For many people, vegetarianism is a lifestyle decision that carries no additional baggage of an eating disorder. Vegetarians abstain from red meat, poultry and seafood, and choose whether or not to include dairy products and eggs.

People choose a vegetarian diet for a variety of reasons: Health, religion or a concern for animal rights, are among the most common. Others simply do not like the taste or texture of cooked meats. For thousands of vegetarians, these decisions do not concern those around them. Some vegetarians and vegans, however, use their food preferences as a way of masking an eating disorder.

Why Do People Disguise Eating Disorders This Way?

Dr. Angela Guarda of the Johns Hopkins Eating Disorders Program explains that some of her patients treated for eating disorders practice veganism or vegetarianism, because the dietary restrictions allow them to further restrict the food they eat, without people questioning their motives. When these patients receive treatment, they often refuse to acknowledge they have an eating disorder, and that their vegetarianism enables their disease.

Guarda presents anecdotal reasoning that some patients use vegetarianism as a way to disguise eating disorders. However, there has also been research-based scientific evidence to back up her observations.

Vegetarian Diet Increases Risk

In 2009, registered dietician Ramona Robinson-O'Brien and research colleagues published, “Adolescent and Young Adult Vegetarianism: Better Dietary Intake and Weight Outcomes but Increased Risk of Disordered Eating Behaviors" in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

In their article, Robinson-O'Brien and colleagues present their findings: Adolescents and young adults who are vegetarians are more likely to binge eat than their carnivorous peers. Similarly, adolescents who had been vegetarians at one time or another were more likely to have practiced “extreme unhealthful weight-control behaviors." The researchers concluded that adolescent and young adult vegetarians and former vegetarians are more likely to have disordered eating practices.

What Can Families Do?

It is important to recognize that not all people who choose to follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle have an eating disorder. In fact, many people choose the lifestyle for particular reasons not associated with controlling their weight, and they gain health benefits as a result of eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less saturated fat.

Some people, as Robinson-O'Brien's study shows, do use the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle to cover up eating disorders. One reason some people use veganism to cover up eating disorders is to make people ask fewer questions. Because many meals in the United States are still heavily meat-oriented, people can especially use veganism to avoid food and questions specifically geared toward why they are not eating.

To ensure that no eating disorder exists, families can ask their loved ones some questions about their eating habits:

  • Why are you choosing to eat a vegetarian diet?
  • What foods have you chosen to replace meat-based sources of fat and protein?
  • Are you choosing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle to lose weight?

Vegetarianism is not always the first sign of an eating disorder. It may, however, raise concerns when food intake is suddenly limited.