Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Top 5 Reasons Why Your Eating Disorder isn’t About Your Vegetarianism or Veganism

1.  Previous studies of the supposed link between vegetarianism and eating disorders include a category called “semi” or “quasi” vegetarians…a category I affectionately refer to as “omnivores.”

However, a study by C. Alix Timko, Julia M. Holmes, and Janice Chubski published in the June 2012 issue of the journal Appetite is titled “Will the Real Vegetarian Please Stand up?: An Investigation of Dietary Restraint and Eating Disorder Symptoms in Vegetarians versus Non-Vegetarians.”  This analysis alone addresses the ways that previous studies are flawed and seeks to account for their inconsistencies by looking at the ways that distinctions between different categories of non-normative dietary choices are often conflated:

a possible explanation for these inconsistent findings is that there are major differences between semi-vegetarians and vegetarians (who are often combined into one group), with semi-vegetarians exhibiting more dietary restraint than vegetarians.  The hypothesis is supported by findings that suggest that semi-vegetarians are twice as likely than true vegetarians to restrict their meat intake for weight reasons.  (983)

2.  The people conducting the studies don’t know the definition of the word “vegetarian.”

Within most of the studies examined by these “vegetarianism is defined as eliminating read meat; however, that does not reflect a true vegetarian diet” (983, my emphasis).  The authors define vegetarianism as “a spectrum of inter-related food selection and food avoidance patterns” (982) that includes, in this study as in those that precede it, the category of semi-vegetarian, people who undertake a “partial restriction of meat” (983), as well as ovo-vegetarians, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and finally, vegans, a group that excludes “all red meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and other animal-origin foods such as eggs from their diet, and generally also avoid non-edible animal products such as leather” (982).  Because they predicate their findings on the realization that there are “problems with the operational definition of ‘vegetarian’” (983), the conclusions that they draw are markedly different from their predecessors (see my previous post for more info on those predecessors).

     Seriously, Mandy.  It's inconceivable. 

Prior to discussing those results, I want to return to the “operational definition” issue that plagues these studies.  The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “vegetarian” is “a person who abstains from eating animal food and lives principally or wholly on a plant-based diet; esp. a person who avoids meat and often fish but who will consume dairy products and eggs in addition to vegetable foods.”  Even this definition, while more absolute in what defines the appropriate parameters of a vegetarian diet, still allows for the possible inclusion of fish, and such a potential clearly indicates at least a modicum of fluidity with regard to a vegetarian diet, even as it allows for the continual and seemingly unending debate about what does and what does not constitute vegetarianism.  

But including people who simply do not eat red meat or who abstain from meat sometimes (semi or quasi-“vegetarians,” depending on the study) in studies that focus on the supposed connections between a vegetarian diet and eating disorders would necessarily generate results that have little or nothing to do with the purported subject of the study.  People who do not eat red meat but still eat other meats – pork, chicken, and fish – are not vegetarians; they are omnivores.  People who abstain from eating meat sometimes are not vegetarians; they, likewise, are omnivores.  Timko et al’s assertion that the category of semi or quasi vegetarian does not constitute “true” vegetarianism indicates the inverse, that such people are “false” vegetarians – they are not vegetarians at all.  And to start one’s study with a false premise would seem to nullify whatever results follow thereafter.

3.  “True” vegetarians actually – gasp – don’t eat meat.  And being a “true” vegetarian seems not to be a factor in developing an eating disorder.
Given the importance of this heretofore unacknowledged distinction between “true” vegetarians and those classified as semi-vegetarian, Timko, Hormes, and Chubski’s study found that true vegetarians are “less likely to participate in . . . weight control behaviors than semi-vegetarians” (983), that “given the wide variety of reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet . . . it is unlikely that vegetarianism is in and of itself enough to be a risk factor in developing an eating disorder” (983), and – most importantly – that “it may be that it is not vegetarianism per se that leads to disordered eating, but rather a partial restriction of meat . . . for the purposes of weight loss” (983). 

4.  Being an omnivore and cutting things out of one’s diet to lose weight, something I affectionately call dieting, might lead to eating disorders.

In other words, omnivorous dietary restriction – dieting – might lead to disordered eating (which seems somewhat obvious), not vegetarianism.  The authors note explicitly the paucity of studies that have looked at true vegetarianism (that is, vegetarianism) “or even veganism” (983), but while these authors still consider this bizarre category of semi-vegetarians in their study, they do work to clarify the various so-called “vegetarian” categories and to “clarify the correlates of a true vegetarian diet” (983). 

5.  And if you’re a vegan, you have healthier attitudes about food than any other group.

They hypothesized that “vegans and vegetarians would have healthier attitudes towards food” and would present less pathological attitudes towards food than they semi-vegetarian (hereafter omnivorous) counterparts (983).  Their findings supported this hypothesis:

Vegans and true vegetarians had significantly lower levels of restraint, external eating, hedonistic hunger, and greater levels of acceptance in relation to food in comparison to semi-vegetarians.  This highlights previously unacknowledged positive aspects of adhering to a completely meat or animal product free diet. . . . [And] vegans appear to have the healthiest attitudes towards food. (989, my emphasis)

To my mind – and, I would argue, to the minds of anyone who is a “true” vegetarian – one can no more be semi-vegetarian than one can be semi-pregnant; to be vegetarian is not to eat meat, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I am reminded again of the definitional debate that attempts to differentiate “legitimate” from some other supposed “illegitimate” category of rape.  In both instances, women’s solid realities[i] become fodder for rhetorical adjustment that undermines the realness of both circumstances.  In this case, to consistently attempt to link eating disorders to vegetarianism by examining a category of people who are not vegetarian further works to pathologize non-normative eating by creating a false category of vegetarianism, one that could likely encompass the majority of omnivorous eaters.

*  Next time, thoughts on veganism and the crisis of masculinity; or, why there isn't a crisis of masculinity and how being male and vegan makes you more masculine than the guy who isn't vegan out of fear of the threat that being vegan might pose to his masculinity.

This is Mac Danzig.  Call him a "vegan" when you mean "pussy" and see what happens.

[i] Most of the studies that link eating disorders to vegetarian diets focus on women, primarily young women.  Timko, Hormes, and Chubski’s study considers 486 respondents between the ages of 18 and 25.  Of these, 374 (77 percent) were female, while 111 (23 percent) were male (983).

Work Cited

Timko, C. Alix, Julia M. Hormes, and Janice Chubski.  “Will the Real Vegetarian Please Stand up?: An Investigation of Dietary Restraint and Eating Disorder Symptoms in Vegetarians Versus Non-Vegetarians.”  Appetite 58 (2012): 982-990.  Print.


  1. Exactly my thoughts… They basically just exploit the ambiguity of the terminology and have never actually shown how the ethical position of vegetarianism/veganism is linked to eating disorders.

  2. Btw. Have you considered the other papers out there: [1] [2] [3] …?

  3. Nice blog about eating disorders. The things mentioned here are facts. Most patients dont know the disorder exists in them. Would you mind posting about this can be identified? Thanks in advance.