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Health Tips for Preteen Vegetarians

How To Help Your Vegetarian Child Find a Healthy, Balanced Diet

When Robin Hawbaker came home two years ago from an extended stay at her Aunt Wendy's house and announced she had become a vegetarian, her mom, Tammy Hawbaker, didn't think much of it.

"She was only 11 at the time, so I figured it was just a fad," says Tammy Hawbaker. "I was surprised that she stuck with it. Now the whole family eats less meat than we used to."

Today, Robin is a beautiful, rosy-cheeked blond in the gifted program at her Pittsburgh-area middle school. She's also still a dedicated vegetarian. Her decision obviously hasn't done her any harm, but any young person who decides to become vegetarian needs to be sure they don't just exist on junk food and think they're eating healthfully.

Lucy Watkins, editor of Vegetarianteen.com, an online magazine for young vegetarians, says that anyone who had a poor diet before they become vegetarian is going to have a poor diet as a vegetarian as well. The fact is that vegetarians have the same nutritional needs as always. They just need to learn how to get that nutrition in a slightly different way.

Pity the Poor Lamb

On the Vegetarianteen.com site, animal activism is a very visible platform. Young people, especially girls, tend to be very loving and softhearted. Watkins says that, although sometimes teens become vegetarians because it's the latest fad, animal activism is often a spark for young people to become vegetarians. When it's done for "faddish" reasons, they usually don't stick with it. The animal rights kids tend to stay the course.

In Robin's case, she was never much of a meat eater to begin with, but she was an animal lover. Her Aunt Wendy, who sparked her vegetarianism, doesn't eat meat because of animal rights issues, and that was something Robin could identify with. The reason so many vegetarians make their decisions as middle-schoolers is because that's the age when they begin to look outside themselves. As very young children, they probably didn't think much about where their food came from. When they do become aware, many find it repulsive.

This can be a complicated decision for a variety of reasons. All cultures value the tradition of eating, especially the family meal. Usually, the kitchen is a place where Mom reigns supreme and her child's decision to "reject" her cooking may trigger negative feelings. In other cases, the parents may feel that their child is not getting proper nutrition.

It's even more difficult if the child chooses a more restrictive form of vegetarianism. Vegetarians can be divided into two basic categories: vegetarian and vegan. A vegetarian avoids meats and meat products, including fish and poultry. Vegetarians who choose to supplement their diets with eggs and dairy products are known as lacto-ovo vegetarians. A vegan is a vegetarian who eats no meat, eggs or dairy products. Their diet is strictly vegetable based. As Robin so succinctly sums up her eating habits, "I eat nothing with eyes."

Healthy Vegetarian Eating

Watkins thinks the biggest obstacle young vegetarians face is the misconception of our "need" for meat as a protein source.

"A lot of us got our nutrition information from the beef and dairy industries, so a lot of what we accept as fact is actually marketing," says Watkins. "This often causes a genuine concern on the part of the parents who worry that their kids are not going to get the proper nutrients. The situation becomes even more complicated for parents when you read about things like the Atkins diet's grudging governmental acceptance. That's all fine, except that we don't have any long-term studies on high protein diet's effect on health, just short-term weight loss information."

In fact, the USDA Food and Nutrition Board recommends that protein should provide only about 6 percent of our total daily calories, but the average intake in the United States is much higher. In addition, meat, poultry and eggs are not the only good sources of protein. Protein is also found in wheat, green vegetables, nuts, beans, soy products and seeds, to name just a few. The lacto-ovo vegetarian can also get protein from eggs, cheese, milk and yogurt.

There's no doubt that there has been an increased focus on a healthy diet in recent years by meat eaters and non-meat eaters alike. This has led to a dramatic increase in healthy food choices in supermarkets and to a rise in whole food stores. This makes shopping for the vegetarian much easier.

Supporting the Young Veg

On Vegetarianteen.com, there are horror stories about kids with parents who absolutely refuse to accept their decision to become vegetarian. Watkins says that this is not unusual, and she even knows of cases where the parents refuse to buy food for their children, so they have to pick around the family meal or purchase their own food.

Melanie Jordan, author of Have Your Cheeseburger and Keep Your Health Too, says parents should take the time to educate themselves about vegetarianism and some of the alternatives to eating meat as protein. Jordan, who doesn't call herself a vegetarian but eats no meat or poultry, points out that a well-balanced diet of wholesome foods is important for everyone.

"The danger with preteens and teens is that they may think, 'OK, I had soda, pizza, fries and I'm good. I'm a vegetarian,'" says Jordan. "The fact is that they still like those junky foods, and vegetarianism can almost give them a reason to overindulge in them. Just because you're trying to protect animals doesn't mean you have to abuse your body."

Jordan recommends that a parent sit down with their child, explain that they want to support their efforts and work together to find both a balanced diet and an alternative, healthier way of getting those favorite foods. She points out that there are some delicious soy-based products available that can substitute for virtually any food, including hot dogs and burgers, while French fries can be made at home using fresh potatoes and a bit of healthy olive oil. Soy protein powder in smoothies makes an excellent breakfast and is a good source of protein. Fortified with fiber in the form of oat bran, it's healthier than most foods a child normally eats in the morning.

For those who still eat dairy, Jordan points out that there are now many varieties of healthy, low fat cheeses. Children who love to cook can learn to bake whole wheat bread with their parent's help. It may take a little work and planning, but creating a healthy, balanced diet will help your child achieve their animal rights objectives while helping them eat more healthfully than they do now. Mom and Dad may even benefit as well.

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