I Was A Teen Vegetarian

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Most vegetarians will tell you their decision to cut out meat came gradually, over a period of months or even years. Lauren Butts, a high school junior from Medford, Ore., recalls the exact moment of her conversion. At age 13, while traveling in France with her family, Butts, a horse owner, accidentally ordered horsemeat from a restaurant menu. Though not versed in the differences between cheval and boeuf, she did manage to "figure it out in time" to avoid eating the burger. But something clicked. "It made sense then," she says. "There was no way I was going to eat the relatives of my horses."

Butts--whose book OK, So Now You're a Vegetarian, the first vegetarian cookbook by a teen for teens, was published in August--is part of a small but fast-growing movement among kids ages 6 to 18. More Americans are choosing to cut out red meat. But kids, spurred by everything from a love of animals to trendiness to a concern for the environment, are adopting various forms of vegetarianism at higher rates than ever--often independent of their carnivorous parents.

The number of kids, while difficult to track exactly, is relatively small. People who consider themselves vegetarians make up only about 6% of the general population, and what constitutes vegetarianism varies (see box). Those who cut out red meat--or eschew everything animal except eggs and dairy--far exceed the number of strict vegans, who eat no animal products at all.

Whatever the definition, a 1997 Roper poll found 8- to 12-year-olds were signing on to vegetarianism at twice the rate of adults. Helping set the tone are books--two in just the past year for teen veggies--and stories about celebrity vegetarians such as Chelsea Clinton, Paul McCartney and Alicia Silverstone. (TV-cartoon heroine Lisa Simpson is an especially vocal veggie.) With mainstream groceries carrying products like Boca Burgers, soy milk and tofu, and fast-food restaurants like Wendy's offering veggie pitas, meat-eating parents are having an easier time accommodating their kids and, in some cases, are following suit.

"The jump among young people is clear," says Dennis Bier, director of the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "Concerns about proper growth and bone density should exist whether one's diet is vegetarian or not. But there's no question that if it's well planned, a vegetarian diet is perfectly healthy for kids."

Vegetarianism has not always been so fashionable. Just two years ago, the late Dr. Benjamin Spock provoked outrage among some parents and pediatricians when he recommended that all kids over the age of two should eat a strictly vegan diet. Some are still opposed to vegan diets for kids. But increasingly, nutritionists, educators and parents--all too aware of a nationwide obesity epidemic--are taking more relaxed vegetarian diets in stride. In an effort to reduce fat in federally subsidized school lunches, the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this year expanded the use of soy as a nutritious alternative to meat.

Since beef, chicken and fish are good sources of protein and vitamins, nutritionists stress that a vegetarian diet requires vigilance, especially during the growth spurts that occur in adolescence. Strict vegans, especially menstruating girls, have to be particularly careful to get enough iron, zinc, calcium and B12. (B12 is not found in vegetables.) Yet most experts agree that the diet is eminently manageable. "It's easier to absorb and maintain the necessary nutrients if you eat a little bit of meat or fish," says Bier. But beans, tofu, peanut butter, broccoli, milk, eggs and whole grains can provide protein, iron, calcium and zinc.

Most schools still offer the standard burger and chicken fare, along with pasta and pizza. But more are recognizing vegetarians, in part because of student demand. "We've had middle school and high school kids wanting vegetarian food, but we're starting to see more elementary school kids asking for it," says Donna Wittrock, executive director of food and nutrition services for Denver public schools, which are offering vegetarian entrees for younger kids for the first time this year. "No meat is what they seem to be interested in. Not necessarily more vegetables, mind you, but no meat."

No meat--even with ubiquitous seductive ads for Whoppers and McNuggets? Especially for teens, say parents, vegetarianism can be a step toward establishing independence. It's also cool. A recent study by Teenage Research Unlimited found that 25% of teens say being a vegetarian is In. For girls--who constitute the vast majority of vegetarian kids--the diet can also appeal to concerns about weight.

But for many teens, vegetarianism is a passionately felt moral imperative. Says high school senior Claire Leavitt, 17, who spit out meat as an infant: "Animals are a part of nature, and we can live without killing them for our taste buds." Lorraine Glennon, Claire's mom and a magazine editor in New York City, eventually went veggie too. "After a while I realized I had no good answer for the question 'How can you eat animals?'" says Glennon. Riva Detweiler, a 12-year-old from Lexington, Mass., who occasionally eats chicken, says she started to connect meat eating to killing animals after seeing the movie Babe at age 8. "The pig was so cute," says Riva, "and I just felt really bad."

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