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Growing up as a lacto-ovo vegetarian before it was even remotely fashionable, it's no surprise that my classmates picked on me for my "chicken poo looking" packed lunches. By the time I started high school, I was fed up and decided to hide my vegetarianism from my peers. I even, for a time, pretended to be "a real omnivore" by joining friends in eating meat, fighting my gag reflex the entire time.
More and more teenagers are, today, are doing the exact opposite in deciding that they want to stop eating meat and become proud, open, vegetarians. Rather than being embarrassed of the meat-free diet they were raised on, these teens might face a different problem altogether — convincing their meat-eating parents that becoming a vegetarian won't make them deficient in essential nutrients.
Teens deciding they've had it with eating animals do so because they have strong moral convictions or want in on some of the many health benefits vegetarianism offers. They’ll doubtless know that, as vegetarians, their risk of heart disease is reduced by 30 percent, that their risk of obesity is much lower, that they’re less likely to suffer from high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, and that they are lowering their risk of developing lung, pancreatic, colorectal, and prostate cancers by as much as 40 percent. Did I mention they also have a lower risk of appendicitis and gallstones?
Did you know that raising meat for human consumption produces more greenhouse emissions than all forms of transportation together? By being vegetarian, you don’t just care for and about your own health, but also contribute to the wellbeing of the planet as a whole. And that’s before we even start talking about animal welfare!
How should you, as a concerned parent, react to your teenager's announcement that they are becoming vegetarian? SteadyHealth spoke to Casey Brown, who became a vegetarian as a teenager and is now a nutrition student at the University of Maryland as well as an intern with the Vegetarian Resource Group, to get the inside scoop.
Casey offers the following tips:
- Be supportive and encouraging of their choice – try to understand your teenagers reasoning for wanting to make this transition.
- Buy various vegan books (health and recipe books) to have as resources.
- Educate yourself on vegetarianism. [Casey, of course, directs you to the wonderful resource library offered by the Vegetarian Resource Group!]
- Purchase groceries your teen will need for his/her meals (Or help your teen shop)
- Cook vegetarian meals together a few nights a week to help teach your teenager the basics of different cooking techniques and how to use different ingredients This will allow your teen to become more familiar with different recipes he/she can eat.
- Encourage them to eat balanced meals.
- Help them plan their meals if they need some new ideas.
- Be open-minded to trying vegetarian/vegan restaurants, visiting animal sanctuaries, and attending vegan events/lectures.
What You Need To Know About Your Teen's Vegetarian Diet
If you didn't already know about the many health benefits a balanced vegetarian diet offers, and you do now, because we briefly mentioned it above, your process of educating yourself on vegetarianism — one of Alicia's most important tips — has already begun.
"That's all good and well," you may think, "but there's junk food vegetarians out there who eat nothing but cheese pizzas, and I don't want my teen to be one of them!" You're quite right.
Among the things you and your vegetarian teen are going want to watch out for are:
- Protein: Beans, cheese, eggs, tofu, and nuts are all excellent sources. Registered dietician Reed Mangels, points out that teens from North America who otherwise eat a varied diet that contains enough calories aren't going to have any problems obtaining enough protein, neither is it necessary, as was once advised, to make sure to get proteins from multiple plant sources in a single meal.
- Iron: Vegetarians have ample access to iron through such things as leafy greens, dried apricot, and beans. Did you know that consuming foods rich in vitamin C on a regular basis helps boost iron absorption?
- Vitamin D: Comes from sunlight, eggs, and fortified foods. Anyone who doesn't have regular access to any of these should take a supplement.
- Vitamin B12: Comes from animal proteins such as milk and eggs, as well as fortified foods. Vegans should take a supplement.
- Calcium: Leafy greens, broccoli, figs, beans and almonds are all sources, in addition to dairy products.
While it's always good to assess and reassess the quality of one's diets, including the nutrients one consumes, I hope that this brief list demonstrates that it is really not hard to remain healthy on a vegetarian diet as long as the basic rule of choosing a wide variety of foods from different food groups is observed. Just like meat-eaters don't go about their lives calculating whether they've had enough iron or vitamin C today, neither do veggies have to.