Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

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Is Vegetarianism Among Some Teens Possibly Masking an Eating Disorder?

In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Dr. Robinson-O’Brien and colleagues examined the link between vegetarianism and a number of health indicators to help us better understand the benefits and risks of vegetarianism in young adults. The authors discussed how vegetarianism is associated with a number of benefits such as increased consumption of fruits and vegetable and lower caloric and energy intake. However, if not done properly, vegetarian diets may also lead to deficiencies in a number of nutrients. In addition, some studies have suggested that teens who have image problems and eating disorders may be more likely to turn to vegetarianism in order to lose weight.

In order to more carefully examine the possible risks and benefits of vegetarian diets in teenagers, the authors collected information from 2,516 teenagers (15 to 18) and young adults (19-23) regarding their eating habits, vegetarian status, weight, dietary quality, physical activity, binge eating practices, healthy and unhealthy weight control behaviors, and substance use.

The authors found that the rate of vegetarianism were relatively low. Only 4% of the teens and young adults stated that they were currently vegetarians, and 11% stated that they used to be vegetarians. Vegetarianism was associated with a number of benefits including:

9780936077031-crop-325x325– a lower body mass index;

– lower rates of obesity;

– higher consumption of fruits and vegetables and;

– lower consumption of calories from fat.

However, in the younger cohort, both current and former vegetarians were more likely to engage in more extreme unhealthy weight loss measures and binge eating. Specifically, 20% of current vegetarians and 21% of former vegetarians reported engaging in unhealthy weight loss behaviors, while only 10% of the never vegetarians reported unhealthy weight loss behaviors. Likewise, 21% of current, and 16% of the former vegetarians reported binge eating, while only 4% of the never vegetarians reported engaging in this behavior. Therefore, teen vegetarians were 2 times more likely to engage in unhealthy weight loss behaviors and up to 4 times more likely to engage in binge eating.

In the older group, 27% of former vegetarians reported using unhealthy weight loss measures, which compared to 16% of current vegetarians and 15% of never vegetarians. In addition, 18% of current vegetarians and 10% of former vegetarians engaged in binge eating, compared to only 5% of never vegetarians. Therefore, young adult vegetarians and former vegetarians were more likely to engage in binge eating than never vegetarians, but only the former vegetarians (not the current) were more likely to engage in unhealthy weight control measures.

The authors conclude that although there are some clear benefits of vegetarian diets, in some teenagers and young adults vegetarianism may actually be masking eating problems.

Thus an important issue for parents encountering a teen who wants to become a vegetarian is “why.” It seems less likely (although possible) that vegetarianism is masking an eating disorder in a politically active teen who decides to become vegetarian for well presented philosophical issues related to healthy diets and/or animal rights. However, it would be more concerning if a non-politically active teen with a history of unhealthy eating habits and self-image struggles suddenly decides to become a vegetarian as a form of weight control. Now, this is not necessarily bad, since one could argue that going on a vegetarian diet is a healthy weight loss alternative – one that may actually prevent these kids from engaging in even more unhealthy eating behaviors. However, the danger is that poor vegetarian diets may further compromise the child’s health, especially among adolescents already experiencing nutrient deficiencies due to unhealthy eating habits. Thus the answer may not be to keep your child from starting a vegetarian diet, but instead to make sure that such a diet is carefully monitored, so that the child does not experience further nutrient deficiencies.

Finally, please note that the authors never actually assessed for eating disorders. They assessed unhealthy eating and weigh loss behaviors, which are usually associated with underlying eating disorders. Therefore, contrary to some news reports about this study, this study does not show that vegetarian teens are more likely to have eating disorders than non-vegetarian teens. Instead the data show that vegetarian teens are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors that are often associated with eating disorders.

Robinson-O’Brien, R., Perry, C., Wall, M., Story, M., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2009). 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), 648-655 DOI: 10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.014

Parents Guide to Eating Disorders at

Parents Guide to Eating Disorders at


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July 22, 2009 Posted by | Eating Disorder, Health Psychology, Parenting | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Girls Who Get On Well With Dad May Have More Successful Relationships with Men

This post is is sourced from a series of reports on research presented  at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science in May this year. This one struck me as very interesting but not surprising.

Researchers have noted for decades that children view their home environment and relationship with their parents as “models”, and that this is usually reflected in how these children interact in new environments in the future. For example, children who are exposed to highly aggressive parenting are in turn more likely to use hostility and aggression as means to attain their own goals (see our review of Hoevet et al. 2009 meta-analysis on parenting and delinquency). Children also model positive behaviors. For example, children who see parents reach amicable resolutions to conflicts are also more likely to learn better conflict resolution skills.

Following this line of research, some investigators have examined whether child exposure to specific bonding or attachment styles are also likely to affect how these children act in their own close relationships later on. To answer this question, a research group from Rider University examined the role of the quality of father-daughter bond in the development of positive romantic relationships during young adulthood.

The authors studied 78 teens and young adults (average age 19), who reported on the quality of their relationship with their fathers and their current boyfriends. Three specific relationship domains were examined, namely: communication, trust, and time spent with their boyfriends/fathers

The results:

1. Girls with good communication with their fathers also had significantly better communication with their boyfriends when compared to girls with low communication with their fathers.

2. Girls with high levels of trust with their fathers also had significantly better communication and trust with their boyfriends.

3. Finally, time spent with their fathers was not associated with communication, trust or time spent with their boyfriends.

At first glance, the data seem to show that the quality of bond between daughters and fathers, specifically communication and trust (albeit not time), predicts better communication and trust with their boyfriends. One interpretation is that these girls learn to create secure attachments with their dads, which allow them to then have more positive relationships with their boyfriends (more trust and better communication). It is also possible that fathers contribute to the modeling/development of good communication skills and trust, which affect how these girls interact with their boyfriends. However, it is also possible that this reflects an individual characteristic of the girls themselves and is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the father-daughter bond. That is, it is possible that girls who have good communication with their fathers simply have a specific temperament or communication styles/skills that facilitate the development of good father-daughter communication, and it is this individual characteristic that also leads to better communication with their boyfriends. But more than likely a combination of individual characteristics and child-parent relationships is driving this effect, which would be in line with previous research on the effects of adolescent-parent relationships in later romantic relationships. For example, Donnellan et al. (2005) found that both personality traits and parenting experiences during adolescents predicted the quality of romantic relationships in young adulthood.

All in all, the results are nonetheless very interesting in showing how the quality of father-daughter relationships may affect how daughters experience their relationships with their boyfriends

The references:

Nemeth, Ansary, Seiden, & Keith (2009). Father-Daughter bonds and the quality of daughter’s romantic relationships: Are the two significantly linked? Poster presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science. San Francisco, May, 2009. Dr. Nadia Ansary is at Rider University.

Donnellan, M., Larsen-Rife, D., & Conger, R. (2005). Personality, Family History, and Competence in Early Adult Romantic Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88 (3), 562-576 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.88.3.562

Hoeve, M., Dubas, J., Eichelsheim, V., Laan, P., Smeenk, W., & Gerris, J. (2009). The Relationship Between Parenting and Delinquency: A Meta-analysis Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology DOI: 10.1007/s10802-009-9310-8
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July 22, 2009 Posted by | Intimate Relationshps, Parenting, Resilience | , , , , , , | Leave a comment