Veggie loving teens…parents beware to this ED warning sign.

Is Vegetarianism a teen eating disorder?

Time Magazine recently studied this topic, which brought back many memories of my early-teen-disordered-eating habits.

I was about 15 or so, when I decided to cut the meat out of my diet. I remember it clearly because I love meat, but no one would know it. 

No hamburger, no tacos, no chili, c'mon! And don't even get me going on steak, and pork tenderloin.

My entire decision revolved around one thing and one thing only;


I know now, of course, this is not true.

But it sure is easy to convince yourself of it when Hollywood is all-vegan-all-the-time, and you've got PETA exploiting it with skinny mini actresses showing off their bods to send the clear message "Veggies-R-Us"

The Time study showed
-20% of the vegetarians turned out to be binge eaters,
compared with only 5% of those who had always eaten meat.

-25% of current vegetarians and 20% of former
vegetarians in the same age group said they had engaged in extreme
weight-control measures such as taking diet pills or laxatives and
forcing themselves to vomit.

Only 1 in 10 teens who had never been
vegetarian reported similar behavior. View complete report.

My experience showed:

-It's easy as hell to hide your eating disorder behind vegetarianism. In fact, people applaud you for it.

-Cutting out meat was a first step to the slippery slope of disordered eating, which then lead to convincing myself chicken and fish should go too.

-When you don't eat any meat…there's not much too eat at family affairs. You've created the perfect excuse at Aunt Betty's house, when she serves an all-meat-buffet, with a side of bacon laced potatoes. Suddenly, sitting there eating 4 lettuce leaves doesn't seem so odd so you fly under the radar.

I do hope this study raises awareness with parents that vegetarian-ism can be yet another warning sign of an eating disorder creeping its way into your child's brain.


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28 Responses to Veggie loving teens…parents beware to this ED warning sign.

  1. .C. says:

    This one’s a disservice, MamaV.
    I’ve been a vegetarian for 5 and a half years (I’m 19 now) and it’s one of the few parts of my eating that’s NOT disordered. I agree that in some cases vegetarianism can be a warning sign for something, but it should be easy to know when there’s something to worry about and you should mention that in this post. For instance, I’ve always been a huge animal lover and environmental sort of person, so when I became a vegetarian, it made sense. I cited love for animals as my reason. If someone with opposing views suddenly adopts them as an excuse for severe cutting out of food, maybe there is an issue. Vegetarianism can be really healthy and you should make that known in your post as well.

  2. Lola says:

    Interesting and I can understand this. However, I was a vegetarian in my teens and that was one of my few non-disordered habits to do with my eating. I just love animals and believed (still do) that you need to know where it is coming from and if the thought of the animals getting slaughtered/factory farming etc. is repulsive, it seems wrong to eat them. I still do feel this way but I do not have the time to be a healthy vegetarian (or should I say I don’t make the time) so I incorporate some meat. I think being a healthy vegetarian is possible though.
    That being said, I do agree that vegetarianism among other things such as people saying they are allergic or sensitive to dairy, wheat, sugar etc. are sometimes clever ways to mask eating disorders. Another one that has been on the rise that I would like to hear your input on MamaV is diabetic woman who are also eating disordered. This is apparantly on the rise and I used to work with a young woman who would use this to never eat anything around people (and of course nobody questioned this because she was diabetic) and she would also purposely not give herself enough insulin to keep her weight down.
    I am a new reader and LOVE your site – thanks!

  3. Sarah says:

    I agree that cutting big food groups out of your diet can be a sign of an eating disorder, but I have been a vegetarian since I was 14, and am still one today, at the age of 18. I had an eating disorder from the age of 13 to 16, but when I decided to cut out meat, it was because I didn’t want to eat something that was once living. I still stand by this today, and am as healthy as ever. I have conquered my eating disorder, and yes, I am a vegetarian… for the reasons previously stated. Not because meat is fat. Maybe some people do this, but frankly that pisses me off to hear this. People can genuinely disagree with the eating of animals and not have an eating disorder, even teens. I guess that what I am trying to say is that cutting big food groups out is a sign, but that is not limited to vegetarianism. Furthermore, when done correctly vegetarianism is a really healthy diet, and is good for your heart. Especially in the exclusion of red meat.

  4. mamaV says:

    Hi C and Sarah: I apologize if this post offended you. It was not my intention to deliberately not address animal love as a legitimate reason for vegetarianism.
    As a blogger, I often have to focus in on the core point, which inevitably creates issues because I put everything else to the side.
    Again, I respect your way of life completely…but this post is aimed at parents simply asking them to pay attention to a “possible” warning sign.

  5. Tanya says:

    Another reason why PETA need to just stop existing.

  6. jenny says:

    I have an eating disorder and I eat meat. I was vegetarian, though. I got sick of people nagging me about getting enough protein so I was like “fine! pass thechicken!”

  7. Olga says:

    This is actually what I did. I started it with good intentions (I think) but then it just turned into another excuse to use. It is a tricky topic to talk about because there are plausible arguments on both sides, but there are definitely people like this.

  8. Olga says:

    By the way, I am now recovered and am no longer a veggie :)

  9. Amber says:

    As someone with a ED i totally relate to this post Mama…I became a vegetarian so ppl would stop telling me to eat fatty meat…instead i say i dont eat meat, and ppl actually stopped bothering me!
    I have a 16 year old cousin who has just recently stopped eating all meat, actually protien! I am worried…I asked her if she eats beans, tofu etc…she doesnt..
    I know she has watched me loose tons of weight and put it back on due to Ana ..i am in recovery now…but i am freaking out about her!!

  10. Meryt Bast says:

    When I was 15, I decided to stop eating red meat out of compassion for other mammals (now I eat almost no animal flesh, again out of compassion). I told my parents, and my mom took me to the doctor and we all talked about it. The doctor gave me some literature on proper nutrition, and I’m sure I was a total know-it-all brat about it (I’m blushing as I type this), but I was grateful that she and my mom cared enough to both respect my choice and to make sure this choice wasn’t a hurtful one.
    My reasons are not everyone’s reasons, and I respect everyone’s choices to eat what they believe their body needs. Eating meat was wrong for me; I felt bad about doing it, so I stopped. Once in a while, I will eat fish, and I eat turkey at Thanksgiving, but I’m not rigid about it; if I want it, I eat it. I can’t make such a decision for anyone else, though I wish that all animals raised for meat were treated with respect and gratitude, and slaughtered humanely.
    And may I say, PETA’s “skinny mini” model usage sucks. I’m a healthy, happy size 14, so screw ’em.

  11. Sarah says:

    I agree with C MamaV.
    I’m a vegan (nothing from an animal- unless they’re eggs that are from happy cage free hens!) and my reasons are completely environmental and animal rights oriented!
    My original reason for going vegan was to cut out calories, so I can see where you’re coming from. It can be a warning sign, but MAKE SURE you differentiate between an excuse and a belief.
    After reading literature on the animal rights and environmentalism issues (NOT PETA!) I decided to go vegan for my beliefs. Animal rights is my religion, and I separate it from ED by eating eggs that are ethically produced, and also by not excluding fat from my diet (coconut milk is a great food!).
    I guess my rambling message is think before posting something like this. There’s a BIG difference between vegetarians for ED, and vegetarians/vegans for a cause.
    I do however, agree with you that PETA sucks. Scew ’em for the skinny models, but there are others whose arguments are actually legit.

  12. anon says:

    I became a vegetarian at age 12 with only the best intentions… 100% for animal rights. I’m still a very strict vegetarian today, at 21, for the same reasons, but I do wonder how much my vegetarianism had to do with my subsequent anorexia. That’s something I thought about extensively long before this study was published.
    I think the problem with well-meaning new young vegetarians is that a hyperawareness of food is a necessary byproduct and skill that you have to acquire to successfully avoid meat and animal products. In those susceptible to eating disorders as it is, I can’t imagine a steeper tipping point. It’s also incredibly challenging to become a well-intentioned veg as a child or a teenager, especially for those of us that did so and do so without the support of meat eating parents and without adequate and accessible information about how to eat and what to eat when meat is no longer an option. For many, this means a diet of little more than bread and simple carbohydrates.
    In my case, there were a variety of factors related to my vegetarianism that I know spawned my eating disorder, but in particular I know going veg gave me my first taste (no pun intended) of what it was like — strangely both awkward and empowering — to be the lone person with a plate full of dry lettuce leaves in social situations. Being a young vegetarian gave me my first taste, too, at what it was like to be different because of food, to get attention because of food and inquiries about food, and to feel empowered and superior because of food.

  13. Libertine says:

    I don’t eat much meat because I don’t like it, not because it came from an animal. The fact it came from something that used to be living is meaningless to me, I don’t mean to sound harsh, it’s just how I feel. If human tasted good and was acceptable people would eat that.
    I AM an animal lover. I would never hurt an animal or kill one for food, but if it’s already dead and I eat it, no big deal to me. I don’t see the animals being killed that are going into my easter turkey dinner or chicken wings, if I had to watch them die first before eating it, no I would not!
    I rarely eat meat at home, I have considered becoming a veg but really don’t believe the odd times I eat meat are gonna make a difference.
    Looking at, touching, cooking meat disgusts me. I think it’s disgusting that people of other cultures eat things like dogs, I think hunting is wrong too.
    Whenever I hear of young girls becoming veg I automatically wonder if they have an ED because it seems a lot of young girls cut out meat.
    I do not have a prob with vegs if they’re not pushy about it and so long as they’re eating right to get the stuff they’re missing from meat which is totally hypocritical of myself since I rarely eat meat, don’t eat beans or anything else high in protein and have an ED (restrict, eat, purge) therefore I could be lacking in nutrients based purely on that too!
    If my kids tell me they wanna be a veg I am going to make sure it’s not ED related first then make them wait til they’re old enough to understand & will eat the proper things to make up for it.

  14. Carrie says:

    I still ate meat when I was eating disordered, but not often.
    I have to agree that vegetarianism has been, and is used as an excuse by the eating disordered – so many things now just fly under the radar simply because more things are supposedly “normal” like weighing yourself daily or pouring salt over a dessert to make it inedible (Jillian Michaels on The Biggest loser did this on one of the episodes – I hate that show, and I highly dislike her as well).
    As long as you’re doing something for “health” which always seem to translate to loosing or maintaining weight, it doesn’t matter if it’s going to destroy you, whether it’s taking dangerous drugs (losing weight = health, remember?), eating barely enough to survive, or exercising excessively. It’s all “health” so we should support it!

  15. Rachel says:

    I think this is a slippery slope to tread. Because I think that there is a large level of saying “hey, I love animals” here. I remember going vegetarian when I was very into my ED- it was a great excuse in social situations. I do love animals- so there was that, too, but it was HUGELY motivated by the whole excuse factor.
    I think the key to knowing the difference is to look deeper. Is the person in question well informed about what they can eat instead of meat?
    2 years ago I read the book Fast Food Nation- and it horrified me- and after much discussion with my hubby, we went quasi-vegetarian (I was all set to be vegan after that one- but my hubby is a good sounding board). We eat meat once a week, sometimes twice. And I did a LOT of research into vegan ism (vegan because my son is allergic to eggs, and vegetarian cookbooks seem to use a LOT of egg)- bought some cookbooks. And I am glad I did- we have discovered SO much good food. So someone who might buy a Boca buger here and there may not be as informed (yes, they are good, I know). We can’t buy meat replacers, they all contain egg. Thus the research- to make sure that my growing children would still get everything they could need, and we could cut back meat consumption.
    I definitely think that going vegan or vegetarian can be a warning sign. That doesn’t mean being one is bad. But make sure you do it for the right reasons, and are informed about it.

  16. prettyshinythings says:

    I was a vegetarian long before my eating disorder started. When I was 3/4 I decided to go vegetarian (because my best friend at the time was).
    When my Anorexia developed, it was all about control. Whilst being a vegetarian gave me reasonable control, becoming a picky eater made it even easier.
    Before, I would be happy to eat almost anything, but when I became anorexic, my excuse was nearly always “I don’t like……(type of food)”.
    Maybe I’m lucky, as I am raised in Brighton, a very veg-friendly city, but I have never been in social situation where there is NOTHING for me to eat.
    The experience of being vegetarian has been nothing but positive for me. While there may be some evidence to suggest that they are linked, it must be stressed that the majority of vegetarians don’t have issues with food and weight control.

  17. "Julia" says:

    One study I read said that former vegetarians had a higher rate of developing eating disorders than even current vegetarians.
    I know that I was a vegetarian in my early teens but came off it due to an iron deficiency.
    For me it feeds into a guilt complex, a root cause of my issues.
    When I went away for a month last summer I kicked it off by not eating for three days and then followed it by being a vegetarian for the rest of it.
    When I’m at home, my mum and brother control the menu and I have to eat meat. Hmmm…. control problem?
    I don’t know if anyone has had a similar experience, but it seems to me that vegetarianism, particularly after it is forced to end, can go hand in hand with an ED.

  18. Lily says:

    I think there is a balance. Like Julia (comment above me), I think a lot of my vegetarianism came from guilt for eating anything with a soul, as well as the thought that animals > me. Not only that, but my father was OBSESSED with meat + starch + veggie + fruit at every meal, so I think it was an attempt to try and control what I was eating (since my father so desperately tried to control my intake for so long). I think for the first five years, or there about, he would try and “tempt” me with all sorts of meats, wheedling and saying: “But you used to LOVEEEEE pork chops/roast beef/chicken!” (Yeah Dad, that was when I was little- my parents’ favourite nickname for me, even, was “Pork Chop.” It was frequently shortened to “Porky.” Great!)
    However, being a healthy vegetarian, even in adolescence, can be done. This means proper medical/dietetic supervision, healthy family eating environment, and therapy (to ensure the child isn’t doing this for alternate reasons).
    There are some really key clues to if a kid becomes veggie in order to restrict their intake- things like: not eating beans+rice, for example, in order to replace animal protein. This could be due to a fear of starchy carbohydrates.
    Here’s a couple links that I found really useful:

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  20. Lin412 says:

    This is the first post I strongly disagree with. I was an anorexic bulimic and becoming a vegan and now a vegetarian in my eyes saved my life. In my case I know not all I became hyper aware of nutrition and the benefits certain foods had on my body. This slowly led to my treating my body as the temple it should always be treated.

  21. laura says:

    I became a vegetarian not becuse meat has fat in it because I HATE it has nothing to do with my eating problems. I realy hate that people make these asumtions about teenagers. If I was an adult and I became a vegetarian no one would say anything. teenagers have rights and opions and I think that we sould be able to control what we eat.

  22. Lauren says:

    I am vegan and have thought about my intentions for becoming this way. I started out vegetarian for the animals? And then vegan for the animals? But now I don’t know if it was just “for the animals.” I think it partly was, but it also makes it very easy not to eat in public situations because “I can’t.”

  23. Leasa says:

    Actually, I find it EXTREMELY difficult to maintain my legitimate vegan diet in my family. Everyone picks on me. And I hate meat, I hate the thought of an animal dying for me to eat, or just thinking about putting decomposing flesh in my body. I’m pretty sure most kids would have a hard time to get their parents to allow them to be on a vegetarian diet. My parents are super embarrassed of me, and I’m not allowed to say the word “vegetarian” or “vegan” in the presence of guests or if I go to someone else’s house for a meal, or if we are having a family meal. So I really don’t think this is a problem for parents to worry about. If their child wants to be vegetarian or vegan, there are healthy ways to do it and you don’t cut out a whole food group. THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES! Lettuce leaves is not what a vegetarian eats, fyi.

  24. Kate says:

    I’m vegetarian, but my family doesn’t like it and they make fun of it. :( I’m not really sure what to think of this post honestly. I decided I am a vegetarian when I was very young. I am only now following through on that again as I’m almost old enough where my parents can’t make me eat what I don’t want, such as meat.

  25. Claire says:

    I’ve been a vegetarian all my life, and have never had an eating disorder. I have no interest in eating meat because the idea of eating animal flesh makes me nauseous, not because I am trying to cut out fat and protein. I make sure to eat enough of all my daily nutrients.
    I do realize that you meant this post as a warning that vegetarianism can sometimes be a cover for an eating disorder, but I still find your implication that it always is offensive.

  26. s. says:

    i wish people would stop blaming the media for eating disorders already.
    yes i am a vegetarian, and yes i have got an eating disorder, but i have not once seen a PETA campaign, and my cutting out meat had more to do with what torture animals go through.
    there is so much more to an eating disorder than just being brain washed by the media.
    you are always blaming the media and fashion industry and whatnot, but an eating disorder does not necessarily have to be connected to the media.

  27. Thomas says:

    I think it important to mention that concerns over animal rights are not the only good reason to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet. Issues of improved nutrition and health play a similarly important role, in my opinion. Certainly, as everyone has said, and as mamaV wisely pointed out, a switch to a ‘veggie’ lifestyle can be a warning sign. On the other hand, there are significant, empirical health benefits to avoiding the consumption, in one degree or another, of animal products.
    To be forthright, I am a vegan of three years. I adopted and have maintained my diet out of a desire to improve my quality of life, and have been more than pleased. Increased regularity of bowl movements, reduced skin problems, reduced body odor, increased health (strength/growth) of hair, etc. have all resulted from my change in diet. Of course, as with any diet (including animal products or not) you have to be mindful of what you eat.
    My point is simply to provide a more diverse perspective on the issue and to affirm that veganism and vegetarianism can provide significant health benefits if approached in the right way.

  28. smudgeruk says:

    I’m also a vegetarian, and I would agree that becoming vegetarian/vegan does not necessarily mean the person involved is developing a disordered eating pattern. Indeed, that’s not what MamaV actually said, if you read her post properly!
    But, I know a few people who have “gone veggie” – simply through a desire to cut calories and slim down.
    In this way, it’s like a lot of diets / dietary choices – it can be completely harmless and remain so, or it can develop into something more sinister depending on individual circumstances, underlying issues and so on.

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