LisaHadley Freeman is offering advice to parents of young girls on Comment is Free. A grave threat they face, she seems to think, is vegetarianism…

Obviously not all vegetarians become anorexic and not all anorexics are vegetarian…But vegetarianism encourages people to divide foods between the good and the bad, and it then becomes a legitimate means of limiting one’s diet. Your daughter has a whole lifetime ahead of her to think of food as something other than a pleasurable physical necessity. Why let her start early?

I thought this was paranoid and patronising, and said as much on Twitter, but once my knee had finished jerking I did some research and found that she did have half a point. In a study of adolescents, Perry et al found that…

…vegetarians more often reported having been told by a physician that they had an eating disorder and were more likely to have contemplated and attempted suicide.

Indeed, vegetarians have higher rates of mental disorders across the board. Researchers at the University of Hildesheim found that they “displayed elevated prevalence rates for depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and somatoform disorders”. Wow. Was Troy McClure correct?

Well, don’t put the grill on yet. It must be remembered that correlation does not equal causation. Could it be that depressed and anxious people are more likely to become lentil-munchers? It makes sense to me. If you spend your life considering the death and suffering in the world, or fretting about the implications of your choices, it is natural that you are more likely to be troubled by the pain of animals and your responsibility for it. This does not mean you would be less miserable if you ate a pork chop.

This  insight also applies to the question of vegetarianism and eating disorders. It is worth commenting on the nature of the vegetarians that Perry studied. 53% of them reported eating chicken, which is reflective of the fact that over half of them were vegetarians not for ethical reasons but because of weight control and health. Most of those who went veggie because of their size were among the “semivegetarians”, and it was in this class of people that evidence of eating disorders was most common. A paper by Robinson-O’Brien et al lends credence to the idea that vegetarianism can be a symptom rather than a cause of disordered eating. They observe that teenagers might “experiment with vegetarianism as an acceptable form of restriction and method of concealing disordered eating behaviors from their parents”.

A young person turning to vegetarianism, then, is not a trivial matter and their parents should discuss their motivations. If they have already showed signs of trouble, be it skipping meals, losing weight unnecessarily or passing irrational or obsessive judgements on themselves, it would be plausible evidence of a descent towards poor mental and physical health. If it is for no reason other than weight loss and they hadn’t shown these signs it might be cause for caution. Some kids have to lose weight, yes, but I suspect a positive approach that emphasises the pleasures as well as efficiency of whole foods and exercise would be better than mere restriction.

If it is for sincerely held ethical reasons, though, I see no grounds for opposition. It remains possible that there is a causative risk associated with the choice but if so it is a small one. They should be encouraged to approach it healthily: not just by making sure they get protein, B12 and omega-3s but by growing enthusiastic about the aesthetic and ethical attributes of their lifestyle. They will probably end up being healthier for it.

With all that out of the way I can observe how strange it is that Freeman thinks one should or can “let” a teenager go veggie. It is a fine example of liberal paternalism. First, of course, there is the strangeness of imagining that it would be at all appropriate to strive to compel them to partake of an action that offends their conscience. Second, there is the strangeness of imagining that this will make the fiery souls agree. Then again, this was a column that advised parents to “ration [their] daughter’s diet of romcoms and musicals or she will have unrealistic expectations of human relations”. God forbid! Don’t want ‘em thinking that the world is nice.

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