How a lifestyle commonly seen as healthy could be a red flag for an eating disorder

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Vegetarianism has seemingly been gaining increased media attention and popularity. Although there are no solid statistics on the number of vegetarians in Canada, it was considered a top trend in both 2011 and 2012 by the National Restaurant Association, and vegetarian food products have seen an increase in sales in recent years.

But why the increase?

Robyn Perras, a student at Mount Royal University and vegetarian since the age of 14, said that she has noticed an increase in the number of young women switching to vegetarianism, and that weight loss can be a driving factor.

“I think that with women they think as soon as they cut out meat they’re going to lose weight and they’re going to be healthy, and (that) it’s kind of like a cool thing to do. It is trendy, which is probably why it’s popular with females,” Perras said.

Perras said that although she has seen more young men becoming open to vegetarianism or trying out “meatless Mondays,” it is a much more popular lifestyle choice among the young women she knows.Edited Vegetarian_photo1-1Vegetarianism can be used as culturally acceptable way to hide disordered eating or an unhealthy relationship with food.

Photo illustration by Tera Swanson

While the benefits of vegetarianism have been thoroughly covered and scientifically proven, there are also misconceptions and misguidance surrounding the lifestyle that are gaining the attention of healthcare workers.

Registered dietitian Vanessa Nardelli said that losing weight as a reason for going meat-free is most common for people in their 20s, and that it isn’t necessarily a healthy reason. She said that some people who are dabbling with vegetarianism are eliminating meat without replacing the lost calories and nutrients, and subsequently subtracting anywhere from 800 to 1,000 calories a day from their diet.

“Just look at what relationships people have with food and how it has played a role in their identity,” Nardelli said. “It’s something that definitely gets brushed under the radar and it’s important to health. So when people choose to eat a certain way is it just for nutrition? No, because food is central to who we are.”

Katie McCulloch, a registered dietitian at the Westbrook Clinic in south Calgary, said that eating vegetarian can allow those who have an unhealthy relationship with food to cut out food groups as a culturally acceptable way to hide the beginning of an eating disorder.

McCulloch said via e-mail: “Switching to a vegetarian diet can be a red flag in regards to detecting disordered eating or an eating disorder. It’s very important for me to understand why my clients have switched to a vegetarian diet and address any concerns with their relationship with food.” 

What are the reasons you have chosen to participate in a vegetarian lifestyle? Let us know in the comments section below.

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