Study: Is Vegetarianism a Teen Eating Disorder?

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Being a teenager means experimenting with foolish things like dyeing your hair purple or candy flipping or going door-to-door for a political party. Parents tend to overlook seemingly mild, earnest teen pursuits like joining the Sierra Club, but a new study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association suggests that another common teen fad, vegetarianism, isn't always healthy. Instead, it seems that a significant number of kids experiment with a vegetarian diet as a way to mask an eating disorder, since it's a socially acceptable way to avoid eating many foods and one that parents tend not to oppose.

The study, led by nutritionist Ramona Robinson-O'Brien, an assistant professor at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Minnesota, found that while adolescent and young adult vegetarians were less likely than meat eaters to be overweight and more likely to eat a relatively healthful diet, they were also more likely to binge eat. Although most teens in Robinson-O'Brien's study claimed to embark on vegetarianism to be healthier or to save the environment and the world's animals, the research suggests they may be more interested in losing weight than protecting cattle or swine. (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)

For one thing, many young "vegetarians" continue to eat the white meat of defenseless chickens (25% in the current study) as well as the flesh of those adorable animals known as fish (46%), even when they are butchered and served up raw as sushi. And in a 2001 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers found that the most common reason teens gave for vegetarianism was to lose weight or keep from gaining it. Adolescent vegetarians are far more likely than other teens to diet or to use extreme and unhealthy measures to control their weight, studies suggest. The reverse is also true: teens with eating disorders are more likely to practice vegetarianism than any other age group.

In a research venture called Project EAT-II: Eating Among Teens, Robinson-O'Brien and her team surveyed 2,516 young Minnesotans, ages 15 to 23. Of the respondents, 108 (or 4.3%) described themselves as currently vegetarian, another 268 (10.8%) said they were former vegetarians and the rest were lifelong meat eaters. The researchers found that in one sense, the vegetarians were healthier: they tended to consume less than 30% of their calories as fat, while non-vegetarians got more than 30% of their calories from fat. Not surprisingly, the vegetarians were also less likely to be overweight (17% were heavy vs. 28% of non-veggies). (See pictures of fruit.)

But approximately 20% of the vegetarians turned out to be binge eaters, compared with only 5% of those who had always eaten meat. Similarly, 25% of current vegetarians, ages 15 to 18, and 20% of former vegetarians in the same age group said they had engaged in extreme weight-control measures such as taking diet pills or laxatives and forcing themselves to vomit. Only 1 in 10 teens who had never been vegetarian reported similar behavior. (Read a brief history of veganism.)

This disparity in extreme behavior disappeared between current vegetarians and lifelong meat eaters in the older cohort, ages 19 to 23, with about 15% in each group reporting such weight-control tactics. But among former vegetarians, that number jumped to 27%. The findings suggest that age matters when it comes to vegetarianism: teenage vegetarians as well as young experimenters — those who try it but abandon it — may be at higher risk for other eating disorders compared with their peers. But by young adulthood, many still-practicing vegetarians have presumably chosen it as a lifestyle rather than a dieting ploy, the study suggests.

That being said, even among the young adults, current vegetarians reported binge eating more often than their peers, which the authors theorize can be explained by the fact that vegetarians are simply more aware and disciplined about what they eat and are, therefore, more likely to report overindulging. (It could also be that vegetarians are hungrier in general and somewhat more prone to bouts of binge eating.)

The authors suggest that parents and doctors should be extra vigilant when teens suddenly become vegetarians. Although teens may say they're trying to protect animals, they may actually be trying to camouflage some unhealthy eating behaviors.

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