A Time Magazine article entitled “Is Vegetarianism a Teen Eating Disorder?” discusses a study that links experimentation with vegetarianism among teenagers to eating disorders. The study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, revealed that “teenage vegetarians as well as young experimenters — those who try it but abandon it — may be at higher risk for other eating disorders compared with their peers.”

While vegetarian teenagers in the study were more likely to have a healthier diet overall – composed of more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lower in fat – than their meat-eating counterparts, they were also more likely to engage in behaviors typical of eating disorders, such as binge eating and taking extreme measures to control one’s weight.

“…most common reason teens gave for vegetarianism was to lose weight or keep from gaining it. Adolescent vegetarians are far more likely than other teens to diet or to use extreme and unhealthy measures to control their weight, studies suggest. The reverse is also true: teens with eating disorders are more likely to practice vegetarianism than any other age group.”

First off, what annoyed me about this article is that title implies that vegetarianism IS the eating disorder itself – making it likely that lots of parents are going to read this, then frantically worry about their teenage vegetarian. The article goes on to say that “it seems that a significant number of kids experiment with a vegetarian diet as a way to mask an eating disorder, since it’s a socially acceptable way to avoid eating many foods and one that parents tend not to oppose.” So, vegetarianism is not an eating disorder itself, but a potential symptom of one – as any drastic change in an adolescent’s eating habits might be.

This study, in fact, doesn’t seem that surprising to me. Teenagers are not only the age group most likely to be affected by an eating disorder, but also the most likely to change their eating habits as they grow, become more knowledgeable about health and nutrition, and discover what foods they enjoy and what works for their body. However, this article seems to imply that all teenage vegetarians are at risk for an eating disorder – which is more likely to be a special case than the norm. As a former teenage vegetarian myself, I can safely say that I certainly did not have an eating disorder. I have known healthy vegetarians, vegetarians with unhealthy diets, and meat-eaters with eating disorders. There may be many common symptoms among teenagers with ED, but I’m skeptical of vegetarianism being the main culprit.

The article encourages parents to “be extra vigilant when teens suddenly become vegetarians” for fear that they may be hiding an eating disorder – but I think parents’ energy would be better spent worrying about that their teenage vegetarian gets adequate nutrition from their new diet than looking for signs of trouble. Make sure they aren’t skipping meat only to subsist on a diet of pasta and processed crap. That being said, parents obviously should worry if they notice weirder habits developing.

Also, neither the study nor the article make any distinction between a clinically diagnosed eating disorder and signs of disordered eating. I would venture to say that most teenagers, most people in fact, display signs of disordered eating (abnormal eating patterns that are often irregular or restrictive) at some point in their life – but this does not necessarily mean that they have an eating disorder. Both can be unhealthy and damaging, but they aren’t the same thing. I’m not really qualified to speak more on the subject, but you can find more information through places like the National Eating Disorder Association and the National Eating Disorder Information Centre.