Vegetarian Students in Their First Year of College: Are They at Risk for Restrictive or Disordered Eating Behaviors?

By Trautmann, Julianne; Rau, Stephanie I. et al. | College Student Journal, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Vegetarian Students in Their First Year of College: Are They at Risk for Restrictive or Disordered Eating Behaviors?


Trautmann, Julianne, Rau, Stephanie I., Wilson, Mardell A., Walters, Connor, College Student Journal


This study compared restrictive and disordered eating behaviors in vegetarian versus non-vegetarian first-year college students. The Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire (DEBQ) and the abbreviated Eating Attitudes Test (EAT-26) were used to assess eating behaviors (n=330). The mean restrictive DEBQ and the EAT-26 scores of vegetarians were significantly greater than those of non-vegetarians (p < .05). First-year college students who are vegetarians primarily for weight loss reasons may be at an increased risk for the development of disordered eating behaviors or may currently have an eating disorder.

The Transition to College

The transition to college is a period of increased independence for young adults but also one of increased stress (Cooley & Toray, 2001; Neumark-Sztainer, Story, Resnick, & Blum, 1997). Students may feel lonely, homesick, depressed, unmotivated, and worried (Sax, Bryant, & Gilmartin, 2004), and one method students may use to manage their stress is by exerting control over their bodies. College students in their first year commonly express concerns regarding weight and body image. This negative self-perception of body image and weight may be fueled by the freshmen 15 "theory," a pervasive myth that in the first year of college, students will gain an average of 15 pounds (Graham & Jones, 2002; Hodge, Jackson, & Sullivan, 1993). In fact, Vohs, Heatherton, and Herrin (2001) found that stress associated with the transition to a college environment may be a significant risk factor for the onset of inappropriate dieting and disordered eating behaviors. Past research indicates that first-year college women may especially be at risk (Cooley & Toray, 2001; French & Jeffrey, 1994).

Restrictive and Disordered Eating

As inappropriate dieting behaviors increase on college campuses, dietary restraint may also increase (Alexander & Tepper, 1995). For the purposes of this study, dietary restraint is defined as the conscientious restriction of food(s), which may or may not be for the achievement of weight reduction or maintenance. The restrained eater may engage in restrictive food intake (e.g., dieting to lose weight) followed by compensatory overeating (Herman & Polivy, 1975; Heatherton, Polivy, & Herman, 1991; McLean & Barr, 2003).

McLean and Barr (2003) found that 80% of college women exhibiting a high level of dietary restraint self-reported that they were currently on a diet. Another study found that female dieters had lower self esteem, a higher drive for thinness, greater body dissatisfaction, and a higher mean score on the Eating Attitudes Test (EAT), a general screening measure for disordered eating behavior (Liebman, Cameron, Carson, Brown, & Meyer, 2001). These women were also more likely to be vegetarians and to have had a history of eating disorders.

The Vegetarian Lifestyle Among College Students

Vegetarianism is a broad term that can encompass a number of food avoidance and selection patterns, but is generally regarded as a healthy diet, high in nutritional value (Beardsworth and Keil, 1993). The increasing prevalence of vegetarianism among college students (especially among young women) may be linked to the transition into college: Experimentation with an unconventional lifestyle is common among young adults, and vegetarianism may be one way they can express themselves as individuals (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 1997) and establish their independence (Santos & Booth, 1996).

According to Beardsworth and Keil (1993), an individual may decide to become a vegetarian for moral, spiritual, ecological, economical, health, and/or nutritional reasons. Gilbody et al. (1999) found that 67% of college students chose health as their reason for being vegetarian, while 25% chose weight control. In fact, several studies have suggested that dietary restraint and weight control are key reasons college students choose to eliminate items such as meat and other animal products from their diet (Gilbody et al.

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