There is a study going around claiming that women with eating disorders are more likely to be vegetarian than women never having suffered from an eating disorder. I haven’t read the study – I don’t have access to it – but from the media coverage surrounding it, the study reports that 52% of the 97 women with an eating disorder at some point in their lives had also been vegetarian at some point in their lives. Only 12% of 67 women who had never had an eating disorder had become vegetarian at some point in their lives.
Fine. With such a small sample pool, I am highly curious what the variables were for the study. For example, are we talking about women who identified as vegetarian or women with diets resembling that of a vegetarian? If you know anything about eating disorders, you know that the two are not necessarily the same. An anorexic may severely restrict the variety of foods he or she eats, which may include restricting meat or animal-based foods, but he or she might not identify as a vegetarian. How does the study accommodate those factors?
Or, are we talking about becoming a vegetarian while actively engaging in an eating disorder? What if the woman was a vegetarian growing up or for religious reasons and developed an eating disorder? Or if during a period of recovery, she healthily made a choice to become vegetarian – does that still qualify for the study if the choice was not related to the eating disorder?
As for the media reporting on it, is it responsible to claim that a “Great Majority of Women with Eating Disorders are Vegetarians” or that “Women with Eating Disorders use Vegetarianism to Mask Illness,” given such a small sample pool? How are we invalidating the food choices that women make in response to the food industry and their bodies? Is it fair to insinuate that just because a woman who has had an eating disorder at some point in her life, then if she chooses to become vegetarian it is somehow related to her eating disorder? This may be the case for some women but I have to wonder for how many.
For me, a recovering bulimic (I have been behavior free since November 2011) AND a vegetarian, not eating meat was a gradual process and decision for me. The decision was well thought out during both periods of recovery and relapse. I, for one, did not mask my eating disorder with vegetarianism. I am a vegetarian because meat and dairy are hard for me to digest physically, because I don’t agree with the way our meat industry operates, and because I love animals too much to want to eat them.
Let’s say I’m a special case (which I doubt). In my two stints in treatment, I came across one other patient (she was in both programs incidentally) who was vegan. Every other patient was an omnivore. This is based on a similar sized pool of people having had eating disorders at some point in their lives. Now I am not saying that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is inaccurately reporting based on its findings but what is the margin of error on those findings to begin with?
The study also reports on the motivations of both groups of women for becoming vegetarian. Reportedly, women who had an eating disorder at some point and became vegetarian, did so to lose weight while women without eating disorders became vegetarian for other reasons. If you are suffering from an eating disorder where you focus on weight loss, chances are you will try anything to lose weight. How is that an accurate assessment? How do you take into account other or additional motivators?
What do you think? Do you have experience with vegetarians and/or women with eating disorders? Are you one or the other or both? I’d love to hear your opinions on this. The study just doesn’t sit well with me. Let’s talk!