At various points in my life I’ve attempted to be a loyal vegetarian. But for whatever reason I could never quite make the commitment, be it my ultimate love for well-seasoned chicken or my lack of ethical reservations concerning animal consumption.
My reasons for attempting to go meat-free ranged from health to just trying something new to even shedding a few pounds when I felt meat was packing on unwanted weight. But according to a new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, going vegetarian for weight loss isn’t as uncommon as you might think. And furthermore, meat-free diets are being linked more often to people who struggle with eating disorders.
The study suggests that women who are suffering from eating disorders are four times more likely to be vegetarian than women without eating disorders. While I don’t feel I personally fell into this category, it’s important to point out that a vegetarian or vegan diet can very easily become a person’s socially acceptable means of avoiding certain foods in order to lose weight.
According to the study, 52 percent of women surveyed who have struggled with disordered eating in the past had been vegetarian at some point in their lives. This is compared to just 12 percent of women without eating disorders who had tried a vegetarian diet at one point in time. Researchers found that none of these women reported weight loss as primary motive for going vegetarian, while nearly half to those with an eating disorder listed weight loss as their primary goal.
While this may come as a shock to the general public, most clinicians specializing in patients with eating disorders weren’t surprised at all with the findings.
Vanessa Kane-Alves, a registered dietitian at the Boston Children’s Hospital’s Eating Disorders Program, told the Huffington Post that going vegetarian or vegan can be another way to cut out a food category, which can be a dangerous approach to weight loss. “It makes it easier when people ask you questions about where those foods have gone. It’s a more socially acceptable way to restrict foods,” she said, adding this can especially become a problem for teens trying to restrict their diets without raising suspicion from parents and peers.
Kane-Alves, was careful to point out, however, that she doesn’t believe vegetarianism causes eating disorders, but rather, can be a symptom of disordered eating for some women.
DietsInReview.com’s mental health expert, Brooke Randolph, LMHC, points out that the main message of this study is that weight loss was the motivation for trying a vegetarian diet. “There are many ethical, health, and personal preference reasons for vegetarianism that do not include weight loss,” she said. “When weight loss is a motivation, especially for those of average to below average weight, no matter what the action that is undertaken, the potential for developing an eating disorder is increased. If I painted my toe nails to lose weight, then I could skew the results of the percentage of women with pedicures also having an eating disorder. ”
A reasonable conclusion to draw from this study, then, is to encourage physicians to question patients who say they want to try a vegetarian diet. Doing so, says Kane-Alves, will help patients honestly analyze their motives in making the diet switch. And if their main goal in going meat-free is to lose weight, they should probably consider other options; or more importantly, treat the root issue, being disordered eating.