Teen Vegetarians May Develop Eating Disorders

A properly-followed vegetarian diet plan can fulfill the nutritional needs of people and can even lower risks of cancer and other diseases.  However, a recent study has shown that teenagers who have adapted the vegan diet, or followed an eating program that excludes any kind of meat and/or animal byproduct, may put them at risk of developing serious eating disorders. 

According to the report published on the April issue of Journal of the American Dietetic Association, although young adult vegetarians were less likely to become overweight or obese compared to those who had never been vegetarians, up to 25 percent of these vegetarians-whether they are currently or formerly practicing vegetarianism-demonstrated behaviors linked to unhealthy weight control. These include the use of diet pills, regurgitation, laxatives, diuretics, and even binge eating.

The study was conducted by analyzing the data collected on over 2,500 participants that included teens and young adults.  They were then grouped according to their eating habits-current vegetarians, former vegetarians, and non-vegetarians-and then split into subgroups of teens and young adults.  Majority of the vegetarians who participated in the study were female.

The participants were questioned about their eating behaviors, including whether they had experienced binge eating and other extreme weight-control behaviors.  The researchers have found that around 21 percent of former vegetarian teens admitted that they have used unhealthy weight-control behaviors, as compared to only 10 percent among non-vegetarian teens. 

Meanwhile, 27 percent of former vegetarian young adults admitted into practicing extreme weight-control measures, compared to 16 percent among current vegetarians, and 15 percent of those who have never been vegetarians.

The researchers stated that some teenagers may have decided to become vegetarians simply because of potential weight loss and not because of principle.  Lead researcher Ramona Robinson-O’Brien, assistant professor in the Nutrition Department at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in St. Joseph, Minnesota, said that adolescents often experience a more delicate sensitivity about their physical appearance, as well as pressure to conform to a cultural ideal of a fit body.  This, according to Robinson-O’Brien, results in body dissatisfaction and experimentation with various weight loss methods including vegetarianism.

She advised that physicians and nutrition professionals who are providing guidance to young vegetarians should recognize not only the potential benefits associated with a healthful vegetarian diet, but also the possibility that their patients are at an increased risk of distorted eating behaviors.