Darth Vegetable? Or: Kids are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

The dark side now has cookies...and Carrots!

The dark side now has cookies...and Carrots!

This article purports that vegetarianism has a dark side.  A vile and tempestuous leaning away from the light of “health” in the way of masking eating disorders:

Despite its proven health benefits, a vegetarian diet might in fact be masking an underlying eating disorder, new research suggests.

Okay well let’s go on then, what else is there to report? How are you going to move on from that statement to back it up? With solid research?  A new bit of reasoning that suggests perhaps encouraging children to focus exclusively on weight might, perhaps, have an affect on their psychological well-being and might trigger an eating disorder leading to or perhaps stemming from extreme vegetarianism?  Oh no?  More of the same old tropes?  With self-reported studies and biased opinions on what un-collected data MIGHT have been if it HAD been collected?? Oh. All right then…

“Adolescents practicing vegetarianism were less likely to be overweight than their omnivorous counterparts and, were the measures available, would likely have had better blood pressure and cholesterol, too,” he said. “Eating mostly plants — and even only plants — is good for us, and certainly far better for health than the typical American diet.” (emphasis mine)

The above quote comes from a lovely Dr. Kat who had no role in the research but insists that if this self-reported survey of teens (Participants completed a mailed survey and food frequency questionnaire in 2004) had actually taken a measure of ACTUAL HEALTH MARKERS (you know, like blood pressure, cholesterol, etc…all those pesky NON-WEIGHT numbers) then of COURSE the lower-weight teens would have been healthier by those markers too than their fatter non-eating disordered (or at least non-vegetarian) counterparts.  Riiiight.

Now I’ll leave the citation to the study at the end of this post for you to review yourself since I am not a top science guru able to quickly and deftly rip apart the research papers to get at the meat of the actual study results.  Though I will say that just reading the start of the article is enough for me to realize that the entirety of the “Dark Side of Vegetarianism” piece is based solely on the paper’s abstract.

I’m not much of a statistician either but this is a bit telling to me as well:

The present study included 108 (4.3%) current vegetarians, 268 (10.8%) former vegetarians, and 2,112 (84.9 %) participants identified as never vegetarian. Among the current vegetarians, the majority were female (76.5%) (Emphasis mine)

So any conclusions drawn about “vegetarians are 20% more this than that” is based on 108 out of 2,516 people. Interesting as well just how HIGH a majority of the participants indicating current vegetarian status are female: hello to “media portrayals of women as NEVER thin enough” anyone? Also wanted to point out an interesting observation of their “Weight status tables” in relation to the quote that vegetarians are less likely to be “overweight”:

(age 15-18)
Current Vegetarians: 25.0
Former Vegetarians: 23.7
Never Vegetarians: 24.0
(age 19-23)
Current Vegetarians: 23.3
Former Vegetarians: 24.4
Never Vegetarians: 25.0

Overweight (%):
(age 15-18)
Current Vegetarians: 22.3
Former Vegetarians: 26.4
Never Vegetarians: 29.1
(age 19-23)
Current Vegetarians: 16.8
Former Vegetarians: 20.1
Never Vegetarians: 28.2

Obese (%):
(age 15-18)
Current Vegetarians: 13.3
Former Vegetarians: 10.0
Never Vegetarians: 10.8
(age 19-23)
Current Vegetarians: 5.8
Former Vegetarians: 10.7
Never Vegetarians: 14.0

Sooo…. Current young vegetarians seem, from this data, to be higher on the BMI AND percentage of obese (despite the yahoo article’s assurance that: “The study found, for instance, that the vegetarians among the participants generally were less likely to be overweight or obese.” (You know, unless you look at the actual data….). Though, to be fair, there was a whole 10% difference in the older participants who were overweight or obese.

Then again I’m not “correcting” for the other variables (like unicorn or dragon status, Magic Mass Iindex numbers, nonfiction or fiction reader dichotomy), just going on the data given (which HAS been adjusted for socioeconomic status, sex, and race according to the table footnotes) but it does seem that the only numbers that lend any credence to the research “conclusions” that vegetarians are lighter than their non-veggie counterparts is the Percentage Overweight category (in both age groups) and Obese for older participants.

So when someone generalizes and says “Vegetarians are lighter. Generally.” It means “Not really. Or maybe kinda a little but whatever, fatties are bad!” I guess we just need to watch out for such tricky wording in the future, eh?

What boggles my mind the most about this press-release-esque bit on “Scary Vegetarianism” is at the end (again from the mouth of our Dr. Katz):

Vegetarianism, or a mostly plant-based diet, can be recommended to all adolescents, Katz said. “But when adolescents opt for vegetarianism on their own, it is important to find out why because it may signal a cry for help, rather than the pursuit of health,” he said.

Kids told to eat veggies only = okay (because the doctors have the control).  Kids CHOOSING to be veggie eaters = Worry!  (you don’t have control!) So yeah I guess the message is “Whatever your kid is doing: IT’S WRONG!”

Any readers more in tune with recent child-care and or child health goings-on have other information to add?  How does this sort of thing jive with your experiences with your own kids or their classmates? Anyone with a more scientific eye willing to look at the data and relay the importance?

Study Can be Found Here:

Robinson-O’Brien, Ramona et al. “Adolescent and Young Adult Vegetarianism: Better Dietary Intake and Weight Outcomes but Increased Risk of Disordered Eating Behaviors.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 109.4 (2009): 648-655. Science Direct. 2 Apr. 2009. <www.sciencedirect.com>.


14 thoughts on “Darth Vegetable? Or: Kids are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

  1. Boy, talk about your disproportionate sample sizes. More than 3/4 of the study participants were never vegetarians, and they’re basing “vegetarians are thinner and healthier, except mentally” (or whateverfuck point they’re trying to make, I couldn’t keep it straight) on that? No, folks, if you even want to begin to study this, you have to make all three sample sizes the same.

    And really, what vegetarians eat only veggies? Even vegans don’t do that.

  2. Meowser, I know right? And they didn’t include the actual survey questions in the study aside from a few footnotes here and there about how a number was calculated (Do you participate in a sport with a weight requirement: yes/no) kind of thing so I’m curious as to how things were worded as well.

  3. There are so many kinds of vegetarians out there, I don’t think there could even be a fair and accurate study on how much healthy they supposedly are.

    And the assumption that pre-teens who choose to eat a vegetarian diet on their own may be developing an ED is extremely dangerous thinking and places morality on food where there shouldn’t be. But then again, that’s what nutritionists and so-called obesity experts do, assign moral values to food and the people who eat it.

  4. Anytime any study has Dr Katz’s name on it, I now disregard the results as being tainted. He’s one of the movers and shakers behind the NuValT system that rates foods on a scale of 1-100 for their nutritional value (and anything with fat, and/or sugar, and/or salt automatically gets a lower score, the higher the score, the better it is for you, supposedly). This system is already in place in some HyVee grocery stores and Katz wants it in every grocery store in the country. The information will be on a sticker on the shelf, right next to the price sticker, so you don’t have to read the nutrition labels anymore (except you do, because if you have diabetes, that “score” given to the food doesn’t take into account how many carbs are in it and how those carbs can affect those with diabetes). So yeah, Katz is full of shit, as usual.

  5. Yeah I’m not really impressed with this Katz; though I must add that Dr. Katz here wasn’t involved in this study; the article author just grabbed him up for comment on the research…and I’m sure he was more than willing to oblige!

  6. “…then of COURSE the lower-weight teens would have been healthier by those markers too than their fatter non-eating disordered (or at least non-vegetarian) counterparts. Riiiight.”

    When I read this I thought you were drawing a comparison between vegetarianism and eating disorders. I seriously hope you aren’t [saying vegetarianism is a form of an eating disorder], because the rest of your article was good.

    • Carla, no I’m totally not trying to say vegetarianism is a form of an eating disorder! I might have to re-work that sort of sentence in the future so thanks for the heads up on that but it was very much sarcasm against the research/study findings (or at least the Yahoo! article’s summary of them).

  7. Good post. What is this crazy paradoxical nonsense? “Vegetarians are skinnier therefore healthier, but vegetarianism is dangerous because it could be masking an ED!” I think my head might explode.
    I also cannot say enough how sick to death I am of hearing that vegetarians are always skinny. I’ve been veggie for 13 years, and, not counting when I was in the cult of WW, I have always been on the fat side. I have known a lot of veggies and veg*ns, and they come in *all* shapes and sizes, just like anyone else.

  8. I am a fat vegetarian who has had EDs. While as a bulimic person, I didn’t have a problem with the possible weight loss side-effects of vegetarianism that wasn’t why I was veggie. I’ve been crazy about animals my whole life and meat has always been very hard for me to eat. I always knew it was just a matter of time, before I finally figured out how to get on without meat.
    I love how these studies try to promote as much paranoia, fear and micro-management as possible. Like you said, April… it’s only okay if they are under “control” of parents or docs in their veggieness.
    I have a pessimistic streak in me that wonders if part of the reason why people publish BS studies like this is to get people to do things that will fuck up their health or the health of their kids, so that they will try to tighten their “control” with more diets, etc.
    I remember reading somewhere that a group is dysfunctional if when someone fails, it is automatically the fault of the person who tried… the group is never questioned. I see this with diet programs all the time. The blame is always placed on the dieter… no mind that 99% of diets don’t work.
    OOooooo… I think I wanna write some post about diets as they are similar to cults! Thanks for the though provoking post, April. You are seriously awesome.

  9. This reminds me a lot off the kind of bull many vegans often encounter when talking about how they’d like to raise their children vegan. In just about every discussion I’ve seen there’s always at least one person(or like, all people) who always HAS to inform the “idiot” parent about how they’re making suuuuuuuuch an “OMG! UNHEALTHEEE!” decision for their kids. It drives me bonkers. Truth be told, I only went vegan/raw for about two months and it wasn’t much for me, so I don’t know much about it, but quite frankly, I think as long as the parents are informed and careful to make sure their kids get all the nutrients they need regardless of the source, I don’t see why it’s such a big deal. News flash, there are undernourished kids who aren’t vegan! I don’t doubt that doctors have seen malnourished kids who’ve been raised by inept vegan parents, but to assume that ALL vegan parents are incapable of raising healthy children and to assume that ALL vegans are unhealthy just based on that small number they’ve seen (even if they’ve seen fifty that’s a pretty relatively small number if you think about it) to me just smacks of a lot of ignorance and a resistance to accept anything that isn’t meat and potatoes (well, now I guess it needs to be meat and green beans, those pesky carbs you know). GAH. Really just drives me bonkers.

  10. Vegetarianism can be and is often used as a cover for an eating disorder — it’s even promoted on pro-ana message boards as a way to avoid detection. That’s originally why I became vegetarian (I’ve since recovered, but I am still vegetarian because of moral, spiritual and environmental beliefs). And don’t forget… groups like PETA and the Skinny Bitch authors promote veganism as a weight-loss diet. I agree with the article in that if a child self-opts to become a vegetarian, parents should inquire why. If those reasons are legitimate and sound, parents should support their children in their dietary choices.

    That being said, as a reporter who covers school news, I find that high school kids today are MUCH more politically- and socially-minded than my generation ever was. Their activism continues to baffle me. I’ve done countless stories on kids who organize non-profits and events advocating for the Invisible Soldiers, the genocide in Rwanda, environmental issues, etc… I don’t think it’s a far leap to link increased rates of adolescent vegetarianism with an increased consciousness amongst teens about the world and our roles in it.

    Interesting as well just how HIGH a majority of the participants indicating current vegetarian status are female: hello to “media portrayals of women as NEVER thin enough” anyone?

    That may be true, but far before our current standards of thinness were imposed on women, historical trends show a consistently higher number of women vegetarians than men. This is, in part, because women dominated the animal’s rights movement in both the U.K., where it originated, and the U.S. There’s also the issue of the genderization of food to consider — “real men like meat” and ad nauseum. It’s far more socially acceptable for a woman to be a vegetarian than a man. My husband has even had his manhood questioned by a male waiter once when I told him that we were both vegetarian.

    I don’t think vegetarians are necessarily thinner than their meat-eating counterparts — hello, I’m vegetarian AND fat — but I do think that a plant-based diet (this is an important distinction as some vegetarians do not necessarily follow a plant-based diet) is healthier by far. The study included 108 current vegetarians. Of current vegetarians, 13.3 percent of 15-18s and 5.8 percent of 19-23s are obese. That’s nearly 20 percent of entire current vegetarian group, or 20 of the 108 who participated. Another 40 percent of current vegetarians are overweight.

    So, in all, nearly 60 percent or about 62 of the 108 current vegetarians are overweight or obese. And yet Katz concludes that adolescents practicing vegetarianism are “less likely” to be overweight than their meat-eating peers? Huh? In any case, the fact that a significant number of the current and former vegetarian participants are overweight or obese and yet still are “likely” to have better cholesterol and blood pressure numbers indicates that a plant-based diet is healthier regardless of BMI.

  11. Rachel I just wish that this self-reported study had actually HAD numbers for cholesterol and blood pressure because as it stands now all of Dr. Katz conclusions are based purely on assumption; no numbers are there aside from the self-reported height/weight to go on.

    And I imagine it is very difficult in the “meat is manly” world view for any man to be vegetarian/vegan and not get flack.

  12. Okay, forget the 60 percent number I arrived at above. I didn’t account for the breakdown between the two groups, which isn’t provided in the article or study, so that may not be accurate. Still, if the group were evenly divided — 54 in each category — overall, obese people would represent 10 percent in the current veg category with about 21 current veggies in the overweight category.

  13. Pingback: Hey there « I AM in shape. ROUND is a shape.

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