When I decided to write about vegetarianism and eating disorders, I had already learned a lot about patterns that seemed to consistently show up. Over the years, I've talked to dozens of people who've had eating disorders and have also been vegetarians, besides analyzing my own reflections and writings, and I've noticed certain subsidiary factors to often be true.
Everyone becomes vegetarian for different reasons. I don't believe that vegetarianism always leads to eating disorders. However, I have noticed a large percentage of people who've had eating disorders have also been vegetarian. Here are some of the patterns and characteristics I've seen among people who have been both vegetarians and have struggled with eating disorders:
One thing I've seen with a lot of people is that they chose to become a vegetarian to be "healthy." Whether they really wanted to be healthy or were using that as an excuse to lose weight can be debated. That said, a high percentage of people I've spoken to developed eating disorders either slightly before or slightly after their vegetarianism. Also, a number have admitted that "health" was just a convenient excuse.
It is no surprise that many people who have suffered with eating disorders said that they wanted to become a vegetarian to lose weight. Some said that they thought they could more easily hide their eating disorder by becoming a vegetarian or vegan. I think it's interesting that, from the recent responses I've received, the average age that people became a vegetarian was 17 and the average age they developed an eating disorder was 16.
The majority of responses I received were from people who enthusiastically professed their love for animals. However, it wasn't a huge majority. There were many who didn't consider themselves to be animal lovers.
I've found similar results with people I've personally known. While the majority labeled themselves as animal lovers, many didn't label themselves that way.
It's understandable that those who are animal lovers might become vegetarians because they don't want to partake in something that hurts animals.
Up to this point, I've discussed some reasons why people become a vegetarian. Now, I'm going to discuss a few characteristics that I've seen with folks who have been vegetarian and have also dealt with an eating disorder.
One question that I've asked is "Have friends and loved ones told you that you're overly sensitive?" The answers were overwhelmingly yes.
Many people feel sympathetic. I've found that many folks I've known with eating disorders are empathetic. What's the difference? Those who are sympathetic have compassion, understanding. Those who are empathetic feel it personally, as if someone else's pain is their own. In some ways, empathy overlaps with guilt. Someone who feels sympathetic toward farm animals doesn't want them to suffer. Someone who is empathetic internalizes the suffering, envisioning the pain, transferring how fellow people or animals might feel into their own lives. For instance, I see a picture of a starving child or an abused animal and I am almost paralyzed and overwhelmed with pain, even though it is not connected to me.
The only surprising response from folks I didn't know was on the topic of guilt. I asked if people often felt guilty for things that weren't in their control. While many answered strongly in the affirmative, a slight majority answered no.
The reason it surprised me was because from almost everyone I've personally known, as well as myself, guilt issues have played a significant role in their life. A large majority of those I've know from treatment, support groups, etc. dealt with excessive, even irrational, but understandable guilt.
For instance, I've known several people with eating disorders who were raped, and it surprised, saddened, and angered me that many of them blamed themselves for the rape. I know people who've grown up with domestic violence who've blamed themselves for their parents' fighting. I too have struggled with irrational guilt, as I explained in my article, "Putting Guilt Into Perspective".
One way that people who feel guilty about things going on in the world cope with it is by punishing themselves. This punishment can take form in self-punishing eating disorders.
Becoming a Vegetarian to End an Eating Disorder?
One interesting thing is very few people who have shared their story with me became a vegetarian to try to curb their eating disorder. As I mentioned in my last piece, the reason I became a vegan was to overcome my eating disorder. Since most of the foods I binged and purged on contained meat products, I thought it was a good idea to cut those out of my meal plan, and it significantly helped. Dedicating myself to my recovery undoubtedly played a key role as well. Once I decided to drop a few pounds, though, I focused on the weight rather than my recovery and I stopped being a vegan and quickly relapsed. While I haven't talked with or heard from many people with a similar experience, I doubt it is an anomaly.
What have I learned from others' experiences and my experience? There is often a connection between eating disorders and vegetarianism. Is weight loss the motivation to become a vegetarian? For many it is, but not for all. There are a host of reasons why people become vegetarians, just like there are a host of reasons why people develop eating disorders. It does a disservice when people represent eating disordered individuals' primary vegetarian motivation as become becoming vegetarian to lose weight. As with many areas of life, it's much more complicated than that.