When someone with an eating disorder says they are vegetarian, it often signals a red flag for their treatment providers. Is the vegetarianism part of their disordered eating or independent of it? Given that vegetarianism is at all time high in the U.S. right now, it’s a tricky question. Two new studies published this summer examined the tendency of people with eating disorders to be vegetarian and their motives behind this choice.
The first study, released online last week and led by scholars at the University of Chapel Hill – North Carolina, found that women with a current or past eating disorder were much more likely to have been vegetarian at some point in their life compared to women without an eating disorder. Furthermore, most the of women with eating disorders said their eating disorder started before they chose to become vegetarian – implying the choice to be vegetarian may have been influenced by their eating disorder. On the other hand, eating disorders often begin at a very young age and the choice to become vegetarian, at least when it’s for ethical purposes, may require more maturity that comes with an older age.
When asked why they became vegetarian, almost half of the women with eating disorders cited beliefs that it would help them lose weight – a pretty clear indication that the choice was related to their eating disorder. Given that the study included people who recovered from eating disorders, they may have also been better able to reflect on what their true reasons were for initially becoming vegetarian.
A potential flaw with the study is their definition of vegetarian. The researchers grouped together people who exclude all meat products from their diet in the same vegetarian category as people who exclude only beef. This is actually quite common in the limited research that’s been done on eating disorders and vegetarianism.
In the second study “true vegetarians” (avoiding all meats) were distinguished from “semi-vegetarianism” (avoiding only certain meats like red meat or poultry). Published last month in the journal, Appetite, the study examined whether disordered eating differed among different types of vegetarians. Not only did the researchers ask if people considered themselves vegan, vegetarian, or semi-vegetarian, but they also gave them questionnaires asking how often they ate foods of certain types to verify their vegetarian-status.
The study found that semi-vegetarians were the ones with the most disordered eating behaviors. They were the most likely to both restrict their food intake and to over-eat. Both vegans and true vegetarians engaged in healthier eating behaviors.
When we consider the role that vegetarianism plays in eating disorders, it’s important not to lump all types of vegetarians into one category. And to explore what initially drove a person’s decision to become vegetarian whether that might be ethics, health, or an underlying desire to lose weight.
Dr. Gupta is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and provides individual therapy at Tribeca Psychology