Gone Vegan

Lindsay Hutton discovers the politics and pragmatics behind a meat and dairy-free diet.

Last month, the newswires were blazing with yet another reason for the public to get their hate on for vegan and vegetarian diets. Citing a study appearing in April’s issue of The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, many notable news sources reported that teenagers often take up veganism or vegetarianism to mask their eating disorders.

Sounds like a viable theory. More recent thinking behind eating disorders focuses on the person’s sense of powerlessness; lack of self-esteem and their corresponding need for control in their lives. Paired with our culture’s tendency to level the body beautiful gold standard in thinness, a common manifestation of these feelings in Western women is to severely limit their food intake (often termed as anorexia), and/or to have periods of binging and purging (bulimia).

As such, it would stand to reason that young people, most of whom living in families where meat is consumed, could position their vegetarianism as a hack to consume less food, the bulk of which is low in fat and high in fibre. Easy fibs can abound when directed at hapless parents from kids wanting to consume less food, especially when couched in an animal rights or ethical food consumption rhetoric. 

The numbers in the study are startling. Current vegetarian teens are more than twice as likely to display “extreme unhealthful weight control behaviours” than teens that had never been vegetarian, and five times more likely to binge. 

Here’s the problem. The study was in fact a survey completed by the students themselves; therefore the researchers didn't have particularly in-depth, face-to-face access to the respondents answers to further define and source out the data. Secondly, the survey measured the responses of 2,516 Minnesotan students, with only 268 defined as “former vegetarians,” and 108 as “current vegetarians.” Meaning the sample for non-vegetarians was between 10 and 20 times larger than the current and former vegetarian sample sets.  

Yeesh. This is what my old research methods professor called “bulls*** sampling” (that’s not the technical term, by the way). When comparing apples and oranges, there should be roughly the same number of each. Otherwise, data is skewed, slapdash conclusions are made and hack journalists write hare-brained, irresponsible pieces freaking out suburban parents across the continent. Moreover, if all of this happens on a slow news day, this has all the makings of a magnificent example of junk food science, the sort that yields tasty copy but falls bit short in terms of worthwhile scientific findings. 

I don’t think the survey’s conclusions should be discounted entirely – any teen’s major diet change needs some looking after. Common sense indicates the dietary restrictions in vegetarian and vegan diets could cast a thick veneer on harmful eating habits. The past couple of years have seen vegan diets couched as the be-all, end-all of losing weight and keeping it off. I however, will be keeping my pants on until some better data hits the wire.  

In the meantime, to learn more about eating disorders, check out this organization.