Young Vegetarians Face Risk of Developing Eating Disorders

Vegetarianism and its many sub-categories offer number of health benefits including lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and even decreased risks of cancer and heart disease (including ischaemic heart disease). A properly planned vegetarian diet can meet the nutritional needs of people at any age and improve overall health.

Vegetarianism has steadily grown over the past several years. Its popularity has spread to teenagers who, unfortunately, may be at a higher risk of developing serious eating disorders.

A recent study published in the April issue of the Journal of American Dietetic Association found that even though young adult vegetarians were less likely to become overweight or obese compared to non- or never-been vegetarian counterparts, 20-25 percent of current and former vegetarians showed "unhealthy behaviors for weight control." Some of these unhealthy behaviors include taking diet pills, use of laxatives and diuretics, regurgitation and binge eating.

Ramona Robinson-O’Brien, an assistant professor in the Nutrition Department at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in St. Joseph, Minnesota says, "The majority of adolescents and young adults today would benefit from improvements in dietary intake. However, current vegetarians may be at increased risk for binge eating, while former vegetarians may be at increased risk for extreme unhealthful weight-control behaviors."

Adding that, "Clinicians and nutrition professionals providing guidance to young vegetarians might consider the potential benefits associated with a healthful vegetarian diet, [but also] recognize the possibility of increased risk of disordered eating behaviors."

The research was called Project EAT-II: Eating Among Teens.

The researcher team examined data gathered from 2,516 participants, including teens and young adults.

The participants were grouped based on whether they were current, former or non-vegetarians. Each group was then further divided into two sub-groups made up of teens aged 15-18, and young adults aged 19-23.

Majority of the vegetarian participants were female.

The participants were asked if they had ever experienced binge eating, loss of eating habits, or extreme weight control behaviors. Around 21 percent of former vegetarians owned up to using unhealthy weight-control means, compared to only 10 percent of non-vegetarian teens.

As for young adults, 27 percent of former vegetarians admitted to have done extreme weight control methods, compared to 16 percent of current vegetarians, and 15 percent of non-vegetarians.

The study also found that 21 percent of teen vegetarians and 16 percent of former-vegetarians experienced binge eating and losing control over eating habits, compared to only 4 percent of non-vegetarians. For young adults, 18 percent of the vegetarians and 9 percent former vegetarians admitted to binge eating and losing control over eating habits, compared to only 5 percent of non-vegetarians.

Robinson-O’Brien said that although teens may view vegetarianism as a healthy option, they could also be motivated by potential weight loss. She explained, "Adolescents often experience a heightened sensitivity about their appearance and pressure to conform to a cultural ideal, resulting in body dissatisfaction and experimentation with various weight loss methods."

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