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Is Vegetarianism a Risk for Teen Eating Disorders?

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Maggie Baumann, MA: Becoming a vegetarian has lots of healthful benefits. Studies show that a healthy vegetarian meal plan that consists of plenty of vegetables, fruits, complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains), foods that are high in fiber, low in cholesterol and saturated fats can help in avoiding heart disease, high cholesterol and excessive weight gain and/or obesity.

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The most basic vegetarian is someone who chooses not to eat meats, fish and poultry. Some vegetarians adhere to more strict food rules and choose not to eat any foods derived from animals, such as cheese and eggs. Vegetarians must be prudent in maintaining diets that provide them with plenty of protein, calcium and iron sources so they don't experience nutrient deficiencies that can cause a host of health problems.

Reasons for choosing to become a vegetarian are varied and may include religious beliefs, health and environmental and ethical concerns.

There can also be another reason to choose a vegetarian diet that is common among some teens and young women -- to mask an eating disorder.

Vegetarianism in the Eating Disorder Community

According to New Hampshire eating disorder specialist and nutrition counselor Marcia Herrin, EdD, MPH, RD, LD, author of "The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders" and "Nutritional Counseling in the Treatment of Eating Disorders," vegetarianism is common among eating disorder patients.

"Adolescents may use vegetarianism to express independence from parents, which is common at this age," Herrin says. "However, they may also be using this form of more restrictive eating to be a cover for reducing fat and caloric intake which can lead to disordered eating and eating disorders."

Herrin has been treating eating disorders for 25 years and she herself suffered from anorexia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a nutrition counselor she helps clients deal with food, weight and body image issues in a therapeutic counseling manner.

The choice to become a vegetarian for this select group of teens and young women may have no identification with any personal health, moral or ethical issues about protection of animals, but may be more about how to lose weight and get skinny in a society that lauds thinness.

"It's important to assess the family's response to having a vegetarian child," says Herrin. "Do the parents practice vegetarianism? Do they have to cater to her/him? Does the child eat meals with the family?"

If a teen suddenly takes on vegetarianism, she now holds "legitimate" reasons to avoid foods at the dinner table. "Oh, sorry I can't eat that, I am vegetarian." And unknowing parents might not have replacements for vegetarian protein sources to accommodate what the teen girl needs nutritionally if she is not eating meat sources. However, for someone in the throws of an eating disorder, the identification of being a vegetarian is a perfect mask for avoiding many foods, aiding them in their goal to weight loss and giving them that false sense of safe security they've found in the eating disorder.

A study by Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2009 revealed that young adults, ages 15 to 23, who reported they were vegetarian, were more likely, at some point, to engage in unhealthy weight-loss behaviors like bingeing, purging and using diet pills or laxatives.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental issue, so these young girls and women using vegetarianism to hide their eating disorders may experience severe or even fatal consequences.

Regarding the issue to let your child or teen chose the lifestyle of vegetarianism, Herrin's advice to families is that unless the whole family eats vegetarian, the child should wait to practice this restrictive form of eating until she is eating on her own. At the very least, vegetarianism in one member of a family is a major inconvenience to other members of the family, and at worst, vegetarianism increases the risk of an eating disorder.

This goes back to the original question in the article title. Vegetarianism can increase risk of an eating disorder, but not all teen vegetarians get eating disorders. It all depends on the motivation behind the reasons for choosing to become a vegetarian.

Parents' Actions Steps Against Eating Disorders

If you think your child or teen may be struggling with an eating disorder, take action fast.

1. If you suspect an eating disorder, you want to approach the subject matter very sensitively, not in an accusatory way. Focus more on the behaviors that aren't debatable. You might say, "Honey, I've noticed all you had for dinner was an apple and a bowl of vegetables. That concerns me because that is not enough nutrients for your body."

When you talk to your teen, make sure it's at a time of no tension and you are away from other distractions. Make the conversation personal, loving and confidential.

2. Avoid blaming statements or criticisms, or the teen will only shut you out.

3. Know the warning signs of eating disorders. You can check the National Eating Disorder Association's (NEDA) website for warning signs and symptoms at

4. Schedule an appointment with your teen's physician for a medical check up and evaluation for an eating disorder. If an eating disorder is confirmed, your doctor can help assist you to find a treatment team who specializes in eating disorders to work with your teen in the treatment phase. You can also locate eating disorder specialists across the nation at www.edreferral.com. This website offers resources to eating disorder professionals and treatment centers as well.

5. And remember, the earlier the eating disorder is treated, the faster the recovery time is and less damage on your teen's physical and emotional health.

6. Most teens and young women in recovery want and need parental/partner support. The best way to give it is to ask, "How can I support you?" That way the teen feels she still has control over how she is supported and this boosts trust and independence in recovery.

Please note: eating disorders also affect males, so the information provided here is also appropriate to the young teen male population.


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3 comments so far | Post a comment now
anonymous March 29, 2011, 6:28 AM

At age 19 I became a vegetarian as a means to restrict my caloric intake. I did not realize that the restriction was the beginning of an eating disorder until much later. I was a freshman in college and had gained the “freshman fifteen.” I became ill and lost ten of the fifteen pounds. I was elated and decided at that time it was in my best interest to restrict my caloric intake by becoming a Vegetarian.

My parents and friends thought it was a little strange but did not show enough concern until much later when my eating disorder was out of control.

It is my hope that by commenting on this article parents will take a closer look at the “why” a young adult is interested in being a vegetarian.

katedonthate March 29, 2011, 11:45 AM

I became a vegetarian 25 years ago, at the age of 15, for ethical reasons. I am much healthier than my parents, non-veggie sibling, and most other people I know. It’s not necessarily about weight … I have tons of energy, look younger than my years, and never get sick.

It is true that vegetarians weigh 10% less than their non-vegetarian counterparts. I think that, unfortunately, the media latched onto that, and began touting vegetarianism as a low-fat diet. Then young, impressionable women get the idea that they can be “skinny” by not eating meat.

I would agree with the previous poster that parents should be aware of the “why.” Is your kid insecure? Is your kid preoccupied with her looks? It’s not easy to be a young woman in this society!

But parents should also consider that vegetarianism is a healthy choice for most people—way healthier than the way most Americans eat, and not something to fear. Is your kid into healthy living in general? Does your kid love animals? Is your kid a deep thinker?

Be aware of the “why,” but don’t judge it unless there’s an actual problem.

smilinggreenmom March 31, 2011, 9:53 AM

Oh wow - that is so scary. I know vegetarians have many reasons for their choice but I hope kids do not start thinking of it as a weight loss strategy. Our family love our veggies and we eat lots of whole grains too like Kamut Wheat, quinoa and wild rice…and our kids love these foods! But I also make sure they understand it’s for vitamins and minerals and we never focus on weight. I think it is important for children to grow up with an appreciation for foods but this is scary!


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