Teens Vegging Out

How to support -- and feed -- your vegetarian teenager.

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Karen Eck of Boulder, Colorado, still recalls the day she was out driving with her son Kyle, then 14, when he turned to her and suddenly blurted out, "I've made a decision."

For a second, she panicked, fearing all sorts of scenarios. But then he said matter-of-factly, "I'm going to be a vegetarian." Karen breathed a huge sigh of relief and thought, "Phew, I can deal with that."

More parents like Karen are dealing with their children's decision to go meatless. 

So what's a parent to do if her child decides to join the half million or so other American teens who are vegetarian? For starters, don't panic. Or at least, don't panic for long. Being a vegetarian is healthy if your teenager goes about it the right way.

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Is It My Cooking?

Teens turn vegetarian for a variety of reasons, but your cooking is rarely the motivating factor. Tiffany Wong of Hayes, Kansas, was swayed by ethical beliefs. "I did research into animal rights and environmental issues, and felt I had to take a stand," says the 18-year-old high school grad who turned vegetarian five years ago -- no easy feat in a small town in the middle of beef country. "I was the only person in my high school of a thousand kids who didn't eat meat," she says.

Her mom, Pam, who works at a local hospital, admits her initial reaction wasn't a happy one. "I worried about her age and the possibility of an eating disorder and whether she was doing it for the right reasons," she says. "But once I saw how determined Tiffany was, I decided to support it and now I'm even trying to eat that way myself."

According to Amy Peck, a registered dietitian in Katonah, New York, a parent's initial concern about an eating disorder is occasionally justified. Some teens, especially girls, shun meat and dairy because they see it as fattening. Trouble can arise if they try to survive on things like popcorn and diet soda instead of replacing those foods with nutritional alternatives.

"Teens who have no interest in food or how to prepare it or who aren't willing to investigate new protein sources, should be questioned about their motivation," Peck says.

Around the Wong house, Tiffany does most of her own cooking and makes vegetarian dishes for school and family functions. She even has her kid brother talking about giving up hot dogs.

Along with ethical reasons, research has shown that a heightened awareness of the level of unhealthy saturated fats in many meats has motivated some teens to choose a new diet. In fact, studies show that vegetarians have a lower incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians.

It was just such issues, coupled with watching her stepfather's health deteriorate due, in part, to an unhealthy diet, that prompted Kristin Daniels to alter her eating regimen two years ago. "But I didn't become a vegetarian overnight," says Kristin, 18, who lives in Englewood, Florida. "I figured it wasn't a good idea to cut out all meat until I knew what I wanted to replace it with."

Vegetarian vs. Vegan

Choosing the right foods to replace meat with depends on what kind of vegetarian your child becomes. Most teens are ovo-lacto vegetarians, meaning they consume eggs and dairy products, but not fish, meat, or poultry.

Vegans, on the other hand, do not eat anything that comes from or is produced by an animal. They often won't wear leather or other animal skins, either.

Peck points out that the biggest worry among parents of ovo-lacto vegetarians is making sure they get enough protein. Worry no more. "Eggs and milk are a good source of protein," she says. By adding in nut butters, beans (pinto, navy, kidney, etc.), cheese, and yogurt, your teen can easily consume enough protein to equal any steak dinner.

A legitimate concern for parents of vegans, however, is that their child might not be getting enough calcium in her diet. "Vegans need to get calcium from other sources, such as nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, and calcium-enriched orange juice," says registered dietitian Kathy Levine of Goldens Bridge, New York.

New vegans should consult a nutritionist who specializes in vegetarian diets. "This is a more drastic change that requires attention to things like consuming adequate calories and a more sophisticated understanding of nutritional values of food," says Peck.

Levine also recommends teens in either category take a multivitamin to make sure they're getting the right nutrients, including ample iron. This is especially important for girls because they lose valuable iron when they menstruate and can become anemic.

It's a Family Affair

Your child's decision to go vegetarian will affect everyone in the family. No longer can she share in many of the old family favorites -- that means she either cooks a separate meal for herself or you have to make meatless meals for everyone (something that can make the nonvegetarians in the family decidedly ornery). And despite their gastronomical declaration of independence, many teens aren't interested in preparing their own food. Guess what? That means extra work for you.

Family therapist Kris Thoresen of Barnstable, Massachusetts, advises families to take it slow.

"It's also a good idea to have a family meeting early on to discuss expectations," she says. "If the primary cook is feeling overly burdened, talk about the child's commitment to contributing."

Some other tips:

Keep it simple. Teens tend not to be gourmets. They prefer vegetarian versions of old favorites, such as pizza, chili, tacos, and stir-fries, that are relatively easy to adapt.

Let them cook. Any person who can solve an algebra equation while listening to rap music can certainly learn to cook a handful of vegetarian entrees. Work out a plan that requires your child to cook dinner one night a week for the whole family.

Stock up on nutritious fast foods. Like their hamburger-inhaling counterparts, vegetarian teens often eat on the run. Stock your pantry and freezer with soups, meatless burgers, and ready-made pizzas for quick meals. Keep a variety of fresh and dried fruits, cut-up veggies, bagels, and other healthy snacks on hand to encourage good eating habits.

While it's true that your teen's initial decision to go meatless may be a shock, oftentimes it has a way of working out for the best. Kristin Daniels' mom, Marie Maxwell, is one parent who was pleasantly surprised.

"Kristin couldn't even boil water," she says. "But since she's become a vegetarian, she cooks most of her own meals and has inspired all of us to eat right and healthy."

Vegetarian Cookbooks, Guidebooks, and Resources

The Teen's Guide to Going Vegetarian By Judy Krizmanic Puffin, 1994 This covers everything you and your child need to know about being a vegetarian and includes good beginner recipes.

OK, So Now You're a Vegetarian By Lauren Butts Broadway Books, 2000 Written by a teenage vegetarian for teenage vegetarians, there are good nutritional tables and lots of teen-friendly recipes.

The Vegetarian Resource Group Available on the Web at www.vrg.org, or by calling 410-366-8343, it features recipes, information about nutrition, and support groups for vegetarians and their parents. You can write for brochures at: Vegetarian Resource Group P.O. Box 1463 Baltimore, MD 21203

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