Are vegetarian teens at risk for eating disorders?

Maggie Baumann, MA: Becoming a vegetarian has lots of healthful benefits. Studies show that a healthy vegetarian meal plan that consists of plenty of vegetables, fruits, complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains), foods that are high in fiber, low in cholesterol and saturated fats can help in avoiding heart disease, high cholesterol and excessive weight gain and/or obesity.

The most basic vegetarian is someone who chooses not to eat meats, fish and poultry. Some vegetarians adhere to more strict food rules and choose not to eat any foods derived from animals, such as cheese and eggs. Vegetarians must be prudent in maintaining diets that provide them with plenty of protein, calcium and iron sources so they don’t experience nutrient deficiencies that can cause a host of health problems.

Reasons for choosing to become a vegetarian are varied and may include religious beliefs, health and environmental and ethical concerns.

There can also be another reason to choose a vegetarian diet that is common among some teens and young women — to mask an eating disorder.

Vegetarianism in the Eating Disorder Community

According to New Hampshire eating disorder specialist and nutrition counselor Marcia Herrin, EdD, MPH, RD, LD, author of “The Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders” and “Nutritional Counseling in the Treatment of Eating Disorders,” vegetarianism is common among eating disorder patients.

“Adolescents may use vegetarianism to express independence from parents, which is common at this age,” Herrin says. “However, they may also be using this form of more restrictive eating to be a cover for reducing fat and caloric intake which can lead to disordered eating and eating disorders.”

Herrin has been treating eating disorders for 25 years and she herself suffered from anorexia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a nutrition counselor she helps clients deal with food, weight and body image issues in a therapeutic counseling manner.

The choice to become a vegetarian for this select group of teens and young women may have no identification with any personal health, moral or ethical issues about protection of animals, but may be more about how to lose weight and get skinny in a society that lauds thinness.

“It’s important to assess the family’s response to having a vegetarian child,” says Herrin. “Do the parents practice vegetarianism? Do they have to cater to her/him? Does the child eat meals with the family?”

If a teen suddenly takes on vegetarianism, she now holds “legitimate” reasons to avoid foods at the dinner table. “Oh, sorry I can’t eat that, I am vegetarian.” And unknowing parents might not have replacements for vegetarian protein sources to accommodate what the teen girl needs nutritionally if she is not eating meat sources. However, for someone in the throws of an eating disorder, the identification of being a vegetarian is a perfect mask for avoiding many foods, aiding them in their goal to weight loss and giving them that false sense of safe security they’ve found in the eating disorder.

A study by Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2009 revealed that young adults, ages 15 to 23, who reported they were vegetarian, were more likely, at some point, to engage in unhealthy weight-loss behaviors like bingeing, purging and using diet pills or laxatives.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental issue, so these young girls and women using vegetarianism to hide their eating disorders may experience severe or even fatal consequences.

Regarding the issue to let your child or teen chose the lifestyle of vegetarianism, Herrin’s advice to families is that unless the whole family eats vegetarian, the child should wait to practice this restrictive form of eating until she is eating on her own. At the very least, vegetarianism in one member of a family is a major inconvenience to other members of the family, and at worst, vegetarianism increases the risk of an eating disorder.

This goes back to the original question in the article title. Vegetarianism can increase risk of an eating disorder, but not all teen vegetarians get eating disorders. It all depends on the motivation behind the reasons for choosing to become a vegetarian.

Parents’ Actions Steps Against Eating Disorders

If you think your child or teen may be struggling with an eating disorder, take action fast.

1. If you suspect an eating disorder, you want to approach the subject matter very sensitively, not in an accusatory way. Focus more on the behaviors that aren’t debatable. You might say, “Honey, I’ve noticed all you had for dinner was an apple and a bowl of vegetables. That concerns me because that is not enough nutrients for your body.”

When you talk to your teen, make sure it’s at a time of no tension and you are away from other distractions. Make the conversation personal, loving and confidential.

2. Avoid blaming statements or criticisms, or the teen will only shut you out.

3. Know the warning signs of eating disorders. You can check the National Eating Disorder Association’s (NEDA) website for warning signs and symptoms at

4. Schedule an appointment with your teen’s physician for a medical check up and evaluation for an eating disorder. If an eating disorder is confirmed, your doctor can help assist you to find a treatment team who specializes in eating disorders to work with your teen in the treatment phase. You can also locate eating disorder specialists across the nation at This website offers resources to eating disorder professionals and treatment centers as well.

5. And remember, the earlier the eating disorder is treated, the faster the recovery time is and less damage on your teen’s physical and emotional health.

6. Most teens and young women in recovery want and need parental/partner support. The best way to give it is to ask, “How can I support you?” That way the teen feels she still has control over how she is supported and this boosts trust and independence in recovery.

Please note: eating disorders also affect males, so the information provided here is also appropriate to the young teen male population.

maggie baumann

Maggie Baumann, M.A., is a marriage family therapist intern working as a counselor in a private practice in Newport Beach. She specialises in the prevention and awareness of eating disorders and other addictions as well as trauma and attachment disorders. Maggie has written for various publications and appeared on national television promoting eating disorder awareness and prevention. You can reach Maggie by email or visit her website at

Originally published on Read more here.

Written by 

Laura Cooke is the editor and creator of the Veggie Bunch website and community.

By Laura Cooke – Editor

Laura Cooke is the editor and creator of the Veggie Bunch website and community.

10 thoughts on “Veggie Risks for Teens?”

  1. Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /nfs/c10/h14/mnt/148300/domains/ on line 574

    dynahmite: The article says a few times that “vegetarianism can increase risk of an eating disorder” but only ever explains that some teens may use vegetarianism to hide an eating disorder- not that there is a causal relationship.
    Of course parents of teens who declare themselves vegetarians should ensure their children are getting nutritious meals. This article, though, reminds me of veganism-bashing news stories about crazy parents who starve their kids while claiming that the family is “vegan”, when the problem isn’t veganism, it’s crazy parents starving their kids.

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  2. Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /nfs/c10/h14/mnt/148300/domains/ on line 574

    I agree that vegetarianism does not necessarily lead to eating disorders, but it is something for parents to be conscious of. Eating disorders are very serious, and unfortunately, I can imagine that there are kids who use vegetarianism as a cover for their eating issues. There are many teenagers who choose vegetarianism for the right reasons, but it is something that parents should possibly be aware of – especially if they are worried about their child’s eating habits. However, I definitely don’t agree with Herrin (quoted in the article) who says “that unless the whole family eats vegetarian, the child should wait to practice this restrictive form of eating until she is eating on her own.”

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  3. Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /nfs/c10/h14/mnt/148300/domains/ on line 574

    One needs to be aware that these days teenagers have access to a huge amount of information because of the internet and other social mediums. They research, they speak to other people, they like to follow celebrity trends and these days are even supportive of the whole “green movement” – organic, eco-friendly, they are also a lot more health conscious than any other generation. If you speak to the average teenager they know so much about different aspects of nutrition.
    There is a fine line between being aware and being obsessed, this is with all things. We mustn’t forget that an eating disorder has nothing to do with FOOD, it manifests through a deep routed emotional issue, lack of self esteem, a need to control something when your whole world is out of control, not feeling good enough, etc… so the real issue is not about being vegetarian or vegan or following a macrobiotic diet or anything else for that matter. There are many vegetarians that are extremely unhealthy, they eat pasta, bread, fake meats, loads of sugary foods, processed foods, the list goes on, so being vegetarian won’t make you thin it can also do the complete opposite!
    if yor child shows an interest in being vegetarian NEVER shut it down or say NO you can’t, rather explore it with them, buythem books on vegetarianism, so that if they decide to do it that they do it properly and are fully empowered to make the right decisions and food choices.
    I see so many parents not caring if there child eats chocolates, cakes, processed “non foods”, little fruit and vegetables, microwaveable meals and no one seems to make a big deal about it!…it is shocking!
    Parents have a responsibility to their children to guide them and empower them to make better choices, not necessarily perfect choices. Make sure you love your kids, make them feel like you believe in them, are there for them, be open to all sorts of new and wonderful things with them and equip them with the tools to love themselves most of all! that is what an eating disorder is – a lack of self love and self worth, the need to self destruct, all this goes way beyond being vegetarian or anything to do with food.

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    1. Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /nfs/c10/h14/mnt/148300/domains/ on line 574

      Thanks Vanessa,

      This is great advice – empowering kids to find out more about their choices and make considered and reasonable decisions.

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  4. Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /nfs/c10/h14/mnt/148300/domains/ on line 574

    I have read about this a few times. Before I address some other issues, I want to point to the other side of the coin – where people who suffer from eating disorders adopt a vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons and this actually motivates them to get better. It is not uncommon for ethical vegans to want to look good, fit and healthy etc – to be a “role model” for veganism and showcase its health benefits etc. Hence being an ethical vegan can actually be a meaningful motivation to be healthy in other areas of life, and fight the eating disorder.
    Back to the content of the article, yes there are cases where people with an eating disorder claim to be vegetarian or vegan as a convenience excuse to avoid eating meals in public. They do the same with allergies, religion etc – whether its “I don’t eat meat” or “I’m gluten intolerant” or “I’m fasting for religious reasons/lent” etc – the excuse is designed to serve the eating disorder.
    These people are often not vegetarian for ethical/health/environmental reasons, so I would disagree with the statement that “vegetarianism can increase the risk of an eating disorder” – this seems to be confusing correlation with causation. Yes there are studies that show correlation, and many theorise that becoming more cognisant of what one is eating can lead to obsession & and eating disorder, but there is no conclusive proof that there is causation. Rather, it seems far more likely that the eating disorder existed first (you see it on pro-ana websites as a tip: “pretend to be vegetarian”) or at the very least that there is an underlying pre-disposition to anxiety disorders. There is no reason to believe that vegetarianism alone is a trigger to become anorexic or bulimic. A lot of these vegetarian-for-ana people are not sincere in being vegetarian, and may “cheat” during a binge etc. They are suffering from an eating disorder, not to be confused with a sincere vegetarian.
    I strongly disagree with the advice that children should eat what th rest of their household is eating. There are countless cases of veg children who show that you can eat a different diet to your parents without major inconvenience. I also think it is immoral to force your child to participate in something that they have decided is immoral, and that science shows can lead to diseases later on in life. A pro-active parent, in my opinion, should rather assist their child to research their nutritional requirements.
    I also disagree with the use of the word “restrictive” in describing veg diets. All nutritional and calorie needs can be met – its not a restrictive diet which by definition restricts either calorie or nutrient intake. Excluding animal exploitation from ones life is not experienced as a hardship/restriction.

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    1. Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /nfs/c10/h14/mnt/148300/domains/ on line 574

      Gosh I don’t know what happened to my spacing there, sorry about the wall of text – there were paragraphs?

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      1. Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /nfs/c10/h14/mnt/148300/domains/ on line 574

        I’m going to look into that…not sure why paragraphs aren’t showing up correctly.

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  5. Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /nfs/c10/h14/mnt/148300/domains/ on line 574

    Great input 🙂 would be interesting to hear a few more viewpoints form others.

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  6. Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /nfs/c10/h14/mnt/148300/domains/ on line 574

    Watching some parents trying to raise healthy children who have chosen a veggie lifestyle, it is often a struggle for the parent if they do not know much themselves about this new lifestyle. I’ve seen some parents at wits end because they do not know how they can help their vegetarian child live a healthy life, because they do not know where they can find the resources. Dietitians often promote a fish-based diet rather than a full veggie diet, which means this professional advice is not always the best option for parents whose children refuse to eat what they are told. Unfortunately, the article does not offer advice to non-veggie parents who would like to provide their child with a healthy alternative to a meat-based diet, but don’t know where to look, which is in my experience where these parents fall short. This to me points to the author’s lack of research or knowledge on dealing with children who would like to change their eating behavior, and stays clear of adequately offering a range of solutions to parents who have faced this issue. I would doubt whether she has actually successfully dealt with a child and her parents with the authoritative advice she prescribes. Often it is not a case of empowering the child, but rather the parent, as it is the parent who offers the child guidance, prepares the food etc, and unfortunately many parents do not know where to look for advice. If the article had explored this issue, she might have been able to offer more valuable advice to struggling families.

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