The role that vegetarianism can play in one’s eating disorder can frequently be multifaceted and complex. As eating disorder providers, we know that dieting or the elimination of food groups can increase the risks of developing an eating disorder or hinder one’s recovery. Not all vegetarians have eating disorders, but for those who do, it can strongly enable their distorted thoughts and behaviors. Time and again, I have clients who come in expressing a desire to transition to a vegetarian lifestyle or some who already have adopted this lifestyle. My instinctive thought is not to engage in a power struggle but to engage in curiosity. It can be a slippery slope navigating what came first, the eating disorder or the vegetarianism.
There is limited research about the correlation between eating disorders and vegetarianism, but it most certainly has a synchrony in many cases. In this article, I will illuminate what I have discerned and what I’ve witnessed while working as a dietitian specializing with those with eating disorders.
Vegetarianism, by definition, is the practice of abstaining from the consumption of meat (red meat, poultry, seafood, and the flesh of any other animal) and may also include abstention from by-products of animal slaughter. Vegetarianism may be adopted for various reasons. It can be related to the person’s health values, religious beliefs, ethical concerns for animals, or the objection to the practice of factory farming animals and growth hormones. With a plethora of food and health documentaries, finding a reason to immerse oneself in this style of living is much more accessible and straightforward to hit upon and carry out. Unfortunately, with so many of our vulnerable clients, their distortions become normalized within our “thin-ideal” society. Teenagers especially, are at a higher risk of having body image issues and becoming vegetarians for the wrong reasons. Their desire to separate from their parents while asserting themselves and expressing their individuality can be manifested by following a vegetarian lifestyle. Choosing to become vegetarian, as a teenager can be the first “informed adult decision” they make. Having this label can set them apart from their parents’ generation, while still coexisting with them. A perfect cover up for eating disorders.
A study published in the Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that women suffering from an eating disorder are four times more likely to be vegetarian than women without eating disorders and more that 52% of women with a history of eating disorders had been vegetarians at some point in their lives. Another study found that 61% of ED individuals who had been vegetarians believe there was a correlation between their choice of vegetarianism and their eating disorder.
An honest conversation and exploration of the motives behind eliminating animal products from one’s diet is a fundamental aspect in recovery. It is of course important to remove the competition from the conversation. Continued support and education are necessary in guiding these clients. As clinicians, we must challenge the mindset of having the label of “a vegetarian” and encourage these clients to perhaps take a break or pause from it, until they are fully recovered. We must educate them about the nutrients they are missing from a vegetarian diet and the benefits of eating animal products while in recovery. In my opinion, a vegetarian diet or lifestyle can be practiced if one desires, but after recovery.
Authentic health can be defined as one’s optimal wellbeing, a product of the synthesis of honoring your personal values, cognitions, and emotions surrounding food, while integrating balanced nutrition to meet dietary guidelines. When there is cognitive dysregulation, such as that within the context of an eating disorder, clients cannot accurately discern hunger and satiety cues or emotions, and the delicate balance of authentic health maintenance becomes difficult, if not impossible.