Vegetarianism a healthy lifestyle or not — it’s up to you. But counselor Michelle Morand is worried that many people use vegetarianism as a method to mask an eating disorder.
Victoria eating disorders expert Michelle Morand used to binge on “giant salads with tonnes of dressing” in her years as a vegetarian with a serious food fixation.
Based on her personal experience and her clientele at an eating disorder centre, Morand worries that vegetarianism a healthy lifestyle is being used as a socially sanctioned way to mask eating disorders.
“I would say at least one-quarter of our client population is currently or has been vegetarian,” says Morand, 34, founder of the Community Eating Disorder and Related Issues Counselling Centre (CEDRIC), and a registered clinical counsellor. “It’s really clear that people who have disordered eating patterns and concerns about body image are turning to vegetarianism as a way to get away with restricting themselves.”
Morand is not alone in her concerns.
A leading dietitian and advocate for vegetarianism, Brenda Davis, notes in Becoming Vegan that up to 50 per cent of people with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa are vegetarian.
But she writes that “the large majority of vegetarian or vegan anorexics and bulimics chose this eating pattern after the onset of their disease. The restricted vegetarian or vegan eating pattern legitimizes the removal of numerous high fat, energy dense foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, ice cream, milk, yogurt, sour cream, whipping cream, butter, and numerous desserts and main dishes containing these foods.” These vegetarians ignore healthful vegan foods such as nuts, seeds, nut butters avocados to limit calories.
Morand says people who feel pressure to be thin, and cut out meat for that reason, may not even be aware of their motives.
“They’re not doing it because they’re interested in health and wellness,” she says. But it’s difficult for outsiders to question a choice ostensibly made for ethical or health reasons.
Meredith Weiss, 23, a Saanich accountant who has been a strict vegetarian for two-and-a-half years, couldn’t disagree more.
“I think that’s absolutely silly,” she says. “I’ve heard of people going vegetarian to lose weight and it certainly helps,” she says, but that has nothing to do with eating disorders. “The vegetarians I know are all healthy.”
But recent studies dovetail with the concerns of Davis and Morand.
A 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that “self-reported vegetarianism may be a marker for college women at risk for disordered eating.”
The study tracked 143 California college students, of whom 30 were vegetarians, all with similar height, weight, age and body mass. The scores on an Eating Attitudes Test showed 37 per cent of the vegetarians at risk for disordered eating compared with eight per cent of non-vegetarians.
A much larger University of Minnesota study of 4,746 adolescents published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2001 found that vegetarians were more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies and be involved in healthy and unhealthy forms of weight control. They had been told more often by a physician that they had an eating disorder and they were more likely to have contemplated or tried suicide.
Vesanto Melina, a B.C. registered dietitian and author of Becoming Vegetarian, stresses there is no cause and effect relationship between vegetarianism and eating disorders although people who have eating disorders may label themselves as vegetarians “so that they won’t have to eat.”
Melina, who co-authored Becoming Vegan with Davis, says that responsible studies should screen out people with eating disorders from the sample of vegetarians with a healthy diet.
A refusal to eat higher fat, energy-dense vegetarian foods or added fats in salad dressings are red flags, Davis writes.
“People who turn to vegetarianism as a politically correct eating disorder typically don’t do it well,” agrees Morand. They just cut out the meat, fish or dairy products and don’t ensure they are getting the necessary iron and protein.
“That was my case. It took me years to start exploring tofu. So for a long time, I was very unhealthy because I really wasn’t getting the nutrition that I needed.”
Weiss contends that getting enough protein is simple: a cup of soy milk, a veggie wiener and a veggie turkey sandwich give her a day’s intake.
Morand didn’t lose weight as a vegetarian because she would still binge on nachos and salsa. And young women today doing the same thing will still suffer food and body image obsessions as well as serious health implications.
Morand says she’s all in favour of people opting not to eat meat for ethical or environmental reasons; she just worries about lifestyle changes morphing into an eating disorder.
Morand had a “crazy and uncontrollable need for food” when she was in her 20s. She thought of food much of the day, ate when she wasn’t hungry, exercised compulsively and underwent six months of weekly and twice-weekly counselling sessions to come to terms with her search for comfort in food and find confidence in her body and trust in her own needs.
When she was pregnant with her son, nearly four, she had cravings for meat and abandoned vegetarianism.
The Community Eating Disorder and Related Issues Counselling Centre is offering several courses in the near future. A two-day workshop on mindful eating is slated for Feb. 28-29 at a cost of $150, and a five-week course on Letting Go of Emotional Eating will begin March 24 at Commonwealth Place from 5:30-7 p.m. at a cost of $91. The latter also begins Feb. 5 from noon-2 p.m. and is offered bi-weekly at the Cedric Centre. For more information, call 383-0797.
Ran with fact box “Mindful Eating” which has been appended to the story.
© Copyright 2004 Times Colonist (Victoria)