It's a new millennium and teenage vegetarianism has become an accepted lifestyle as well as a growing economic force throughout the world. In fact, according to the US Census Bureau, there are over one million school-age children who never eat meat, fish, or fowl and millions more who significantly limit their meat consumption.
As commonplace as vegetarian kids and teens now are, some things never change - most notably the resistance with which their parents almost universally react. Parents are concerned about the health of their children and the advertising media, especially for the powerful beef and dairy industries, have done a formidable job of convincing us that meat and milk are essential for good health and sound nutrition. How many magazines do you open and see a picture of a top celebrity, glowing with health and smiling out at you with the caption, "Got spinach?"
The truth is that an overwhelming body of evidence suggests that a carefully planned vegetarian diet is the best way to achieve vibrant good health. According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians have lower blood cholesterol levels, and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes and prostate, breast and colon cancers. Studies have shown that the average bone loss for a vegetarian woman at age 65 is half that of a meat eater. In his ground-breaking book Diet for a New America, John Robbins notes that 90 percent of asthma patients put on a vegetarian diet showed dramatic decrease in the frequency and severity of their asthma attacks.
But, you ask, can my child get enough protein? The answer is a resounding yes. Children can get all the protein they need and zero cholesterol from sources like pasta, brown rice, peanut butter, veggie burgers, and soy products such as tofu, tempeh and soy dogs. Actually, the consumption of too much protein, in particular, animal protein, actually places strain on many of the body's systems and has been linked not only to accelerated aging but obesity, liver disease and kidney failure. But what about calcium? Dairy products are certainly abundant in calcium but with dairy, you also have the potential for a high intake of saturated fats that can lead to weight gain, heart disease and some suggest, even cancer. Calcium fortified OJ and soy milk have as much calcium as cow's milk with none of the fat and fewer calories. The National Academy of Sciences actually warns that there are "tolerable upper intake levels" for calcium above which you are at risk for kidney stones and impaired absorption of iron and zinc.
Vegetarianism may defy parents' primal survival instincts, but with meat-borne diseases reaching epidemic proportions, PCBs found in our fish and medical professionals warning us that our teenager's arteries look like those of 60 year olds, parents should be celebrating rather than trying to figure out where they went wrong. As concerned as parents are about their children's health, they are perhaps equally concerned that this new "vegetarian thing" will be a major intrusion on their own lifestyles. Parents are already stressed over trying to raise a family, hold a job, care for aging parents and who knows what else. No wonder they feel that having to accommodate a vegetarian in the house just might tip the scales.
You can accommodate a vegetarian in your house by adding only ten minutes a day to your routine. Making spaghetti and meat sauce? Before you add the ground beef, take out her portion and add TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein, available at any natural foods store). Making stir fry? Stop before the chicken goes in and add tofu to his portion. Mexican night? Bean tacos or tostados are just as nutritious as beef or chicken and all you have to do is open a can.
Whether this new "vegetarian thing" lasts a week or a lifetime, parents can be supportive to their children's choice. Your child is going to endure teasing, challenging questions and outright rudeness from friends, family and strangers for perhaps the rest of his or her life. How great would it be if she could count on you for unwavering support?
There are over 1 million teen vegetarians in the US and they're growing at a rate of close to 1% each year. Your child has now joined the ranks of such notable vegetarians as Albert Einstein, St. Francis of Assisi, Carl Lewis, Mary Tyler Moore, Dr. Benjamin Spock and even Mr. Rogers. Not bad company. Who knows, you might want to join them yourself!
Debra Halperin Poneman is author of the book, "What, No Meat?!? What to Do When Your Kid Becomes a Vegetarian." (ECW Press; 14.95) a humorous and helpful handbook for anyone who wants to learn how to accommodate the vegetarian in their life.