There are many valid reasons for someone to go vegan or vegetarian. While not everyone can, and those who cannot often revert to a non-meat exclusionary diet fairly quickly, there are people who validly need to exclude meat from their diets. Unfortunately, this can also mask a real problem- eating disorders.
New research may surprise those who do not deal with those who suffer from eating disorders, but it has shown that a large percentage of women who have eating disorders use vegetarianism and veganism as a way to mask their eating disorders.
The study published by the Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that 52% of women who have a history of eating disorders have been vegetarians at some point in their lives. Only 12% of women without eating disorders have even experimented with vegetarianism or veganism.
Vanessa Kane-Alves, a registered dietician with Boston Children’s Hospital’s Eating Disorders Program, told the Huffington post that “Going vegetarian can be another way to cut out a food category, or a number of food categories, if you become a vegan. It makes it easier when people ask you questions about where those foods have gone. It’s a more socially aceptable way to restrict foods.” Kane-Alves was not part of the study.
She also stated that “The takeaway of this study is, as a clinician, if you have a patient who tells you they want to be a vegetarian, it’s worth exploring that more than you would have otherwise,” she said. She suggests doctors ask their patients why they want to go vegetarian.
The study did not find that vegetarianism causes eating disorders.
The Huffington Post explained that:
In the study, the motivation to go vegetarian was starkly different between women with eating disorders and those who were not. None of the women without eating disorders reported becoming vegetarians to lose weight. In contrast, almost half of those with an eating disorder history said weight was their primary motivator.
Of the women with a history of eating disorders and a history of vegetarianism, 68 percent said there was a relationship between the two. A vegetarian diet helped them lose weight, cut calories and feel in control, they reported.
Going vegetarian in order to lose weight and control eating can also fall into the category of orthorexia — an obsession with healthy eating that can cover for an eating disorder, according to Kane-Alves.
“It’s one and the same,” she said. “It’s all restricting food groups, spending a lot of time in your life thinking about food, preparing food, reading labels, when you don’t necessarily have to.”
She pointed out, too, that only five percent of those fully recovered from their eating disorder were still vegetarians.
“We always try to respect vegarian eating practices, but what this suggests is that maybe we should have different recommendations for vegetarians with eating disorders who are trying to get better,” she said. “We need to at least have a discussion with the person about how it might be getting in the way of their recovery.”