An Aramark survey taken in 2004 indicated a quarter of college students felt having vegan options on their campus was an important feature. In a 2005 survey, the Vegetarian Resource Group reported that 2 to 3 percent of all youth aged 8 to 18 said they were vegetarian, most of them female. Eleven percent of all females said they never eat meat, the greatest percentage of them in the 13 to 15-year-old age range.
There are a variety of reasons teenagers decide to go vegetarian. Some make the choice out of concern for the environment or animal cruelty, others due to religious beliefs, family decisions, or simply to gain independence from their parents. Of specific concern is the desire of young people to become vegetarian because they want to be cool, evident by a study performed by Teenage Research Unlimited, which found that 25 percent of teens feel being vegetarian is "in."
"There is significant pressure in some groups to be vegetarian, and as a vegetarian myself, I am often embarrassed by the militant attitude a lot of vegetarians take toward other peoples' eating habits," said San Ramon Valley High School senior Melanie Bowman, a vegetarian of more than three years. "I think that eating habits should be a personal choice."
With the increasing number of teens choosing to become vegetarian, some before putting much thought and planning into the decision, I feel it is necessary to fully discuss the increasingly popular choice not to eat meat.
There are several different classifications of vegetarianism. A person is considered a lacto-ovo vegetarian if meat is the only food group excluded from the diet, but they still eat eggs, dairy and plant products. A lacto vegetarian eats only dairy and plant products, excluding both eggs and meat. An ovo vegetarian eats eggs and plant products, excluding dairy and meat. Finally, a vegan (or pure vegetarian) does not eat any animal products.
The impression for many is that vegetarians eat vegetables, so they must be healthy. But as more and more reports are showing, there is apparently a large capacity for teens to work to the detriment of their body by excluding meat from their diet. If correctly executed, eating a vegetarian diet can have significant health benefits, reducing risk for developing heart disease, high blood pressure, certain cancers, adult diabetes, and obesity. However, living a vegetarian lifestyle is extremely time consuming, and oftentimes inconvenient. As a result, many vegetarian teens sustain themselves on convenient foods like pizza and pasta, which, while filling, are typically not rich in nutrition, and certainly do not provide enough nutrients to compensate for those found in meat.
Vegetarians can suffer deficiencies in calcium, iron, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, and protein, all essential nutrients found in animal products. While there is no essential nutrient in meat that is not available from other sources, it is often improbable that one can effectively get these nutrients from non-meat substances. As some of my own health-conscious vegetarian friends have experienced, health problems ranging from unhealthy weight loss to fatigue to anemia can potentially result as a consequence of these deficiencies.
Many of these nutrients can be obtained in foods like tofu, beans, lentils, nuts, leafy greens, certain cereals and meat alternatives, foods all vegetarians should be getting in substantial amounts. However, my fear and occasional observation is that young vegetarians who have not put enough thought into their diet are not getting the essential vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy.
Young people should consider why they want to become a vegetarian, and should put serious thought into the decision before setting anything in stone. Should they decide vegetarianism is the right choice, newly decided vegetarians should take vitamin supplements, and see a dietician to ensure they create a balanced diet.
As far as reacting when their pre-teen or teenager declares their desire to become a vegetarian, parents should engage their child in an open-minded, non-confrontational discussion about why they are considering this lifestyle. Is this something they have thought about for a long time, or is it simply a split decision based on trivial grounds? As a final concern, parents should also be aware that excluding meat from the diet could be classified as "controlling food," which is a preliminary indicator of the onset of an eating disorder.
The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.