Vegetarian is an umbrella term that refers to people that do not eat meat, but may eat other animal products such as milk or eggs (Trautmann, Rau, Wilson, & Walters, 2008). There are also less strict forms of vegetarianism, including people that may eat poultry or seafood. Transitioning to college can be a time of change and can lead young students to try out new lifestyles such as vegetarianism. While this can be a positive thing, it is also worrying to some as it has long been thought that vegetarianism is associated with disordered eating. A recent study called Vegetarian students in their first year of college: Are they at risk for restrictive or disordered eating behaviors? by Trautmann, Rau, Wilson, and Walters (2008) investigated whether this worry is true by seeing if vegetarianism is linked to disordered eating in college freshman.
The hypotheses of these studies asked if there was a difference between vegetarian and non-vegetarian students in conjunction to disordered eating and why do the vegetarians choose this lifestyle (Trautmann, Rau, Wilson, & Walters, 2008). To find out why, the study used various measures. In order to investigate the students' disordered eating habits, the study utilized the Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire and an abbreviated version of the Eating Attitudes Test. The participants also indicated whether they were vegan, lacto-vegetarian (use dairy products), ovo-vegetarian (use eggs), lacto-ovo-vegetarian (use dairy and eggs), or semi-vegetarian (eat poultry or fish; Trautmann, Rau, Wilson, & Walters, 2008).
Out of 330 participants, only 30 self-identified as some sort of vegetarian and 93.3% of them were female (Trautmann, Rau, Wilson, & Walters, 2008). The vegetarians reported various reasons for being vegetarian such as disliking the taste of meat, doing it for health reasons, and for weight control. When comparing the vegetarians and the non-vegetarians, vegetarians reported a higher incidence of dietary restraint and also scored significantly higher on the Eating Attitudes Test, meaning that they showed more signs of disordered eating pathology (Trautmann, Rau, Wilson, & Walters, 2008). Out of the whole sample, only 34 participants’ scores indicated that they had an eating disorder such as bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa. Out of those 34 participants, five (16.7% of the vegetarians) were vegetarians and 29 (9.7% of the non-vegetarians) were non-vegetarians. These results were statistically significant, meaning that the incidence of disordered eating was much higher in the vegetarian sub-sample than in the non-vegetarian sub-sample (Trautmann, Rau, Wilson, & Walters, 2008).
The findings of Trautmann, Rau, Wilson, and Walters (2008) suggest that vegetarianism may be a risk factor for disordered eating in college freshman. The results of this study, however, should be looked at with a critical eye. Trautmann, Rau, Wilson, and Walters (2008) used a very broad definition of vegetarianism, including vegans and semi-vegetarians. The differences between these two groups are very large and there may be fundamental differences between them in relation to disordered eating. Because of the broad definition of vegetarian used, these results may not be generalizable to all types of vegetarians. Future studies should use a larger sample of vegetarians so the risk factors for the different types of vegetarians can be found.