Mary McCarthy: 'Vegan diets give us food for thought but can be a gateway to eating disorders for some'

I applaud Greta Thunberg’s environmental reasons, but if my daughter wants to go vegan when she hits her teens, I’ll be wary. This unease follows a chat with my niece about two teenage girls she knows who developed eating disorders.

It started with a desire to lose weight, though they did not need to. The plan was to record calorie intake on a mobile app. This proved tricky – how to account for a plate of mum’s creamy lasagna and who knows the calories in homemade shepherd’s pie?

With their insta-feeds full of glowing, clean-eating gorgeousness, a vegan diet seemed the solution. Sure, they would be helping the environment, but this was not the main thing.

Now they could legitimately avoid most of what their family ate. Eating separately meant they had control and their food choices were usually easier to monitor. Two Linda McCartney vegan sausages (132 calories), one Beyond Burger (255 calories).

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They lost weight, and of course their parents intervened, but not before the grip of only eating ‘healthy foods’ had taken over their days.

Is there any link? Trish Shiel, clinical manager of the Eating Disorder Centre Cork, told me any food restriction can prove problematic for those at risk of developing an eating disorder.

“While choosing to follow a vegan diet for most teenagers will not lead to issues, if there is a predisposition to having an eating disorder a vegan diet can be used to hide disordered eating. It is a real problem and we get many teenagers, mostly girls, presenting with eating disorders that have morphed out of following a vegan or ‘clean’ diet.”

She said some of the predisposing factors include elevated levels of anxiety and sensitivity, a tendency to perfection and often high intelligence. Poor body image is common, with many unhappy with their appearance having internalised the cultural ‘thin ideal’.

She stressed eating disorders can have devastating effects on all areas of a person’s life.

While there has been an increase in males coming to the clinic, it was mainly still teenage girls.

A few months ago I interviewed a butcher for this newspaper who told me he was now stocking meat-free products because so many customers were requesting vegan options for their teenage daughters – but never the sons.

Anecdotes aside, there are likely plenty of young male Irish vegans – we just don’t know how many. We do know it is mostly young girls that end up hospitalised, with 85pc of the 33 children in 2018 admitted with eating disorders to psychiatric units and hospitals female.

How many Irish people follow a vegan diet anyway? There are no teenage stats but Bord Bia research from 2018 shows 4pc of Irish adults were dietary vegans, 5pc vegetarian and 10pc flexitarian – eating plant-based and then going back to sausages.

The qualitative study found dietary vegans presented as more high achieving and driven.

So, has there been a big increase in vegan diets?

There are no old numbers to compare but extrapolating from the UK Vegan Society figures which showed the number quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, we can assume a big jump here too.

Bodywhys, the eating disorder association of Ireland, points out the nature of eating disorders means it is hard to arrive at exact figures – diagnosis is not clear cut and many don’t seek help. The HSE estimates 1,757 new cases in Ireland each year in the 10-49 age group, and global figures from the Our World in Data organisation show 1pc of the 15-19 age group had an eating disorder in 2017, up from 0.71pc in 1990 – with females many times more likely to suffer.

Of course, correlation is not causation; there are many complex factors involved. Though, if looking for a relationship, research suggests orthorexic eating behaviour – an obsessive focus on only eating ‘healthy’ foods – is more pronounced in those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, especially when the reasons are for health as opposed to ethical or environmental.

While I would not be thrilled if my daughter decided to go vegan in her teens – the chief bone-growing years – if you are careful you can be a healthy vegan. Twenty-three years ago I was vegan for a while until I met my present partner, an avowed omnivore, who was just so permanently horrified that I started to eat fish and chicken again.

Now, I serve the family meat-free dinners a few times a week and I keep trying with the lentils, hoping one day they eat them.

We avoid waste and aim to buy local, and I hope my daughter continues to be satisfied with these efforts.

If she opts for a fully plant-based diet I couldn’t stop her. I would cook meals the family could share and ensure she took supplements. I would also be keeping an extremely close eye on her motivations and mental state.

While an interest in reducing carbon emissions through diet is welcome, the rigid nature of a vegan diet seems, for some teenagers, and especially girls, to be the gateway to eating disorders, and the pure misery that comes with obsessing over food is a wretched disease that terrifies parents.

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