Vegetarianism: An Eating Disorder?

April 7, 2009 at 7:39 am 6 comments

From Time: Study: Is Vegetarianism a Teen 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.

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6 Comments

  • 1. Pious  |  April 7, 2009 at 9:17 am

    I could see where it gets the idea that vegetarianism “masks” eating disorders. Becoming vegetarian I feel is something that cannot just be “done” in a day; teenagers who decide it on a whim may simply be going through a phase and not make it a lasting life style.

    As an educator I need to keep an eye out for students with eating disorders, so now do I need to report all the vegetarian students I know?

  • 2. Shana  |  April 7, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    I started becoming a vegetarian before I hit my teens and yes it was sudden. I think 15 years ago was a different time and now-a-days, kids have a lot more knowledge about the subject, along with a lot more options. They also have a lot more pressure to start looking “good” at a younger age.

    Just the way that the TIME article spins this “fad” really irritates me. It is an important subject, but I think you hit it on the head when you said “parents should pay attention to all lifestyle changes a teen makes.” I am sure that sudden vegetarian isn’t the first sign of a problem.

  • 3. teen eating disorders and vegetarianism? «  |  April 7, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    […] Disorder? that really got under my skin.  After reading a blog post on the same article from relishments, I was even more irritated about the topic.  I became a vegetarian before I hit my teens and yes […]

  • 4. Law feminist  |  April 7, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    I became a vegetarian at 14, and 12 years later, I am still the healthiest person I know. I am more conscious of my protein intake than female friends who are concerned about their weight and consequently underconsume calories. I lift heavy weights regularly and run four or more miles a day. I have never had an eating disorder- on the contrary, I love food and cook all of my meals myself. The Time article made at best spurious conclusions as to the correlation between vegetarianism and health. Essentially, it read as one more ignorant attack on a lifestyle people have chosen not to understand.

  • 5. Pious  |  April 7, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Okay you can all hate me but I must say something else:

    “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.”

    In this brief quote the author states that it “suggests” does not prove one way or another. The article itself is simply putting a question forward, looks at some studies and gives different sides of the coins. Also, it does not appear to be his own conclusions, rather he is reporting about the findings of a number of studies. So if you wish to be “mad” at anyone talk to the “Journal of the American Dietetic Association”

    As not being a vegetarian or carnivore I can come to this article with a neutral perspective on this topic. I believe it is good to understand all sides, because in general we seem to assume vegetables are good so vegans and vegetarianism must have no downside. We must all know the downside and upside to be able to make a complete judgment. If you have lived the great healthy lifestyle as a vegetarian then you see no downside, but if you step back and look at all parts of the spectrum then you can make a better judgment. Sadly, some people will draw extreme conclusions or impose their own personal views and ruin the reporting of this fine glimpse at this question. John Cloud did not even scratch the surface of all that could be looked at on this topic.

  • […] really got under my skin.  After reading a blog post on the same article from Emily Brunell of relishments, I was even more irritated about the topic.  I became a vegetarian before I hit my teens and yes […]


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