Adopting a vegetarian diet is a decision that flows from a mind-set. It could be that a person feels that the vegetarian lifestyle is the most healthful. Others may turn to vegetarian eating because of moral convictions about the environment or animal rights. However, some use the diet to mask disordered eating.
It has been suggested that vegetarianism is used to mask eating disorders because it is considered a socially acceptable reason for limiting diet. Rather than face criticism for their obsession with weight, body shape and food, adopting a vegetarian lifestyle gives the person a free pass on severe food restrictions. For the person who becomes a vegan, the food limitations are even more stringent.
True vegetarians are not motivated by calories, portion size or the elimination of weight-risky food groups. Healthy vegetarian diets include grains, nuts and even rich dairy foods served in proper portion sizes. Vegetarians recognize the human body’s need for fats, proteins, iron and vitamins. In fact, in-the-know vegetarians take special care to include all of these in their diets. Iron-deficiency is a particular risk associated with vegetarianism and frequently leads vegetarians to abandon the lifestyle. Iron deficiency leads to lethargy and poor cognition and is a serious problem to be avoided if vegetarianism is to be maintained.
On the other hand, the person with an eating disorder is looking for ways to cut calories and eliminate foods they associate with weight gain. Not only sugary foods, but fat-containing foods usually make the no-no list. It usually isn’t long until proteins and fat-rich dairy products are likewise eliminated. The person with an eating disorder is not thinking about the needs of their body, but is driven by weight control at all costs.
Thus, vegetarianism does not cause eating disorders. Eating disorders are present and vegetarianism is pursued as a way to hide the problem. Women who admit to struggling with eating disorders confessed in a formal study that vegetarianism came after the onset of disordered eating not before. Vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are a form of mental illness. The one does not cause the other but can be used to mask its presence.
Parents of teens who suddenly announce an interest in vegetarian eating would be wise to spend time talking with their child about what is motivating their interest in the move. If the teen has been focusing on weight loss, has been limiting portion sizes or exercising excessively beforehand, parents should consider how an unhealthy weight concern might be behind the decision to become vegetarian. Vegetarian eating may be a way to avoid parental disapproval for a more serious problem.
The study findings may be found in the August publication of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.