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Vegetarian Diets May Harbor Eating Disordered Youngsters:

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

It came as no surprise to mental health workers in the field of eating disorders when the results of a study were released showing that some adolescents and young adults who opt for vegetarian diets are really harboring a serious eating disorder. The researchers came from the University of Minnesota, University of Texas and St. John’s University. They studied 2,500 males and females between the ages of 15 and 23. The results of the study were published in the April 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

It is important to emphasize the fact that vegetarian diets did not cause eating disorders. Instead, the danger is that adolescents with eating disorders may choose a vegetarian diet for no other reason than to lose weight. If anything, they misuse the diet, actually not eating properly so that their eating disordered symptoms worsen.

The particular young people who were eating disordered had a high rate of developing Bulimia Nervosa or Binge Eating Disorder with resulting obesity. This was due to the fact that the low number of calories consumed on the vegetarian diet resulted in starvation and the consequence of either bulimia or pure binge eating. In other words, these young people experienced a loss of control over their eating behaviors.

They also engaged in using such self destructive attempts at weight control as purging, taking diet pills, self starvation, using diuretics and other such practices.

Today, it is generally recognized that vegetarian diets, if handled correctly, can be extremely healthful. Those who eat well balanced vegetarian diets weigh less than those who are meat eaters and have a lower risk that stem from the problems of obesity. The classic example of a healthy diet is that based on Mediterranean foods.

The studies indicate how important it is for physicians and parents to understand the motivations behind a youngster wanting to go on a vegetarian diet.

Is your teenager on a vegetarian diet and for the correct reasons? During my years of working with people with anorexia and bulimia, I repetitively heard the same theme stated by too many of them: "I do not have an eating disorder, I am eating healthy." Remember, there is nothing wrong with and a lot to be said for eating in ways that are healthful. However, that statement (I eat healthy) seems to be a mantra rehearsed by all of the young individuals who are totally in denial about the reality of their illness.

It works like this: "I want to eat healthy foods" becomes the rational for eliminating important food groups from the diet. Gradually, the menu becomes smaller and smaller while actual intake of any food becomes less and less. If you have ever witnessed an anorectic person eating a meal in front of you, know how food becomes shoved around the plate and never consumed. These same unfortunate individuals then get up from the table pronouncing "how full they are." It would be very funny if it were not so serious and tragic.

If your son or daughter is showing signs of eating disordered behaviors it is important to have them seen by a physician immediately.

One additional fact to mention is that, as pointed out above, over eating or binge eating and obesity is an eating disorder as well as anorexia and bulimia.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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