The vegan diet is officially making its way into elementary and high schools, as the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) began serving vegan lunch options in their cafeterias at select campuses this fall. While it is important to respect the diverse dietary choices of students of all ages, it is equally vital that we recognize how the normalization of veganism and other restrictive diets can impact students at risk for the development of eating disorders.
Former LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer, who approved the vegan meal pilot program last spring, hopes this will offer children and teens dietary options that support a healthier lifestyle . In light of the nationwide childhood obesity scare publicized so extensively in the media, it is understandable that schools want to guide students toward healthful choices. However, at what point is this message leading to harmful comparisons, weight preoccupation, and disordered eating?
What Does a Vegan Diet Have to Do with Eating Disorders?
Vegetarians do not consume animal meat; vegans take this one step further by not consuming any type of animal products (i.e. eggs, dairy). The harm comes when these vegan and vegetarian diets, which are highly restrictive in nature, become a socially acceptable guise for a teen’s eating disorder behaviors.
Approximately 50 percent of young women with anorexia nervosa report engaging in some form of vegetarianism, significantly higher than the 6 to 34 percent of young women in the general population who are active vegetarians . More research must be conducted to determine which more commonly develops first, since vegetarian diets can pave the way for disordered food thoughts and behaviors and vice versa.
It is important to note that not every single child following a vegan diet is on the fast track to an eating disorder! Rather, parents are cautioned to see sudden vegetarianism or veganism as a warning sign and work with their child to develop a healthy relationship with food and body image.
“A sudden change in the regular diet of any child, such as elimination of a food group or an increased focus on exercise, is cause for concern,” explains Andrea Kulberg, Ph.D., Clinical Director of La Ventana Santa Barbara. “These behaviors are red flags for the development of disordered eating. They are signs that food choices and/or body image concerns are driving the child’s thinking on a daily basis.”
Early intervention is key for eating disorder treatment, so knowing these warning signs and taking action can support your child’s mental and physical health and, in some cases, prevent eating disorders from developing in the first place .
Guiding Your Teen’s Relationship with Food
If your child decides to follow a strict vegan diet, first ask them why they chose this. Some might cite ethical reasons, others might be doing it in solidarity with a friend. Approach the subject in a respectful way to get the conversation started while learning more about the impetus for their decision.
Even if your child cites ethical reasons for being a vegetarian, you can validate the intention behind this while explaining that attaching morality to food can create a harmful pattern. “I have treated hundreds of kids who say that they no longer eat meat or other animal products for moral reasons,” shares Dr. Kulberg. “However, when they are in treatment for their eating disorder, it usually becomes clear that they chose to eliminate one or more animal products to reduce caloric intake, or as a means of ‘healthy’ or ‘clean’ eating on the way down their slippery slope to elimination of more and more foods.”
Dr. Kulberg encourages parents to present children with all foods in moderation (and model this variety in their own diets), improving the child’s relationship with food and reducing their risk of developing an eating disorder. If your teen insists on continuing with a vegan or vegetarian diet, reach out to a registered dietitian (RD). An RD, preferably one who is trained in eating disorders and can spot the warning signs, will help your child understand the importance of meeting a growing body’s caloric and nutritional needs while curbing disordered food behaviors.
Since even the best intentions behind vegan diets can be a slippery slope to eating disorders in children and teens, know that our team at La Ventana Treatment Programs is here if your family needs professional support. Instead of focusing on the symptoms, our comprehensive and innovative treatment philosophy centers on treating the whole person and the underlying issues that have led to harmful behaviors. We have state-of-the-art, individually tailored adolescent programs in Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and Westlake Village. Call 800-560-8518 to get your child the support they need today.
Written by Courtney Howard, Marketing Manager at La Ventana Treatment Programs
: LAUSD Schools to Serve Up Vegan Meals This Fall. (2017, May 18). Retrieved August 30, 2017, from https://www.peta.org/blog/lausd-vegan-lunch-pilot-program/
: Bardone-Cone, A.M., Fitzsimmons-Craft, E.E., Harney, M.B., Maldonado, C.R., Lawson, M.A., Smith, R., & Robinson, D.P. (2012, August). The Inter-relationships between Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders among Females. Retrieved August 30, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMG3402905
: Why early Intervention for Eating Disorders is Essential. (2017, March 03). Retrieved August 30, 2017, from http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/why-early-intervention-eating-disorders-essential