Motivated by a desire for weight control and healthier living, many people exhibit behaviors and attitudes towards food and their bodies that specialists label as “dysfunctional dietary behavior” or “disordered eating attitudes.” These behaviors encompass impulsive restrictive diets, prolonged fasting, binge eating episodes, and guilt associated with certain foods.
A team of researchers at the University of São Paulo (USP) in Brazil embarked on a study to investigate the prevalence of dysfunctional dietary behavior among individuals following vegan diets, which have gained popularity in today’s sustainability-conscious era.
In their findings published in the journal JAMA Network Open, the researchers discovered “disordered eating attitudes” in only 0.6% of nearly 1,000 participants, which is significantly lower than the estimated proportion in the Brazilian population (6.5%).
The researchers aimed to unravel the motivations behind choosing a vegan diet and to identify any disordered eating attitudes among its practitioners. One hypothesis in the literature suggested that veganism might be employed as a means to justify avoiding certain foods and social eating situations. This, in turn, could potentially mask dysfunctional dietary behavior and eating disorders by facilitating dietary restriction.
Nevertheless, the study’s results exonerate veganism from blame by demonstrating that the presence of dysfunctional dietary behavior is primarily tied to the reasons for dieting rather than the specific diet itself, as explained by Hamilton Roschel, a professor at the Medical School (FM-USP) and head of the Applied Physiology and Nutrition Research Group.
Roschel noted that 62% of the participants stated their motivation for adopting a vegan diet was “ethics and animal rights,” whereas only 10% cited “health reasons.” This significant ethical motivation may contribute to the study’s low prevalence of dysfunctional dietary behavior. “Understanding the motivations behind dietary choices enables us to develop more targeted and effective nutritional support programs,” he added.
To gather their data, the researchers employed an online questionnaire, collecting socio-demographic information like education, income, and location, alongside details about eating habits from a sample of 971 participants aged 18 and older, spanning various regions of Brazil. Through data analysis, they pinpointed the percentage of individuals adhering to a vegan diet who reported dysfunctional dietary behavior, a potential risk factor for the development of eating disorders.
In a subsequent phase of their investigation, the researchers delved into the motivations behind these dietary choices. The most frequently cited reasons included “necessity and hunger,” “enjoyment,” “health,” “habits,” and “natural concerns.” Conversely, the least prevalent reasons were “emotional control,” “social norms,” and “social image.”
Hamilton Roschel, from the research group, emphasized the importance of understanding why individuals make specific dietary choices and monitoring their well-being, potentially referring them to specialists when necessary. He also noted that these findings could inform the development of public interventions aimed at promoting healthy eating habits and preventing or treating eating disorders.
Roschel acknowledged the need for further research, suggesting more diverse and randomized samples, along with qualitative analysis, to deepen the understanding of this complex issue. Importantly, he cautioned against drawing causal conclusions from this particular study.
The investigation was carried out by the Applied Physiology and Nutrition Research Group, comprised of researchers affiliated with FM-USP and the School of Physical Education and Sports (EEFE-USP). The study was led by Bruna Caruso Mazzolani and Fabiana Infante Smaira, with contributions from Bruno Gualano, Gabriel P. Esteves, Martin Hindermann Santini, Alice Erwig Leitão, and Heloísa Santo André.