Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders

  Awareness, Eating Disorders, Lifestyle, Personal

Photo Credit: Unknown

Photo Credit: Unknown

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!

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  1. obscurefox

    August 7, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    I’m in recovery from an eating disorder, ( Anorexia in my teens and 20s and EDNOS now) I have been a vegetarian off and on over the years, usually just before I relapse I’m pretty strictly vegetarian. Other then the control issue triggering me, as in if i start reading labels and watching ingredients, I start restricting, I really don’t think they are related. I’m healthier when I am an omnivore but really I think it’s that I actually eat .

    1. Jen

      August 7, 2012 at 2:24 pm

      Thanks for your response. What some of the media has been assessing is that women with eating disorders will say they are vegetarian or go vegetarian as a way to cut out an entire food group. I’m curious – do you call yourself vegetarian when you are restricting/relapsing or is it just what your diet resembles? If you do only turn vegetarian right before a relapse (or, let’s say, in the EARLY stages of a relapse) then maybe they are related for you. What do you think?

  2. obscurefox

    August 7, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    It’s something I would call myself in the past, but my usual diet now doesn’t include a lot of meat, ( Our household eats meat about twice a week, not a usual American diet, but not vegetarian at this time. ) I get concerned over the environmental impact of meat production, I’ll start being very careful about where food comes from and such , then I still worry about the cruelty on factory farms, so I stop eating meat altogether along with processed foods, foods that are shipped a long way etc. and as I sort of spiral out of control or rather more obsessively in control in the bad way, my food choices get limited. So it may be related but in a non direct way. I don’t use vegetarianism as a cover for restricting, but paying attention to the detail of what I eat causes me trouble , now at least and in the far past. I was fine for 16 years after counseling in college. I was a vegetarian for about 9 of those years.

    When I was 14 terrified of being fat, and had put on weight because at that age girls just do. My family was very cruel to my younger sister who was chubby and I just didn’t want them to treat me like they did her. ( We both developed eating disorders) It was only a coincidence at the time I was a vegetarian, because I was also concerned about animal rights.

    When my children were at pre school age till junior high/ high school I was vegetarian. I made meat for the kids and husband cooked vegetarian for myself, with no problem, (I don’t do that now my doctor wants me to eat with my family and the same foods) but the more difficult my life became with my own health problems and my son’s autism , my daughters Asbergers diagnosis,and husband being laid off, the more control issues around food became a problem. I actually felt I was cured till 2009, then fall 2009 things just sort of went out of control after not having a problem for 16 years.

    Sorry my response is so long and probably a bit unhelpful.

    1. Jen

      August 7, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      “I don’t use vegetarianism as a cover for restricting, but paying attention to the detail of what I eat causes me trouble , now at least and in the far past.”
      I completely understand what you mean. I don’t have that exact experience but I definitely know what it’s like for things to slowly spiral out of control.

      ” I actually felt I was cured till 2009, then fall 2009 things just sort of went out of control after not having a problem for 16 years.”
      As soon as I read this, I reminded me of something my partner likes to tell me when I tell him that I am in recovery. He reminds me that recovery is a process and that there really is no “cure” so to speak. That it takes continual effort (that gets better with time usually) but that it never truly goes away. I’m sorry to hear that you relapsed after 16 years. That must have been hard to deal with. I hope you are doing better. <3

      Thank you so much for your response. I really appreciate you sharing part of your story with me.

  3. Mulberry

    August 10, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    I’ve certainly heard of vegetarianism/veganism used as a way to disguise a diet, and it also gives some dieters a sense of moral one-upmanship. But you know what, a lot of these studies don’t say much about cause and effect. If they’re trying to say vegetarianism is bad because some people use it this way, they might as well say people shouldn’t have cars because cars can be used to ill effect.
    I’ve known a few fat vegans in my time, so this isn’t even a reliable diet.

    1. Jen

      August 10, 2012 at 10:43 pm

      What do you mean when you say disguise a diet? Like, say/go vegetarian/vegan as a means to lose weight? I can understand the moral one-upmanship, I guess, even though it’s a pretty shitty stance. If you take out the ramifications that our food industry has on our economy, the environment, the treatment of animals, etc etc etc, it really comes down to every person being able to put whatever they want into their body to nourish it (or not). Passing judgement on someone who is not vegetarian/vegan just because you are is unnecessary and pointless.

      ” If they’re trying to say vegetarianism is bad because some people use it this way, they might as well say people shouldn’t have cars because cars can be used to ill effect.”
      Yeah, I’m not sure what the media was trying to portray about this study in its coverage. From what I took from it, it was almost as if it was saying that if you have an eating disorder and you’re vegetarian, then your choice to be vegetarian was directly-related to your eating disorder. It’s almost as if those people are being treated as children incapable of making their own decisions about their food. And while that may be true for many women (and men and everything in between) with eating disorders, it’s not exclusive and the study pool was too small for any conclusive results. But that’s just my opinion I guess.

      “I’ve known a few fat vegans in my time, so this isn’t even a reliable diet.”
      This kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t actually believe that diet is the only factor in a person’s body type/size/weight. I.e. whether a vegan is fat or not does not necessarily dictate that he/she is eating too much or improperly or that his/her diet is not nourishing his/her body in a healthy way (whatever ANY of that means).

      Thank you for taking the time to respond. I appreciate it!

  4. Mulberry

    August 10, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    “Disguise a diet” – restricting eating but claiming you’re not really doing so.
    By the way, I am not myself a vegetarian. I am aware that people practice vegetarianism for many reasons.
    I also don’t believe that diet is as big a factor in one’s weight as people make it out to be. I do not use the term “fat” as an insult, just a descriptive (I have always been fat). I am referring to the fact that although some people use a vegetarian lifestyle as a kind of weight-loss diet, it is not nearly as effective in that regard as they might think or hope.

  5. Bee

    January 10, 2014 at 10:47 am

    Hey there, I just found your blog and was perusing… And I just wanted to let you know that I LOVED this post. As a fifteen year vegetarian (and someone who works in show business) it’s been really sad to watch people turn a cruelty-free diet into a trend. It’s also been super frustrating to see people make sweeping generalizations about it. Kudos for calling this “study” out and sharing your story.

    1. Jen

      January 10, 2014 at 1:45 pm

      Hi Bee, thank you for the comment! I’m glad you appreciated this post. The topic means a lot to me too.

  6. Aurora Lady

    February 19, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    Thank you for writing this, Jen. Study or not, I’ve heard people make this claim when I mention that I’m vegan (for the record, I try to only ever bring it up when I have to, it’s not like a fun convo for me). I wonder what they are trying to really tell me when they say it– are they trying to make themselves feel better about their own diet? We have a lot to talk about. Let me know when/if you wanna have a hairdye yoga party. <3

    1. Jen

      February 19, 2014 at 9:49 pm

      I don’t normally mention it either for similar reasons because well, my diet is no one’s business just like theirs is not mine. It’s irritating how people feel the need to pick apart other people’s choices when it comes to their own bodies. Anywho! Thank you for commenting! A hairdye/yoga party sounds amazing!!! xo

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