Compassion is the Fashion
One in 200 children is a vegetarian, says one report. The number may be even higher.
A report from the CDC announced that today 1 in 200 individuals under the age of 18 defines him or herself as a vegetarian. demo dirt interviewed two top experts in this area: Rory Freedman, co-author of Skinny Bitch (a New York Times best seller) and Skinny Bitch in the Kitch, as well as star of two new Skinny Bitch workout videos, and Marta Holmberg, senior Street Team coordinator for peta2, a kid-friendly animal rights organization.
demo dirt: The CDC has never measured the number of vegetarian kids in the United States before, but anecdotal evidence suggests it has increased. Why do you think more kids than ever have gone veg? And, do you think 1 in 200 could be a low estimate?
Holmberg: More and more kids are going vegetarian these days because information on how animals are treated in the food industry is becoming increasingly available. Most teens we talk to would never want to support cruelty to animals, so for them, going vegetarian is the logical choice to make, as each vegetarian saves the lives of more than 100 animals every year—simply by not eating them. Vegetarian products are also increasingly available in grocery stores and restaurants, so being vegetarian has never been easier. You can grab a veggie burger at Burger King, a soy hot dog at a baseball game, or vegetarian sushi at a Japanese restaurant.
For those of us here at peta2 who work with kids on a daily basis, 1 in 200 kids definitely seems like a low estimate, considering the growing number of kids who contact us and want to find out how to get vegetarian options in their school cafeterias or ask us advice on how to go vegetarian.
[Editor’s note: If one in 200 seems low, Holmberg added in a later email, it is because it is! The questionnaire only asked parents if their child had become a vegetarian for health reasons; the survey did not acknowledge any participants who had children who were vegetarian for ethical reasons. Therefore, Holmberg added the following: Any parent who had a child who was vegetarian for ethical, environmental, religious, or any other reason could have answered "No" to these questions. This definitely skews the results, as the majority of kids we talk to go vegetarian because they care about animals and don't want them to be abused. This report only takes into account the number of kids who are vegetarian solely for health-related reasons.]
Freedman: I can’t say for sure whether the number should be higher or lower or why it appears more kids are veg now than ever before. My guess is that in this age of information, people are learning more about the inherent cruelty of factory farms and slaughterhouses, the health implications associated with eating meat and dairy products, and the environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture. Kids are smart—they have eyes and ears and they’re also intuitive. Many understand from a young age that eating the flesh of an animal is gross. But because parents lie, bribe, and punish, many kids start eating meat against their better instincts. Perhaps now, with all the information, parents are being more open to alternative lifestyles.
demo dirt: What advice would you give children on how to handle parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other relatives who object to his or her decision to go vegetarian or vegan?
Freedman: Vegetarian kids certainly have an uphill battle, since sadly, many people are misinformed about the lifestyle. Family members of veggie kids just want to know the diet is safe and healthy, so one easy fact to remember will be especially helpful: The American Dietetic Association (the world's largest organization of nutrition professionals) extensively reviewed all the scientific studies on vegetarian diets, and found that vegetarians have lower rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer (all the top killers) than meat-eaters. In other words: vegetarians are healthier than meat-eaters.
Holmberg: My advice to a child who has decided to go vegetarian and is having trouble with his or her family is to stay strong! Explain why it is that you want to go vegetarian and assure them that you can be healthy on a vegetarian diet. Have your family check out GoVeg.com for more information. Tell them that you'll get your protein from beans, nuts, soy, and other products, and show them that you've looked into vegetarianism and that this isn't a whim. Parents are concerned about their kids' health, so if you show them that you can be healthy on a vegetarian diet, they'll come around. I also recommend that kids volunteer to help cook family meals and go grocery shopping with their parents—parents definitely appreciate that and will be more inclined to want to cook vegetarian food.
demo dirt: Any advice for skeptical family members?
Holmberg: Keep an open mind. A vegetarian diet might seem different at first, but different can be healthy and delicious! Try substituting vegetarian foods for meat foods in favorite family recipes. Use beans instead of meat in burritos, toss some vegetarian beef crumble in marinara sauce over pasta, or try meatless deli slices or hummus on sandwiches. Who knows—you may find a new family favorite.
Freedman: Listen to your kid. Don’t be so quick to dismiss it as silly, something they’re doing to be difficult or to get attention, or as a phase they’re going through. The decision is usually based in the deep-seated principle that it is wrong to contribute to the torture and slaughter of animals. Vegetarian kids and teens display an understanding, enlightenment, and compassion that most adults will never possess; they deserve your respect, admiration, and support.
demo dirt: What is the best way for a kid to handle teasing at school for leading a different lifestyle?
Freedman: Instead of being reactive, kids should stick with the facts and keep it simple: “I know you think it’s weird that I’m vegetarian, but I’m just like you. The only difference is that I don’t eat dead animals: dead cows, chickens, or pigs. I think vegetarianism is a really positive thing, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make fun of it.”
Having a good support system of understanding friends and family always helps soften the blows. And at the end of the day, kids need to remember that people who are mean and cruel are just hurting on the inside. The veggie kids should be so proud of themselves, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
demo dirt: Any advice for veg parents who want to raise their kids veg and have to deal with family's and/or strangers' criticism?
Holmberg: Cook delicious, healthy vegetarian meals to share with your critics. Invite them to cook a meal with you to show them just how easy it is to make vegetarian food. Show them statistics that demonstrate how healthy a vegetarian diet can be, and mention that the American Dietetic Association says that vegetarians are less likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity than meat-eaters are.
Freedman: Again, people are well intentioned, but often ill informed. So arm yourself with information so you feel completely educated on the issue. And when people engage you, don’t be defensive. They just don’t know any better. View the conversation as a great opportunity, and not a personal attack. Just explain what you know to be true, how your family is thriving on the diet, and offer to give them a website that they can use to educate themselves if they’re interested.
demo dirt: It looks like a bright future for vegetarianism with so many kids going veg. What big social/green/culinary/economic changes do we have to look forward to as this group ages?
Holmberg: I think we'll see more and more vegetarian options appear as the demand for vegetarian food increases and people recognize the connection between vegetarianism, their own health, and the environment. I think that we'll see better vegetarian options in school cafeterias across the country, veggie dogs at hot dogs stands everywhere, and an ever-growing selection of delicious vegetarian products everywhere you can imagine. It's an exciting time right now, and vegetarianism shows no sign of slowing down!
I work with young people across the country and around the world who are interested in animal rights and getting more involved. peta2 is a great cause for kids to get involved in because we make it easy for them to make a difference in the lives of animals. Young people learn to fight cruelty to animals through letter-writing, leafleting, demonstrations, and talking to their peers. And we make sure to keep things fun and interesting too! I encourage teenagers to check out peta2.com for more information on vegetarianism, and if parents are looking to find vegetarian recipes for the whole family (or want to go vegetarian themselves), they should definitely check out VegCooking.com for a wide variety of delicious vegetarian recipes.
Freedman: I know from my own experience, when I became vegetarian, it awakened a consciousness in me. Never before had I cared about the bigger picture—it was all “me, me, me.” I can only imagine what a beautiful planet this will be when vegetarians take over the world—more conscious, compassionate, evolved, enlightened, sustainable, and peaceful.
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