The practice of vegetarianism involves eating a diet that excludes meat, fish, and poultry, while a variation of the vegetarian diet, known as the vegan diet, also excludes eggs, dairy products, and honey. Following a properly planned vegetarian diet can fulfill the nutritional needs of people of any age and can even significantly lower risks of cancer and ischaemic heart disease, as well as other diseases. However, vegetarianism has become increasingly popular among teens for various reasons and may put them at greater risk for the development of serious eating disorders.
A new study published in the April issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association revealed that although young adult vegetarians were less likely to be overweight or obese than were those who`d never been vegetarians, about 20 to 25 percent of current and former vegetarians demonstrated unhealthy behaviors for weight control. These health-endangering practices include the use of diet pills, regurgitation, laxatives, and diuretics, as well as binge eating.
According to lead researcher, 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, “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.”
She also advised, “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.”
During the study, called Project EAT-II: Eating Among Teens, the researchers analyzed data collected on 2,516 participants including teens and young adults. Participants were grouped according to whether they were current, former or non-vegetarians and each group was split into two sub-groups of teens ages15 to 18 and young adults ages 19 to 23. The majority of the vegetarians in the study were female.
The participants were questioned about whether or not they had experienced binge eating, loss of control of eating habits, or extreme weight-control behaviors. Around 21 percent of former vegetarian teens admitted to having used unhealthy weight-control behaviors, compared to only 10 percent of non-vegetarian teens. Among the young adults, extreme weight control measures had been used by 27 percent of former vegetarians, 16 percent of current vegetarians, and 15 percent of those never having been vegetarians.
The study also showed that binge eating and loss of control over eating habits were reported by 21 percent of the teen vegetarians as well as 16 percent of former vegetarians, compared to only 4 percent non-vegetarians. For the young adults, 18 percent of vegetarians reported binge eating and loss of control compared to 9 percent of former vegetarians and 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.”