Is a vegetarian lifestyle safe for teens?

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Photo by WordRidden
Photo by WordRidden

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Vegetarians have been around for a long time, but in recent years there’s been a trend among younger people, whose bodies are still growing and developing, to give up meat and often other animal products as well. My 18-year-old nephew has always been a vegetarian because he just doesn’t like meat. His 16-year-old sister became one a couple of years ago, and just announced she is now vegan. My eleven-year-old daughter has been a pescatarian for several months, eschewing all meat and poultry and eating only fish.

The idealism and enthusiasm of the adolescent age group can make them embrace the lifestyle fully, and stick with it. There are many reasons kids give up meat; their commitment goes beyond just wanting to follow the herd, so to speak, although celebrity vegetarians admittedly have a share in influencing the young. Chelsea and Bill Clinton, Janet Jackson, Prince, Paul McCartney, Daryl Hannah and Albert Einstein are or were vegetarians.

But the most common reason kids give for not eating meat is animal rights. They don’t want to consume living beings, or they don’t approve of the inhumane way animals are often raised before slaughter. In this “green” day and age, many kids, knowing that meat production uses more natural resources than does plant growing, requiring more water and fossil fuels and affecting the water, soil, air and rainforest, want to be kinder to the planet.

Some kids were raised vegetarian by their parents and choose to stay that way. Others are vegetarian due to religious beliefs, either their family’s or their own. Many kids, wanting to look slim and stylish, know a vegetarian diet is usually lower in fat than a carnivorous one. Some are knowledgeable about the health benefits, like lower incidence of major health problems like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Still others, like my nephew, just don’t like meat or choose the diet to exercise their autonomy and independence, in some cases even to camouflage unhealthy binging or anorexic behavior.

Although in modern times it’s somewhat easier for a vegetarian of any age to find what he or she needs in the common supermarket, if not in the average school cafeteria, some teens have a tough time getting the support they need from family and friends. Meat-eater classmates may taunt and tease the vegetarian teen for being different. Parental reactions run the gamut from support and help in the form of tasty home-cooked veggie meals to histrionics or stern lecturing about how unhealthy their choice is, and how many essential nutrients they are missing out on.

But parents can’t force or cajole their kids into eating meat if they don’t want to. I think that acceptance and assistance in the form of gentle guidance is the better approach. Because it’s easier for kids to live on junk food and pizza, it takes effort on their part to get what they need to be healthy.

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