Many experts have debated, analyzed, studied, and written about a possible connection between vegetarianism and eating disorders. In reality, the link is a lot more complicated than many deem it to be.
Here's my take on it. This isn't to bash vegetarianism. It isn't a judgment one way or another on it. This is to share my experiences and what I've learned.
Having grown up an omnivore, I can remember when I first started to consider becoming a vegetarian. My mom and I had been riding down the California coast and we stopped on the side of the road because I wanted to take pictures of a pasture full of cows. Most of the cows ignored me, some stared back at me, some ate, some mooed, and some did... other cow things. I decided they were cute, were my new favorite animals, and I didn't want to eat them anymore. Around that time, the movie Babe came out and while I didn't become as enamored with pigs, I decided I didn't want to eat them either.
Not long before I decided to become a vegetarian, I started wanting to lose weight. Did I want to stop eating animals because I genuinely didn't want these creatures to suffer? Yes. Was all of it a tangled web of empathy, guilt, health and self-image? Probably. Did I think, I can become a vegetarian and lose weight in the process? Absolutely.
As it turned out, my parents told me I couldn't be a vegetarian. I was twelve at the time and they said they wanted to make sure I got enough of the nutrients I needed. They said if I wanted to be a vegetarian when I turned 18, I could do so. In the meantime, we agreed to a compromise that I didn't have to eat red meat.
My story isn't an anomaly. I've found there is a high co-occurrence of people who have eating disorders and who also are or have been vegetarians. From my own experience, I don't think it's a coincidence that only shortly after realizing I wanted to lose weight, I decided I wanted to be a vegetarian. I thought that if I became a vegetarian I could be "healthy". Healthy translated to lose weight, although I was hard pressed to admit it. Animals or no animals, I wanted to become thinner and rationalized that being a healthy vegetarian was the way to do it. I wanted to be healthy until I noticed I wasn't dropping as much weight as I wanted to that way. At that point, I decided I needed to adapt unhealthy methods. Not long thereafter, I had a full-blown eating disorder.
Is this the case for everyone? Of course not. Many become vegetarians with the best intentions, and I think I had good intentions too, but mine were cloaked with a desire to lose weight first, and the rest was a distant second.
Years later, vegetarianism - specifically veganism - helped my eating disorder recovery, which I'll discuss in the next piece. The third piece discusses patterns I've seen in many people, including myself, who both became vegetarians and had eating disorders.
Are you or have you been a vegetarian and do you have or have you had an eating disorder? (They do not have to have occurred at the same time.) If so, please read this blog post and share your thoughts. Thanks!