It's not about the meat

I'm pleased to see research and media attention focused on the issue of vegetarianism and eating disorders. Of course, it's a touchy issue because vegetarians, like any minority, are subject to a lot of ignorant criticism.

There is nothing inherently wrong with vegetarianism. Entire cultures eschew meat or live with minimal animal products. Although some people embrace vegetarianism for moral reasons, I reject the idea that we should be moralizing about the rights and wrongs of that choice. The problem with eating disorders and vegetarianism is what I call "pseudo-vegetarianism." If the goal is to avoid eating, that is disordered. If the motivation is to embrace eating, that is less worrying.

People with brains predisposed to eating disorders avoid eating. For anorexics this leads to rapid malnutrition. For bulimics this leads to chaotic and headlong eating and compensating. Although the issue with binge eating is less clear, I'm leaning toward the evidence that restriction is at the root of that as well.

Vegetarianism is a socially sanctioned category so people are often cowed** by the moral air around it and unwilling to criticize. If someone said "I'm a red-food-atarian" we wouldn't hesitate to say "huh?"

I respect the choice to embrace vegetarianism. Emphasis on: Embrace. Enjoy. Bring into one's life the delicious, rich, varied, wholesome history and food culture that doesn't include meat. Vegetarianism ought not be fear-based. No one's food life should be fear-based.

But just as a sudden "need" to exercise hours a day, wash one's hands compulsively, and eat only at certain hours may indicate something gone awry in the brain, a "need" to give up meat can be a sign of emerging mental illness. And due to the functional role of nutrition in brain health, cutting out key nutrients during adolescence could trigger or exacerbate brain changes leading to an eating disorder.

I believe parents can and should deal with this issue with the same confidence and parental authority they would if the symptom was fever or a rash. Mental health is our business.



  1. Well said.
    I'm wondering how this plays in if one has been a vegetarian for all of ones life, and then develops an eating disorder. It isn't eating disorder symptom based, so does that make a difference?

  2. Tiger,

    I'm thinking vegetarianism would be less related to EDs if it's been a lifelong thing, as the body and brain have no doubt adjusted. As well, there's probably more knowledge of a healthy veg lifestyle.

    I see the relationship between veg/ED going two ways: one is ED comes first and the sufferer says they are veggie as a way to restrict. The other is that veg comes first (for ethical reasons or whatever, but not necessarily for weight loss or ED reasons) and sets off the wave of low-level malnutrition that can trigger an ED, much in the way a "diet" or attempt at "healthy eating" can.


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