Study tests links between eating disorders and vegetarian diets. "News report" adds to the confusion over the statistics and findings. I dissect...

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Summary: Hearing that some women choose to avoid meat [sort of] as part of a way to lose weight does not surprise me, but when certain facts and statistics are reported in a loose way, I feel the need to say something. When an article describes 52% as a great majority, I dissect what the actual study said, where it went wrong, and how the reporting of it went very wrong. Because that's the kind of thing I do.

BLOT: (01 Aug 2012 - 12:24:44 PM)

Study tests links between eating disorders and vegetarian diets. "News report" adds to the confusion over the statistics and findings. I dissect...

At first glance, an articled tittled "Great Majority of Women with Eating Disorders are Vegetarians" sounds like a definite statement. Then you find out that it was posted by the user "Eating Disorders Online" and its primary source is an article on and that is sourced to an article on "Vegetarianism five and a half times more likely with an active eating disorder". In the former article, you might be let down to find out that the so-called "great majority" was only 52%, which surely is much more likely to be a "slight majority" at best, but at least the "five and a half times more likely" of the second article sounds a bit more damning. Partially because we read such things wrong,1 and collude "what percentage of X is Y?" as being an equivalent exchange with "what percentage of Y is X?".2 Saying that a number of people with eating disorders (Ped) has experimented with vegetarianism (Pv) is not the same as saying that a number of Pv has experimented with eating disorders [see footnote 2]. Look at the word order and tell me if you would pick that combination if you were not trying to imply Y over X when you have X over Y. What would the real numbers say? Let's take a look.

There are about 120-ish million females in this country over the age of 18 [as calculated with an assumption of equal age distribution across genders from US Census Quickfacts]. About 7% of 18 and up females identify as vegetarian according to a recent Gallup poll [no definition specified]. That means about 8.5-ish million females in that age range are semi- to full-vegetarians. Another site estimates about 7 million women suffer from eating disorders. While there is no reason to assume this would be specifically 18-and-up, that comes to about (I'm going to assume 80% of women are old enough to be counted) 5.5% of women having an eating disorder.

To continue, let's go ahead and bring in numbers from the original article on study: "The Inter-Relationships between Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders among Females"3. According to the study, 6% of women with no eating disorder in their past are vegetarian. With that 6% of 120-ish million non-disorder-suffering women being vegetarian, we get 7.2 million in the country. By contrast, the article says that people with history of eating disorders are 23.7% likely to be an active vegetarian. I do not know if that 7 million above only included women who were actively suffering from an eating disorder or included those with a past, but let's go ahead and assume that the number is for "ever suffered". Since the total number of sufferers is around 7 million, that gives us 1.6-ish million women with past-or-present eating disorders that are active vegetarians.

Added up, it slightly exceeds our 8.5-ish million female vegetarians, above, but then I made a slight allowance to include younger females in the mix. This number then gives us about 18% of female vegetarians having either a past-or-present eating disorder, and roughly a third of those are either completely recovered or partially recovered. Claiming that dietician sorts should prod young women to find out why they are being vegetarian4 comes across as a slight-to-great slag against vegetarianism when the vast majority do not have eating issues (82% versus 18% really is a "great majority", note).

Other things to note:

I think it would be fascinating to redo the study, looking at strict vegetarianism versus self-image amongst both sexes, and how the two things correlate, and do it from the stance of "How many vegetarians developed that lifestyle, and maintain it, because of underlying eating disorders?," possibly with a bent towards linking it to extreme orthorexia nervosa [a shout out that will possibly earn me flack] as well as the standard eating disorder culprits since presumably a fear of "unhealthy" habits would be the real connected disorder here. For now, worried parents, since over 2/3s of those with an active-disorder are not actively vegetarian, you end up having to wonder what your daughter is doing with that steak, don't you? I mean, maybe she needs to be grilled [no pun intended] about her eating habits post-haste!

[There are enough assumptions and roundings in my math, and the research article had such a small sample, that feel free to discount my findings, but I'm going to guess [yes guess, not declare] them to be fairly accurate. If you have some better numbers, feel more than free to contact me and let me know.]

1: And that's why journalists say it wrong, America.

2: In Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, he discusses cases similar to this. I do not recall his examples off the top of my head, but in general when you hear something like "70% of Anti-Gay Marriage Protesters are Christian" [made up statistic, but seems reasonable], it is not terribly hard to assume what is being said is "70% of Christians are Anti-Gay Marriage Protesters", and while that is plausible statistic, it is not what the first statement was declaring.

3: Bardone-Cone, et al. "The Inter-Relationships between Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders among Females." Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 118(8): August 2012. pp 1247-1252. Accessed via ScienceDirect.

4: "Are you anorexic! Is that why you don't eat meat?!" - a sort of urban-legend style attack that I have seen passed around as advice to mothers via email and through blog posts, though at least in those cases it is pointing out more extreme sudden diet shifts, especially those that justify skipping meals and etc. In other words, they are not becoming vegetarian for health reasons, they are becoming "vegetarians" because it means they can eat less per meal without the family fully noticing.



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