Veganism and Anorexia (November 15, 2012)

full name / name of organization: 
Laura Wright/Western Carolina University
contact email: 
lwright@email.wcu.edu

I’m currently working on a book that examines cultural representations of vegans and veganism in popular culture. I am interested in collecting personal narratives from women about veganism and eating disorders that run counter to the various studies that continue to perpetuate linkages between vegetarian and vegan diets and anorexia (detailed below). Please send stories of 1000 words or less to lwright@email.wcu.edu by November 15, 2012. More information about the project can be found on my blog, http://veganbodyproject.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-vegetarianvegan-anorexi...

In their 1986 study, Rao Kadambari, Simon Gowers, and Arthur Crisp conclude the following:

It can be said that vegetarianism within anorexia nervosa is probably associated with overall dietary restraint within the illness, with mothers who are themselves concerned about their weight, and with a family background wherein there is avoidance of contact with the feared outside world. These findings invite testable hypotheses within new prospective studies. (544)

Since this study, others have followed. In their 2000 study “Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders: Partners in Crime?,” Victoria Sullivan and Sadhana Damani assert that their own vegetarianism “never stopped [them from] eating” (265), and that, as vegetarians, they feel protective of that identity and “would like to be able to state categorically that there is no association between vegetarianism and eating disorders” (265). But even as their study points to some contradictory findings with regard to the connection between eating disorders and a vegetarian diet, they ultimately note that “although the evidence on the whole is limited and contradictory, it does seem that there is at least a passing association between vegetarianism and dietary restraint, and possibly eating disorders” (265).

And more recent studies seem to corroborate and expound upon the connections between vegetarianism and anorexia, particularly within adolescent anorectics. In his 2011 study Some we Love, Some we Hate, Some we Eat: Why it’s so Hard to Think Straight about Animals, Hal Herzog quotes a former vegetarian anorectic named “Staci” who notes that as a teenager, “being a vegetarian was a way for me to have more control over my body by taking the fat out of my diet,” and she notes as well that vegetarianism appealed to her because of its “righteousness:” “at that age, you want to have something that is strong and clear and righteous” (197).

Finally, speaking of a 2012 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Melissa Jeltsen notes that, while this research does not argue that being vegetarian causes eating disorders or that being vegetarian is unhealthy, “it suggests vegetarianism can be a symptom of an eating disorder for some women,” given the fact that of women with histories of eating disorders, “68 percent said there was a relationship between the two,” and the researchers found “that 52 percent of women with a history of eating disorders had been vegetarian at some point in their lives” (Jeltsen).

In all of this research, I have been able to find a singular study that challenges the abundance of others out there linking vegetarianism to anorexia. B. Fisak’s 2006 “Challenging Previous Conceptions of Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders” did something that the other studies do not do: it examined the motives for vegetarianism and discovered, unsurprisingly, that vegetarians “tend to avoid animal products for ethical and health reasons rather than as an excuse or cover for dietary restraint” (199). The authors conclude that prior studies have argued that vegetarianism “may be an attempt to mask disordered eating” while their “study expanded upon prior research by making a variety of comparisons with psychometrically sound measures of eating disorders” to discover that “in contrast to previous findings, Vs and NVs [non-vegetarians] did not differ significantly on any eating disturbance measures” (198).

I want to posit an assertion that works to further differentiate vegetarianism from veganism, as I feel that one is not simply the more “severe” form of the other, even as, in these studies, if veganism factors in at all, it is as a "severe" form of vegetarianism (as per Rao et al). For some young women caught shuttling between vegetarianism and anorexia, caught in a space that seems to support the perpetual linkage between the two, veganism may very well function as the culmination of a successful, feminist rite of passage, an identity category that allows food to serve the transformative function that anorexia unsuccessfully asks it to serve. Because veganism may very well be less about dietary restriction and more about an anti-speciesist ethic, a shift from vegetarianism to veganism might allow for productive growth -- at least for some women.

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