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Young vegetarians may have eating disorders

April 1, 2009 | 10:52 am


We want our children to eat more fruits and vegetables, and hooray for the kids who do. But a new study suggests that a sizable number of adolescents and young adults who say they are vegetarians actually have a eating disorder.

Previous research has also found a link between young people who say they are vegetarians and eating disorders. Some researchers have found that adolescents with eating disorders may adopt a vegetarian diet as a weight-loss tool that is considered socially acceptable. The new study analyzed data from surveys, questionnaires and observations taken at 31 Minnesota schools in 1998. The 2,516 adolescents and young adults in the study ranged in age from 15 to 23. The students were categorized as current vegetarians, former vegetarians or never vegetarian. A vegetarian diet can mean eating only plant sources or consuming some dairy and eggs or even some chicken and fish.

The study found that 19.6% of the current vegetarians and 20.9% of former vegetarians used some form of extreme, unhealthy weight-control behaviors (such as using a diet pill or laxatives or inducing vomiting), and 21.2% and 16%, respectively, said they had binged on food with a loss of control. In comparison, 9.4% of the never-vegetarian group had used extreme, unhealthy weight-control behaviors and only 4.4% said they had lost control while eating and binged.

"These findings suggest that ... current adolescent and young adult vegetarians are at greatest risk for binge eating with loss of control. Reasons for this might be due, in part, to heightened awareness of food intake in general among practicing vegetarians and, thus, a greater likelihood to report eating and feeling a loss of control. Possible triggers for binge-eating episodes may also be related to self-imposed restrictions of certain foods or a decreased level of satiety related to decreased intake of protein and fat," the authors wrote. The study, published today in the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn., was conducted by researchers from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas, Austin.

To detect eating disorders, doctors should ask their patients about their vegetarian status, the researchers said. And parents, they said, should probe their children about their motives in choosing a vegetarian diet.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: South Koreans promote vegetarian diets. Credit: AP / Ahn Young-joon