Young Vegetarians at Risk
When teens choose to become vegetarians, one might assume youthful idealism as the motive -- wanting to save the planet or to be kind to animals. But past studies have found that the true reason for most vegetarian conversions among teens is the desire to lose weight, even when altruistic rationales are put forth. And now, a new study of 2500 subjects between the ages of 15 and 23 just published in Journal of the American Dietetic Association has found that while teens who don't eat meat do in fact weigh less and have overall healthier diets, they're also at greater risk for eating disorders and extreme eating behaviors compared to their carnivorous peers.
The young vegetarians in this study were less likely to be overweight or obese than their McDonald's munching friends, and they ate proportionally more fruits and vegetables and consumed less fat. But they also reported a greater than average tendency to binge eat, to purge by inducing vomiting, and to take diet pills or laxatives to control their weight. And this tendency applied not only to active vegetarians, but also to those who had been vegetarians in the past. In fact, the former vegetarians had a higher rate of "extreme eating behaviors" than did current vegetarians.
To put the results in perspective, 20% of the vegetarians admitted to binge eating, compared to only five percent of the meat-eaters. Also, 25% of the vegetarians between the ages of 15 to 18 reported taking diet pills or laxatives and inducing vomiting, compared to ten percent of teens who never had been vegetarians. These are dramatic and undeniable differences. It would seem that clearly vegetarian teens do tend toward eating problems more than meat-eating teens, at least before the age of 18. Interestingly, among the older teens -- those in the 19-23 age group -- there was virtually no difference between the current vegetarians and their meat-eating peers in rates of binging, purging, or taking diet aids, with both groups at 15 percent. But of the former vegetarians in the older age group, 27 percent admitted to such behaviors.
The results led researchers to conclude that teens may use vegetarianism to mask eating disorders or extreme diet behaviors in their quest to drop pounds. They can use the idea that they're vegetarians as an excuse to eat less. Psychiatrist Dr. David Waller of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical center, says, "What we would be concerned about ... might be that in some instances a [claim of a] vegetarian diet could conceal an underlying decision to lose weight and restrict food intake. This might be, for some teenagers, a more acceptable way of restricting their eating rather than being more overt or explicit about it."
This theory presumes that eating disorders precede vegetarianism and that those with a tendency toward extreme eating behaviors are attracted to a vegetarian diet, rather than that something in the vegetarian diet somehow gives birth to eating disorders. The researchers urge parents to look carefully when their kids opt to drop the meat in order to make sure there isn't an underlying issue. "Parents should talk to their child about their motivations for embarking on a vegetarian diet. If reasons are primarily related to weight loss, parents should explore this topic in more depth to further assess an increased risk of disordered eating behaviors," comments researcher Ramona Robinson-O'Brien.
But before you pass judgment, remember that perspective is everything.
Beyond the idea that young vegetarians eschew meat simply to lose weight, the researchers theorize that it's also possible that vegetarians, by definition, pay more attention to what they eat and so are more conscious of having binged and more likely to report it. It certainly is possible and even likely that vegetarian teens eat with more awareness than their peers. And if they are more conscious, they would be more aware not only of when they overeat, but also, of when their food is pure garbage. The urge to purge among vegetarians might in part be driven by the desire to clean the system of junk foods consumed in a fit of hunger -- and it does make sense that teens, overwhelmed by the natural hunger that comes with experiencing growth spurts, would occasionally junk-out given the level of temptation around them. Perhaps educating young people about the benefits of proper cleansing and detoxification would give them an alternative way to compensate for their indulgences, an option that's healthy rather than destructive.
As for containing binging behavior in vegetarian teens, again, education would no doubt help. Teens who opt to go meatless rarely get the support they need for their dietary choices, either at home or at school. They may recognize when food isn't healthy, when they've eaten too much of it, and even have a vague sense of what might be a better option -- but in order to implement a healthy vegetarian diet they need concrete guidance that isn't readily available to teens in the mainstream.
The researchers stress the fact that vegetarian diets are healthier and that kids should be encouraged (though monitored) if they choose to become vegetarian. But teens who give up meat without knowing how to balance their diets, get adequate nutrients and protein, or prepare satisfying meatless meals can easily end up not knowing what to eat and not getting enough quality food, and so compensate by binging. And while we're at it, let's be perfectly clear here. A majority of people who "adopt" a vegetarian diet do so badly. They often substitute high glycemic or high fat foods or nutritionally dead "fake" meats as an alternative to their former carnivore mainstays. It's not just teens. Education is important for anyone shifting to a vegetarian diet.
The bottom line is that clearly, teens (at least those in this study) don't really have enough information about diet, nutrition, or about how to achieve the weight goal they have in mind. Of the 2,500 teenagers in the study who self-identified as vegetarians, 46 percent said they ate fish and over 25 percent still ate chicken. You can bet if they don't even know what it means to be vegetarian, they sure don't know how to follow a vegetarian diet wisely.