Vegetarianism: An Eating Disorder?
As soon as I saw this headline, I was annoyed. I’m no longer a teenager, but I certainly identify with them in a lot of ways, never mind the fact that I work with hundreds of them on a daily basis. On one hand, it shouldn’t have taken the Journal of the American Dietetic Association to tell us that vegetarianism isn’t always healthy. Clearly, that isn’t limited to just teenagers. It takes a lot of work and effort to be a healthy vegetarian. But eating like a “normal” teenager and consuming bags of potato chips isn’t healthy either. Unfortunately, according to this study
it seems that a significant number of kids experiment with vegetarian diets as a way to mask their eating disorders, since it’s a socially acceptable way to avoid eating many foods and one that parents tend not to oppose.
That said, I think we must be careful not to assume that the findings of this study apply to all vegetarian teenagers. It was teenagers who “converted” me to eating less meat to begin with and the teen vegetarians I know are healthy students, one of whom has the possibility of going to the Olympics (seriously).
We must not ignore the fact that the study found that “in one sense, vegetarians were healthier.” Furthermore, only 4.8% of the students surveyed reported that they were currently vegetarian, which means the study found that 1.2% of the surveyed youth were vegetarians who “had engaged in extreme weight-control measures.” I think we must be very careful not to assume that all, or even most, teen vegetarians are doing so for the wrong reasons. Vegetarianism is becoming increasingly popular and it’s only to be expected that more teens will be changing their eating habits. I take issue with the article’s title: it seems vegetarianism itself isn’t the eating disorder, though teens may use it as a way to mask other issues. The authors suggest that “parents and doctors should be extra vigilant when teens suddenly become vegetarians.” In my opinion, parents should be vigilant and pay attention to all lifestyle changes a teen makes, but it’s clear to me that eating a diet which focuses on consuming fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains over meat is better than the average American diet. Finally,
The findings suggest that age matters when it comes to vegetarianism: teenage vegetarians as well as young experimenters — those who try it but abandon it — may be at higher risk for other eating disorders compared with their peers. But by young adulthood, many still-practicing vegetarians have presumably chosen it as a lifestyle rather than a dieting ploy, the study suggests.
Not all teen vegetarians may be doing so for the right reasons, but I think we must assume that is the exception, not the rule. Those of us who are flexitarians (or vegetarians) must continue to educate youth about good nutrition, but I don’t think this study should cause those of us who know teen vegetarians to panic.