Thursday, April 16, 2009

Never Eat Anything with a Face (or Fat!)

Sorry to all of my two readers that I've been MIA. But I'm back with a good one for you.

In the April issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, a study found that a vegetarian diet might in fact be masking an underlying eating disorder, with twice as many teens and nearly double the number of young adults who had been vegetarians reported having used unhealthy means to control their weight, compared with those who had never been vegetarians. Those means included using diet pills, laxatives and diuretics and inducing vomiting to control weight.

The study's 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, Minn., said, "Current vegetarians may be at increased risk for binge eating, while former vegetarians may be at increased risk for extreme unhealthful weight-control behaviors." The researchers collected data on 2,516 teens and young adults who participated in a study called Project EAT-II: Eating Among Teens. They classified participants as current, former or never vegetarians and divided them into two age groups: teens (15 to 18) and young adults (19-23). Each participant was questioned about binge eating, whether they felt a loss of control of their eating habits and whether they used any extreme weight-control behaviors.

About 21 percent of teens who had been vegetarians said they used unhealthy weight-control behaviors, compared with 10 percent of teens who had never been vegetarians. Among young adults, more former vegetarians (27 percent) had used such measures than current vegetarians (16 percent) or those who'd never been vegetarians (15 percent), the study found. In addition, among teenagers, binge eating and loss of control over eating habits was reported by 21 percent of current and 16 percent of former vegetarians but only 4 percent of those who'd never followed a vegetarian diet. For young adults, more vegetarians (18 percent) said they engaged in binge eating with loss of control than did former vegetarians (9 percent) and those who were never vegetarians (5 percent), the study found.

Chalk this one up to the "no shit, Sherlock" category of research topics. In and of itself, vegetarianism is not only a diet choice made for personal health reasons, but also a clear social statement of difference and defiance. Anyone who has a vegetarian or, God forbid, a vegan in their family or social circle has witnessed this phenomenon at a restaurant, as the well-meaning soul grills the poor waiter about the ingredients of his chef's marinade and righteously abstains from the main course in favor of salad and bread, the safely faceless staples of the vegetarian dining out. Like it or not, our food choices are political, not just personal, determining our capacity to participate in the shared experience of food consumption. Purely on a social level, vegetarianism is one of the most prevalent forms of rejecting cultural eating habits, compelling the vegetarian to refrain from partaking of family meals and denounce whole categories of foods. It's not a huge leap to move from refusing to eat meat to refusing to eat sugars, fats, or any other "bad food" group that haunts the consciousnesses of the eating disordered. Moral condemnations against "food with a face" can quickly morph into equally loaded value judgments about fattening foods, carbs, name your diet demon of choice. Like any other diet program, vegetarianism is a lifestyle that provides moral justifications to its adherents for avoiding food, creating a slippery slope down which many young people fall into disordered eating and food restriction. Chicken wings, anyone?