Eating disorders
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When vegetarianism hides an eating disorder

A change to a plant-based diet could hide a dangerous restrictive pattern

Vegetarianism and veganism aren’t inherently healthier than an omnivorous diet.Maria Korneeva (Getty Images)
Azahara Nieto

Vegetarianism is a diet based on vegetables, eliminating meat and its byproducts. Variations include ovo-lacto vegetarianism, which allows for the consumption of eggs and dairy products, or veganism, which excludes all animal-based products. There are also flexitarians, who have a primary vegetarian diet but sometimes consume animal products.

Vegetarianism and veganism aren’t inherently healthier than an omnivorous diet. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, and you base your diet on margarita pizza and nachos with guacamole, you aren’t necessarily opting for a better option than an omnivorous diet based on processed meats. The foods consumed, not the exclusions of food groups, determine whether a diet is healthy or not. Of course, a plant-based diet is better for the environment and animals.

Environmentally conscious young people are increasingly drawn to these forms of eating. The shift to consuming primarily vegetables, fruits and legumes may be subtle, but it is common for people who suffer from eating disorders to turn towards vegetable-based diets.

That doesn’t mean that vegetarianism causes eating disorders. But for some, the seemingly health-conscious avoidance of animal products can hide dangerous restrictive tendencies.

How do I know if my child is changing their diet or developing an eating disorder?

It may not be noticeable at first, but there are several signs to look out for:

—Excessive concern about food, not only when it comes to eating animal products, but also about calories and the number of meals each day.

– A desire to control everything related to food: quantities, purchases, cooking methods, dressings.

– Despite foods like pasta, rice, potatoes and bread being included in the diet, they avoid or stop eating them for fear of gaining weight. They also restrict produce that they consider high in calories, such as banana and avocado. They may stop using olive oil or reduce it to a minimum.

– Avoiding cooking methods aside from grilling or boiling.

– In the most extreme cases, they may transition to a fruit-based diet, eating only fruit, nuts and seeds, or a raw diet, based on foods that have not been cooked beyond 40ºC.

– Social isolation: as a result of the lack of vegetarian options in restaurants, and with the intention of controlling everything that enters their mouth, they avoid going out and prefer to stay home.

– More attention to their body and physical changes.

– They weigh or measure themselves insistently or spend a lot of time in front of the mirror.

– They use apps to monitor their food intake, steps and water consumption.

– Conversations center almost entirely on food and the body.

Do vegetarianism and veganism cause eating disorders?

No. Despite studies that show that anorexia is more common in vegetarian patients, it cannot be determined whether the illness is developed because of or prior to the diet.

When treating such patients, it is important to respect their diets. In some eating disorder treatment units, however, vegetarian and vegan diets are prohibited, as it is considered a restriction in itself. When there is no eating disorder involved, though, it should not be a concern. A vegetarian diet should always be accompanied by a specialized nutritionist to avoid possible deficits and guide the transition process.

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