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Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders: The Dark Side of Vegetarianism?

Is the Skinny Bitch Diet dangerous?

I don't know if Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin are bitches, but judging by the cover photo on their book, they are skinny. Rory (a former model) and Kim (a modeling agent) are the authors of Skinny Bitch -- "a no-nonsense tough-love guide for savvy girls who want to stop eating crap and start looking fabulous!"

Rule number one: quit eating meat.

Going veg is sensible advice. In my view, the case against eating animals is strong on moral, environmental, and health grounds. But a woman named Staci Giani made me wonder whether there is sometimes a dark side to giving up meat. Staci is a thirty-something ex-vegetarian who lives in an eco-community an hour south of Asheville. I interviewed her for the chapter on the human-meat relationship in my book new book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It Is So Hard To Think Straight About Animals.

Things were going fine until I asked Staci why she quit eating meat in the first place. She said that she became a vegetarian when she was a teenager. Then she dropped the bombshell: "My vegetarianism was tied up with my eating disorder."

She went on: "Being a vegetarian was a way for me to have more control over my body by taking the fat out of my diet. Fat was the big evil. Emotionally I was in a tough position in my life at seventeen. Vegetarianism gave me something to hold onto."
Looking back on her own experience, Stacy thinks that for some women, giving up meat is not so much a matter of ethics but a politically acceptable form of extreme weight control.

What she said made my head spin. I know a lot of long-term vegetarians, and while I eat meat, I have always thought their life-style was admirable.

What the Research Says About Vegetarianism and Disordered Eating

As soon as I returned home from our interview, I pulled up Google Scholar on my computer and typed "vegetarianism" and "eating disorders" into the search bar. In a millisecond, a slew of scientific studies popped up. I have listed many of them at the end of this blog. But to save you the trouble of digging them up, here is a brief summary of what they reported:

-Female college vegetarians are more likely than meat eaters to feel guilty after they eat, be more preoccupied with being thin, and are more likely to use laxatives, extreme exercise, and vomiting to lose weight.

-Teenage and adult vegetarians are four times as likely as omnivores to engage in binge eating.

-Vegetarian adolescents in both Turkey and Australia show greater concern over their appearance and engage in more extreme eating behaviors than meat-eaters.

-Finnish vegetarian women have higher levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem than non-vegetarians.

-College students who avoid meat are more obsessed with their weight and diet more often than meat eaters. They are also more inclined to agree with the statement, "If given the opportunity to eliminate all my nutritional needs safely and cheaply by taking a pill, I would."

I was stunned. The next day, I mentioned my discovery to my colleague Candice Boan-Lenzo, a psychologist who has not eaten meat for fifteen years. Did she know that vegetarians are at higher risk for developing eating disorders?

"Oh yes," she says. "I tell my graduate students about it every semester."
"What do they say?" I ask.
"They don't believe me," she says.

Is The Skinny Bitch Diet Harmful To Women?

According to the Humane Research Council, there are twice as many female than male vegetarians. Several years ago, I reviewed the scientific literature on sex differences in the treatment of animals. You will not be surprised to find that, as a rule, women are more concerned about animal suffering than men. I am sure most female vegetarians give up meat out of concern for animals and the environment, not from a pathological desire to lose weight. However, there is no denying that meat-avoidance can be associated with eating problems, especially in women. (Rory and Kim even allude to the dangers of the Skinny Bitch diet, telling readers, "Don't be a fat pig anymore...But don't go anorexic on us, either.") The fact is that women are much more susceptible to eating disorders than men. Indeed, one recent study reported a female to male ratio of 9 to 1 for anorexia nervosa and 30 to 1 for bulimia nervosa.

The Skinny Bitch diet book asks readers, "Are you sick and tired of being fat?" If the answer is yes -- which it often is among teenage girls and young women -- they have the answer: Stop Eating Animals!" For some women (we don't know how many) this is bad advice. Eating disorders are serious. Anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating affect eight million Americans a year. And, with a fatality rate of between five and ten percent, anorexia is among the most dangerous of psychiatric disorders.

More research is needed on the relationship between eating disorders and vegetarianism. I am still convinced that for most people, a plant-based diet is good arternative to eating animals. But it is also clear to me that that the Skinny Bitch admonition that Vegetarianism = Healthy = Skinny is, at best, simplistic and is sometimes - dead wrong.

Hal Herzog is Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University and author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals.

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Articles On The Connection Between Eating Disorders and Vegetarianism

Bas, M., Karabudak, E., & Kiziltan, G. (2005). Vegetarianism and eating disorders: Association between eating attitudes and other psychological factors among Turkish adolescents. Appetite, 44(3), 309-315.

Hormes, J. M., Catanese, D., Bauer, R, & Rozin, P. (2006). Links between meat avoidance, negative eating attitudes, and disordered eating behaviors. Poster session presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

Klopp, S. A., Heiss, C. J., & Smith, H. S. (2003). Self-reported vegetarianism may be a marker for college women at risk for disordered eating. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 103(6), 745-747.

Lindeman, M., Stark, K., & Latvala, K. (2000). Vegetarianism and eating-disordered thinking. Eating Disorders, 8(2), 157-165.

Lindeman, M. (2002). The state of mind of vegetarians: Psychological well-being or distress. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 41, 75-86.

Martins, Y.., Pliner, P., & O'Connoer, R. (1999). Restrained eating among vegetarians" Does a vegetarian eating style mask concerns about weight? Appetite, 32, 145-154.

Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., Resnick, M., & Blum, R. (1997). Adolescent vegetarians. A behavioral profile of a school-based population in Minnesota. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 151(8), 833-838.

O'Connor, M. A., Touyz, S. W., Dunn, S. M., & Beumont, P. J. (1987). Vegetarianism in anorexia nervosa? A review of 116 consecutive cases. The Medical Journal of Australia, 147(11-12), 540-542.

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