Ethical Eating: Vegetarian Kids
Kids Against Animal Cruelty
When six-year-old Aaron A. goes to McDonald's, he gets the fries, a soda, and possibly Chicken McNuggets, but certainly not a burger at least, nothing he considers "meat."
"Meat is from animals, animals are from nature, and I don't want nature to be destroyed," this earnest first-grader explains.
Third-grader Jessica R. shares similar concerns; she's been refusing to eat meat since preschool.
"My brother always gets his hamburger from McDonald's and holds it right in my face," she complains. "It's disgusting."
Of the 12 to 14 million vegetarians in the United States, about 5 percent are children, according to the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group. Though most of these "veggie kids" are believed to be following their parents' dietary practices, a small but growing number of children and teens are making independent decisions not to eat meat, even though steak, hot dogs, or sausage lasagna are regularly served up at home. While adults often cite health concerns as the reason they've adopted a plant-based diet, children almost always talk about their concerns for animals.
The Babe Factor
"When I see Bugs Bunny chopping up lambs or something on TV, I know it's not really happening," explains Jessica R. "But the movie Babe (the story of a pig saved from slaughter) really bothered me. I was holding my friend's hand and crying. It was so sad."
Aaron's father, David A., agrees that popular culture may be influencing dietary trends.
"When I was growing up, we had the book Charlotte's Web, with the pig Wilbur in trouble," he recalls. "Now there are so many movies and books like that. The whole genre has proliferated."
Still, interviews with young vegetarians suggest that their food choices represent more than a mere reaction to screen images. Rachel C., a freshman at a small Vermont college, moved to a vegan diet (vegans eschew all animal products) after spending her teen years as a vegetarian.
"I think it's wrong to raise animals for food," she says. "And I'm not interested in supporting corporations that profit from animal exploitation."
Should Parents Worry?
"My parents have always had the 'protein issue,'" Rachel C. continues. "When I was in high school, sometimes my dad would say, 'Rach, you're being really stupid about this. You're an athlete, you need protein.'"
"We've had our issues," her dad, John C., admits.
Indeed, many parents worry that a vegetarian lifestyle is unhealthy for kids, and pediatricians offer conflicting advice. Before his death in 1998, the revered baby doctor Benjamin Spock urged parents to rear children after age two on a vegan diet. Dr. Spock, himself a vegetarian, believed meat and dairy could worsen childhood ailments like ear infections, and lead to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure.
But Dr. Spock's heirs railed against his advice.
"Absolutely insane," Dr. T. Berry Brazelton told the New York Times, insisting that meat and dairy products were essential for healthy development. Experts agree. But to complicate matters still further, the American Dietetic Association weighed in with its support of a vegetarian diet for children.
Jessica R.'s mother Joan, who received a master's degree in nutrition, believes a vegetarian diet can be healthy for kids, but advises other parents to monitor their child's iron intake.
"Jessica's a real bean-eater, and she also gets a lot of dairy, so there's no question about protein. But iron is the one thing she could lack," Joan observes. "She takes a vitamin with iron every day and is tested for anemia every year."
A typical lunch for Jessica might consist of lentil soup in a thermos, a green apple, a container of yogurt, rice cakes, and "a totally disgusting treat, something really junked out." Joan tries to avoid too much cheese, chips, or cookies because of fat content. Although she accepts her daughter's choice, she sometimes tries to tempt Jessica with meat, simply because that's what the rest of the family is eating.
"Sometimes I'll say, 'You used to love BBQ chicken!' At times this (vegetarianism) can be a bit of a pain, but then we'll just pop open a can of soup."