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Diet of disorder?

Date

Sarah Berry

Diet or dogma? ... vegetarianism linked to greater incidence of eating disorders.

Diet or dogma? ... vegetarianism linked to greater incidence of eating disorders. Photo: Thinkstock

Can you pick an eating disorder by a person's dietary preference?

At first glance it seems that you can. A cross-sectional study has found that individuals with a history of eating disorders are considerably more likely to have been vegetarian in the past, vegetarian now and primarily motivated by weight.

Furthermore, 68 per cent of those who had had an eating disorder perceived that their vegetarianism was related to it.

"[The] results shed light on the vegetarianism-eating disorders relation and suggest intervention considerations for clinicians [such as investigating motives for vegetarianism]," the researchers wrote in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The vegetarianism-eating disorders relation comes from various studies including one published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Researchers found that the most common reason teens gave for vegetarianism (a loose term given that some still ate chicken or fish) was to lose weight or prevent gaining it.

"I'm not really surprised," says the dietitian Tara Diversi of the findings. "My area is eating disorders and I tend to see that in practice quite a lot . . . [taking a whole] food group out of the diet is a socially acceptable way to reduce food."

Dr Sloane Madden, co-director of The Eating Disorder Service at The Children's Hospital at Westmead, agrees. "I'm certainly not saying that being vegetarian equates with eating disorders . . . [but] it sits with a fixation around food and weight and calories," he says. "The motivation seems to be tied up with a belief that vegetables are lower in calories and healthier and more likely to facilitate weight loss."

It makes sense that some sensitive young minds may associate meat with physical as well as literal beefiness. But, as satisfying as it is to slap labels on life choices, it is rarely cut and dried.

The director of the Australian Vegetarian Society, Mark Berriman, says. "it does make sense insofar as young women seeking to reduce weight would perceive the reduction/elimination of animal fat as a significant step for them to take, making vegetarianism attractive".

However, he says, "so often the premise is set by the nature/intention of the study, which obfuscates rather than clarifies what may be a considerably more complex situation".

Indeed. In an op-ed in Psychology Today, Adia Colar writes that as a 12-year-old the allure of being vegetarian was multifaceted.

"Not long before I decided to become a vegetarian, I started wanting to lose weight," she wrote. "Did I want to stop eating animals because I genuinely didn't want these creatures to suffer? Yes. Was all of it a tangled web of empathy, guilt, health and self-image? Probably. Did I think, I can become a vegetarian and lose weight in the process? Absolutely."

Diversi stresses the importance of seeking professional advice when making the transition. "It is very healthy and it's a very healthy way to live, if you do it properly... It's important to ask what are your reasons? If reasoning is valid and it is for ethical or ethical/moral reasons [then great]."

If, on the other hand, a person is simply trying to find foods to eliminate, it is unlikely they will stop at animals.

"Even vegetarians with eating disorders will avoid certain foods, like potatoes," Madden says.

What this suggests is that anyone with an eating disorder will want to try diets that are restrictive.

People who are anxious about food are not only more likely to avoid dairy and meat, but carbohydrates as well, Madden says. "And it's increasingly common to see concern about food allergies . . . and gluten."

In fact, Diversi says the vegetarian/eating disorder relationship may reflect our cultural and generational food focuses.

"Many baby-boomer parents are fat-phobic, so [their kids] tend to be fat-phobic," she says. "They know that vegetables are low in calories and that meat, cheese and dairy are quite high.

"It will be interesting to see what happens with the [children of] Gen X and Y parents, who are carb-phobic. I wonder whether, in future, we'll see more carb-phobic eating disorders."

It may be a case of the chicken or the egg when it comes to diet-related eating disorders, but to say vegetarianism creates or equates to eating disorders seems tenuous at best.

"People who are vegetarian for religious or cultural reasons aren't at increased risk [of an eating disorder]," Madden says. However, "people who have a real focus on what they're eating do have increased risk".

Or as Diversi says: "A true vegetarian eats a wide variety of food. It's not just cutting out a food group – there's a big difference."

37 comments

  • I became a vegetarian at age 15 (26 years ago). The thought that it would help me lose weight had never even crossed my mind until I read this article.

    Even now, I'm not even sure it would; becoming a vegetarian means losing your primary source of protein, only to replace it with carbohydrates that often do little to sate one's hunger.

    Commenter
    KeiranO
    Date and time
    August 07, 2012, 3:31PM
    • KeiranO, that isn't the case. Substituting carbs for protein isn't the problem for veggos. The problem a lot of people have when they try vegetarianism is that they have no idea how to actually eat a healthy vegetarian diet. They don't know to mix legumes and grains to get their complete protein, or have tofu/soy (which has complete protein). They don't know to mix foods rich in vit C with their meals to maximise iron absorption, and don't know which foods are rich in iron and vit Bs. And they often don't eat a variety of fresh whole foods, including vegetables and fruits, and nuts. As a result, many give up.

      People with eating disorders might use vegetarianism as a means to simply avoid eating, or eating a spartan salad diet, but that relies on the ignorance of others about vegetarianism.

      It's quite possible to be vegetarian and overweight. Many overdo the dairy to compensate, especially cheese (high in fat). Many go for the processed soy foods around, which are just as bad as any processed food. Also, vegetarians eat sweets like anyone else (sugar and fat). The way to lose weight is the same for anyone: cut out added sugar and fat, and exercise.

      In other words, to be a healthy vegetarian, you need to buy a few good vegetarian cookbooks, and eat a healthy, fresh, wholefood diet. Vegetarian food is incredibly varied and delicious, especially if you love curries and spices, and easy to cook. Once you aren't lumbered with the heaviness of meat, you discover that everything has a wonderful taste.

      Commenter
      Veggie
      Date and time
      August 07, 2012, 5:00PM
    • Oh, and I have no problems sating my hunger, and I am not overweight.

      Commenter
      Veggie
      Date and time
      August 07, 2012, 5:02PM
    • Recent Australian vegetarian studies have confirmed food combining is no longer necessary.

      It never crossed my mind to become vegetarian to lose weight - compassion for other living creatures was my main driving force.

      Commenter
      p
      Date and time
      August 07, 2012, 6:10PM
    • Isn't life full of wonderful surprises? Not in my life did I consider that anyone would lecture me about vegetarianism.

      You make some excellent points, Veggie (if that is your real name). I'm not sure if it was 100% clear, but I have maintained my vegetarianism for those 26 years. I own many vegetarian cookbooks. I have also been an elite-level athlete for most of that time.

      I'd have to question your statement: "Substituting carbs for protein isn't the problem for veggos" because I'm a vegetarian, and that was my biggest challenge. Other than that, I'd agree with almost everything you said.

      I think my mistake was to post the comment while hungry :-)

      Commenter
      KeiranO
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      August 07, 2012, 10:25PM
    • @KeiranO
      You may be an elite-athlete, but your average vegetarian isn't. Hence, the carbs aren't an issue. As an average human being who is vegetarian, I can attest to that.

      Yes, life is full of wonderful surprises, isn't it.

      @ p
      Can you link the research? I would be very interested in reading it.

      Commenter
      Veggie
      Date and time
      August 09, 2012, 8:25AM
    • Hi Veggie. "Average vegetarian"? I'm not sure there is such a thing - I've certainly never met one. But if they do exist then I'm sure they're glad to have you as their spokesperson.

      I'm not sure if this is your experience, but I've found that lecturing others about vegetarianism is a deeply unpopular activity. I stopped doing it 25 years ago. Perhaps take a hint.

      BTW - If you are looking for the research 'p' was referring to, the Wikipedia entry on Protein Combining will point you in the right direction. Looks like the idea that vegetarians need food combining was pretty-much dismissed 25 years ago.

      Commenter
      KeiranO
      Date and time
      August 09, 2012, 12:37PM
  • Same with people claiming to have food intolerances. I've noticed that many women I have worked with are obsessed with their diets, claiming that this, that and the other makes them sick. I figured that this was their subconscious way of controlling their weight (they were all underweight).

    Commenter
    M1
    Location
    Melb
    Date and time
    August 07, 2012, 3:37PM
    • My boyfriend's mum works in the beauty industry and she consistently mentions that at functions and events most of the people there claim to 'feel better and lighter' since cutting out gluten/dairy/meat etc.
      I was diagnosed with Coeliac disease over two years ago and contrary to popular belief cutting out gluten did not make me lose weight - I actually GAINED 5kgs in under a month of beginning my strict gf diet. The disease doesn't allow your body to absorb nutrients, so when your bowel is finally repairing itself (after ceasing to eat gluten), it absorbs EVERYTHING! I don't know if the same can be said for gluten intolerance though.
      I have been an unofficial vegetarian my entire life (I've shunned animal products since learning about 'where they come from') and am currently dabbling in veganism. It is difficult as one food group has already been abolished form my diet.

      Commenter
      Mango
      Date and time
      August 07, 2012, 5:11PM
    • Some people actually do have food intolerances that make them sick. I have medically diagnosed IBS and there are certain foods that set it off. I am very careful with what I eat and have a very clean diet and as a result I am very slim. I would not want people at work looking at me thinking it is an excuse so I can be thin. Tell that to me when I am in hospital suffering an ibs attack.

      Commenter
      gypsysyd
      Date and time
      August 07, 2012, 5:24PM

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