Vegetarian teenagers and young adults are believed to eat a healthy diet, but they might be at an increased risk of developing eating disorders and unusual behaviors, compared to their meat-eating peers.
In the new study, the experts from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Texas, Austin, discovered that reformed vegetarians were more likely to use extreme methods in order to control their weight, compared to individuals who had always eaten meat.
Using the results of Project EAT-II: Eating Among Teens, the researchers examined the diet habits, weight status, weight control behaviors, and drug and alcohol use of more than 2,000 teenagers and young adults, with the ages between 15 and 23. All the volunteers had participated in an earlier study of this kind: Project EAT-I. The experts have classified the participants as current - 4.3 per cent , former - 10.8 per cent, and never vegetarians - 84.9 per cent, and divided them into two age groups: an adolescent group (15 to 18 years) and young adult group (19 to 23 years). By vegetarian diet was meant eating only plant sources or consuming some dairy and eggs or even some chicken and fish.
The subjects then were asked to fill out appropriate questionnaires where they had to report whether they experienced binge eating or had ever lost control of their eating habits. More extreme weight control behaviors such as using diet pills, inducing vomiting, using laxatives, and using diuretics were also taken into consideration in the study.
The results revealed that among the younger group of the participants, no statistically major differences were found with regard to the weight. Among the older participants, current vegetarians had a lower BMI (body mass index), and were less likely to suffer from extra weight or obesity, when compared to never vegetarians.
The study found that about 21 per cent of adolescents who had been vegetarians, reported that they were engaged in more extreme, unhealthy weight-control behaviors, such as using diet pills or laxatives, or inducing vomiting, compared with 10 per cent of adolescents who had never been vegetarians. Among young adults, 27 per cent of more former vegetarians had practiced such measures, compared to 16 per cent of current vegetarians, or 15 per cent of those who had never followed vegetarian diet.
In addition, among teenagers, binge eating and loss of control over diet habits was reported by 21 per cent of current and 16 per cent of former vegetarians, compared to just 4.4 per cent of the participants who had never been vegetarians. For young adults, more vegetarians - 18 per cent - reported that they were engaged in binge eating with loss of control, compared to 9.4 per cent of former vegetarians and 5 per cent of those who had never been vegetarians, the study found.
The majority of the vegetarians in the study were female. Although adolescents may consider vegetarianism as a healthy option, they might also be motivated by desire to lose extra pounds., said nutritionist Dr. Ramona Robinson-O'Brien, who led the study. "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," she explained.
Doctors and parents of vegetarians, while acknowledging the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, should also be aware of the potential risk of eating disorders, said Dr. Robinson O'Brien and added that it would also be helpful for doctors to investigate why this or that individual, especially at a young age, has chosen to follow a vegetarian diet, and ask them about current and former vegetarian status "when assessing risk for disordered eating behaviors," she concluded.
The study is published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.