College-aged women who describe themselves as vegetarians are more likely to be concerned with their weight and be at risk of developing an eating disorder, a small study suggests.
Vegetarians in the study were more likely to say they feel very guilty after eating, report that food controls their life, take laxatives, and turn to intense exercise to burn calories.
These findings suggest that being a vegetarian, in some cases, may serve as a warning sign that a woman could develop an eating disorder -- providing an opportunity to intervene before she endangers herself. Past research has suggested that some people adopt a vegetarian lifestyle in order to mask their dieting.
During the study, the American research team gave 143 female college students questionnaires designed to measure eating behaviors and attitudes toward food.
Among the 30 women who said they were vegetarians, most were classified as "semi-vegetarians," meaning they avoided red meat but would consume some chicken or fish. None of the women identified themselves as vegan, a diet that involves avoiding all foods derived from animals, including dairy products and eggs.
The most common reason vegetarians gave for choosing their diet was health and nutrition, while 19% said they had done so to control their weight. Only 15% of study participants said they became vegetarians out of concern for animals. They found that vegetarian women were more likely to be preoccupied with their weight and be at risk of developing an eating disorder than women who did not restrict their meat intake. More than one-third of self-reported vegetarians appeared to be at risk.
In addition, vegetarians more often reported weighing themselves several times a day, opting for diet foods, and wanting to vomit after eating. People who cut out certain foods from their diet may obtain a feeling of "power and control over food, which is a desire of those with eating disorders," the researchers note.
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