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Don't Have a Cow, Mom
Your Kid Has Gone Vegetarian? That Can Be Good.

By Jennifer Nelson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

When Leslie Calman's 16-year-old son, Ben, came home from school one day last year and announced he was going vegetarian, Calman and her partner, Jane Gruenebaum, did what few families do when a child decides to stop eating animals: They immediately supported his decision.

"I like a family meal ritual, and so embracing rather than fighting it seemed like a good idea on every ground," remembers Calman.

While statistics are scarce, Ben appears to be part of a growing cadre of kids who reject the meat-eating habits they grew up with. A poll conducted in 2000 by the Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit group dedicated to educating the public on vegetarianism, estimated that 6 percent of American youths ages 6 to 17 don't eat meat; 2 percent skip fish and poultry, too; while 0.5 percent are vegans -- they also forgo dairy and eggs.

The American Dietetic Association believes those numbers are on the rise, which fits with my experience: My 18-year-old daughter is trying a no-red-meat diet, and increasing numbers of her friends are choosing variations on a vegetarian theme.

And while Ben's family's reaction may be unusual, the story of how he reached his decision turns out to be fairly typical of teenagers. A student at Wilson High School in the District, Ben took a class with former Post columnist Colman McCarthy in which students discussed alternatives to eating meat. "We also saw a video that showed slaughterhouses and how people eat different animals around the world, like household pets," Ben says. Disturbed by those images, Ben made an ethical commitment to leave everything from sirloin steak to Chicken McNuggets off his plate.

Dietitians suggest that, although many families initially find the news tough to swallow (it sure put the kibosh on many a favorite meat meal in our house), a child's choice to be vegetarian may ultimately make eating well a family affair. The ADA says that a well-planned all-veggie diet for children and adolescents can be nutritionally sound. And Jennifer Tender, a pediatric attending physician at Children's National Medical Center whose three children are all vegetarian, says that families with vegetarian kids often seem more conscientious about fixing balanced meals. They experiment more with unusual vegetables such as squash and rutabaga. "One of my children's favorite foods is spinach, tofu and mushrooms," Tender says.

Reaching the point where a family embraces vegetarianism can be a slow process, though. When Cathie and Dean Winters's son, also named Dean, of Boulder City, Nev., started refusing meat around age 7, his parents differed in their responses. Cathie Winters was more accepting, having experimented with vegetarianism in her youth, but, she says, "my husband is a meat-and-potatoes man, so he went nuts."

Part of his reaction, she thinks, was pure machismo: Just as men don't eat quiche, boys aren't vegetarians. But her husband was also worried about their son getting a balanced diet: Was Dean missing out on protein? Would he grow?

The Winters's disagreement caused some friction in the family -- until Cathie suggested they seek their family physician's opinion rather than turning the dinner table into a battleground. When the doctor didn't find anything wrong with a balanced vegetarian diet, her husband eased up -- a little.

A visit to the doctor can do more than ease tensions, according to Marilyn Tanner, a pediatric dietitian at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Understanding where kids are coming from and making sure there isn't an underlying problem is crucial, she argues.

Could be their best friend is a vegetarian and they want to try, too; or the child has just made the association that eating beef really means eating the cute cow, a realization that frequently happens in seventh-grade life science class. By high school, vegetarianism is often an issue of ethics or of wanting a more nutritious diet in the hopes of lessening teenage problems such as acne or weight gain. More rarely, eliminating meat is the beginning of a complex eating disorder.

If a child is going to be a vegetarian, Tanner says, "helping him do it the right way is very important, rather than arguing against it." Because Winters didn't know exactly what to feed Dean, she began researching protein and B vitamins online and asking vegetarian friends for recommendations.

And for an adolescent, who may be blowing off Mom's or Dad's advice because, well, they're Mom or Dad, the dietitian can provide objective outside guidance.

Dietitians like Tanner can also point to research -- including a 1991 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition -- that should ease worries about healthy growth: That study, which involved 1,765 children ages 7 to 18 attending public schools and Seventh-day Adventist schools, found that the Adventist semi-vegetarian children (those consuming meat less than once a week) were taller on average than their meat-eating peers.

Even when nutritional concerns are overcome, there can be lingering social problems: Winters says her son Dean is teased occasionally -- called "vegetable boy" by other kids. Having come to vegetarianism as a high schooler, Ben Calman takes this in stride. "I get some ribbing, but there's so much ribbing anyway within my group of friends that we don't take that sort of thing too seriously," he says.

Like my daughter, Ben has many vegan and vegetarian friends. And the growing number of teenage vegetarians has changed peer pressures, according to Monika Relman, mother of Marina, 13, an eighth grader at the Washington International School. She speculates that about 10 percent or more of Marina's peers are vegetarian. The school recently started a vegetarian lunch option.

Marina's choice changed the family's dinner diet, which had consisted of chicken or meat plus a starch and a vegetable. "All of the sudden she was eating just the vegetable and the starch," remembers Monika Relman. "I am a nurse, so I knew we needed to do something different." She added beans, lentils, nuts and cheese to Marina's diet.

"There are occasions where we sit down and I look at the dining room table and there is very little for her to eat, but she just makes do and finds something in the fridge or makes herself a scrambled egg," says Relman. "I'm trying to be conscious of what she eats, but I still absent-mindedly ask if she wants a hot dog."

And Marina takes the credit for a bigger change: "My dad is really happy that I did it, because he claims that it's helped us all not eat as much meat."

The bottom line is that some families with vegetarian kids improve their diets. In our house, we've put aside meatloaf in favor of grilled salmon. In a 2002 survey of 4,746 Minnesota adolescents that was published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, those who identified themselves as vegetarians were more likely than non-vegetarians to meet government standards for total fat, saturated fat, and fruit and vegetable consumption.

Which leads Tender to the conclusion many parents of vegetarians wished we had reached more quickly: "If your child comes to you and says they are going to be a vegetarian, I would say, 'That's fantastic.' " ยท

Jennifer Nelson is a freelancer who lives in Florida. Comments:health@washpost.com.

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