27 April 2009

If your teenager decides to become a vegetarian, don't panic. Based on a recently published study, recent headlines seemed to link teenagers' vegetarian diets to eating disorders. But we need to keep the findings of this study in perspective. A vegetarian diet may be healthy option for your teen, as long as it is not a "front" for an eating disorder.

What does this study tell us?
➢  Teens who adopt vegetarian diets may be more likely to binge eat.  While the teens in the study were more likely to report binge eating, that does not mean that all teens who become vegetarians will end up with an eating disorder. In this study, 20 percent of the teens who said that they were vegetarians reported binge eating at least once in the past year. Only 4 percent of the teens who had never been vegetarians reported binge eating in the past year. So this study was not really designed to evaluate actual eating disorders but, rather, tendencies to binge eat. This could mean an eating disorder-but not necessarily.  

➢  Teens and young adults who adopt vegetarian diets eat healthier than non-vegetarians. The study revealed that, overall, teenagers who ate vegetarian might eat healthier. They ate more fruits and vegetables, less total fat, and less saturated fat.
➢  Young adults who adopt vegetarian diets are less likely to be overweight than young adults who are not vegetarians.  The study looked at both teens and young adults in their early 20s. In this group, vegetarians were more likely have healthy weights than non-vegetarians.

➢  Vegetarian teens were less likely to use alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs.

This is a "cross-sectional" study, which means that the researchers asked these questions at just one point in time-several points over a longer period. That makes it impossible to tell which came first, the vegetarian diet or the binging eating behavior. Nor does this type of study indicate whether one thing caused another. For instance, we cannot conclude that being a vegetarian caused the binge eating or that being a vegetarian caused the teens to be less likely to smoke. Rather, there seemed to be some sort of relationship between the two.

Other studies do show that teens who become vegetarians may be more likely to have issues with disordered eating behaviors. It could be that some teenagers are harboring eating disorders and use the vegetarian diet as cover for eliminating certain food groups. Or some teenagers may become vegetarians and become so focused on their foods that they develop eating disorders.

The bottom line is that parents need to learn how to distinguish between a healthy vegetarian diet and an eating disorder. You should look for signs that you teen may be heading for an eating disorder.

Here are some possible signs of anorexia (an excessive drive for thinness):

➢    Very thin appearance and excessive, fast weight loss
➢    Weighing food
➢    Checking her or his weight often
➢    Wearing baggy clothing
➢    Often claiming to be fat
➢    Skipping meals
➢    Strange meal rituals such as cutting food into very tiny pieces
➢ Obsessively count calories
➢    Making whole categories of foods-like snacks or sweets-completely off limits
➢    Having a distorted or negative body image

Here are some possible signs of bulimia (eating a large amount of food in a short time and then getting rid of the extra calories by vomiting or excessive exercise):

➢  Eating in secret
➢  Exercising too much
➢  Buying laxatives often
➢  Depression or irritability
➢    Unhealthy focus on body weight and shape
➢    Going to bathroom during or right after meals
➢    Hoarding food
➢    Having a distorted or negative body image

These are just a few signs of an eating disorder. If you suspect an eating disorder, talk to your teen and let her or him know that you are concerned. Seek help. You can start by going to the National Eating Disorders Association website at: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.

Beth Kitchin, MS, RD
Assistant Professor
UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences


Robinson-O'Brien, R., Perry, C.L., Wall, M.M., Story, M., and Neumark-Sztainer, D. Adolescent and young adult vegetarianism: Better dietary intake and weight outcomes but increased risk of disordered eating behaviors.  Journal of the American Dietary Association;109:648-655.