The veggie burger diet scam

Researchers warn parents about the dangers of teen vegetarianism.

Published April 9, 2009 9:03PM (EDT)

You may think of vegetarianism as the only ethical way to eat, a nutritional conspiracy or a relic of the days before hand-raised, humanely treated livestock became all the rage. But over at Time they are asking themselves, "Is Vegetarianism a Teen Eating Disorder?" As evidence, they cite a recent study by researchers in Minnesota that suggests a "significant number of kids experiment with a vegetarian diet as a way to mask an eating disorder, since it's a socially acceptable way to avoid eating many foods and one that parents tend not to oppose." It was the No. 2 most read article on the site yesterday -- dramatically illustrated by a plain black plate containing a single lone stalk of celery -- prompting visions of frantic parents hitting the forward key to their spouses and dragging their PETA-T-shirt-clad offspring into the eating disorder clinic.

Yes, by all means, if your kid is calling a stick of celery -- or a Slim Jim -- a meal, call the clinician. But while it makes a certain kind of intuitive sense that a person trying to camouflage a low-calorie diet might invent reasons to avoid certain foods, becoming a vegetarian does not mean that you skip the steak and stick with a side dish of broccoli. And it seems bizarre and alarmist that researchers would decide that a perfectly acceptable diet -- and one that, in most cases, might actually be a healthy way to control weight -- would in itself be worthy of study as a symptom of disordered eating.

It's not even entirely clear that the researchers agree what a "vegetarian" is in the first place. "Although most teens claimed to embark on vegetarianism to be healthier or to save the world's animals," warns writer John Cloud, "the research suggests that they may be more interested in losing weight than protecting cattle or swine." As evidence he points out that "many young 'vegetarians' continue to eat the white meat of defenseless chickens (25 percent in the current study) as well as the flesh of those adorable animals known as fish (46  percent) even when they are butchered and served up raw as sushi." (Actually, those "adorable animals known as fish" are so notoriously lacking in adorable doe-eyed qualities that PETA recently started a campaign to rebrand them as "sea kittens.")

But not everyone who chooses to become a vegetarian does so because they can't bear the slaughter of barnyard animals, and while people who avoid red meat and eat only white meat and/or fish for health reasons are common in all age groups, they aren't considered full vegetarians anyway. If you really are convinced that kids are using "vegetarianism" as a ploy to fake out parents, wouldn't it make sense to at least get your categories straight? But even those kids who are on the "semi-vegetarian" trip are right in line with dietary advice from mainstream food writers, including Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, and if they are cutting out or cutting down on meat to lose weight, it sure beats, say, Slim Fast or the Master Cleanse. 

The most convincing part of the study allegedly shows that vegetarians and former vegetarians self-reported a slightly higher rate of binge eating (20 percent as compared to 5 percent of omnivores) and extreme dieting, such as using diet pills, laxatives or forcing themselves to vomit (25 percent of vegetarians and 20 percent of former vegetarians, compared to 10 percent of life-long omnivores). The researchers come up with a couple of possible theories -- vegetarian teens may be more attuned to their eating habits in general, and they might just get hungrier. (But then again, many of the most popular diets of the past few years have emphasized lean protein and severely restricted the carb-heavy Moosewood-style vegetarian cuisine.) But while teens who already engaged in extreme dieting may be slightly more likely to go ahead and cut out the burgers and chicken fingers, according to the American Dietetic Association, quoted in an earlier story in Time magazine, "adopting a vegetarian diet does not lead to eating disorders."

Still, the the article goes on to warn that "parents and doctors should be extra-vigilant when teens suddenly become vegetarians. Although some teens may say they are trying to protect animals, they may actually be trying to camouflage some unhealthy eating behaviors." What exactly might this extra vigilance look like? If you crave carnage, just try to picture the scene of the parent who decides to force-feed his teen who actually has decided that meat is murder (and owns the matching vintage Smiths T-shirt to prove it). If your kid is severely restricting calories, you're going to have plenty of warning signs before he or she starts refusing to eat the meatloaf. 

The biggest pain about having a vegetarian teen in a household of meat eaters is getting the kid to help out with the shopping and cooking. Back when I declared myself a vegetarian at 14, my mom just whipped out her copy of "Laurel's Kitchen" and ordered me to remain vigilant about having a "complete protein" at every meal and to keep up with the B-12. (I started my slow evolution back to flesh after a shrimp and scallop binge on the Oregon coast at 22.) It doesn't take much vigilance to notice the difference between a teen who's subsisting on lettuce leaves and one who is finding a perfectly acceptable substitute for the roast beef. Let them eat lentil loaf.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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