasons a person may choose a vegetarian lifestyle. Nevertheless, studies repeatedly show that a link between the practice and disordered eating exists. Doctors need to be sure what are the motivating factors behind a patient’s decision to pursue a vegetable-focused diet.