When teen-agers just say 'no' to meat

Vegetarians: There's no need for concern about protein if diets are well-balanced.

January 05, 2000|By Linda Siemon | Linda Siemon,Special to the Sun

Where's the beef?

For teen-agers who have become vegetarians, this can be a meaty question.

"Sometimes people say things like, 'You're an American, you should be eating hamburgers,' " says Rebecca Kodek, 17, of Pikesville.

Even her mother, Debbie Kodek, was concerned when Rebecca decided at a young age she didn't want to eat meat. She found she had to improvise with different foods and adapt recipes to make them appealing.

"We used to make sandwiches and cut them into different shapes with cookie cutters," says Kodek, who still worries that Rebecca, a senior at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, is not getting enough protein in her diet.

But nutritionists and others say that if a teen is eating a well-balanced diet, there is no cause for alarm.

"As long as your child is eating a nutritious diet, they're going to be healthier for [being a vegetarian], so encourage it," says Cristin Marandino, managing editor of Vegetarian Times, a magazine featuring vegetarian topics.

According to a Roper poll, 11 percent of girls and 5 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 don't eat meat. Another survey found that 37 percent of teens avoid red meat. As more teens join the ranks of the 12.4 million vegetarians in America, a growing number of publications, including cookbooks, are targeting this audience.

When her daughter, Phoebe, announced she was a vegetarian at age 13, Stephanie Pierson, a former Baltimorean, decided to write a book, "Vegetables Rock!" (Bantam, 1999). "Parents of new teen-age vegetarians need help," she wrote in the book's foreword. "Take it from me, at the beginning, for parents, teen-age vegetarianism is kind of scary."

In Pierson's book, written with her daughter who is now 17, she answers nutrition questions and provides dozens of recipes with fun titles such as Make-a-Hamburger-Jealous Burger, Asparagus in Ambush and Chocolate Devastation Cake.

Pierson, who now lives in South Salem, N.Y., offers this consolation to parents: "Life gets easier when they get older. Now, I can just send [Phoebe] to the health-food store."

But parents still need to be watchful of their child's eating habits, nutritionists say.

"If they are giving up certain foods, the real question is why, and how are they treating the rest of their diet," says dietitian Barbara Gollman, who wrote, with Kim Pierce, "The Phytopia Cookbook" (Phytopia, 1998), which includes recipes using fruits, vegetables and grains. "With teens, they may do it for the wrong reasons, for ethical or weight reasons. Sometimes this can backfire."

But dietitian Joy Peterson, director of the nutrition division at the Vegetarian Institute of Nutrition and Culinary Arts in Ellicott City, has found vegetarian teens tend to be knowledgeable eaters. They consume more baked than fried foods, more whole grains than white bread and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, she says.

"A vegetarian is even healthier than the regular population that is eating meat, because [vegetarians] look more closely at everything they're taking in," she says.

By definition, a vegetarian is one who eats no meat, fish or fowl. But there are different types: Some vegetarians eat dairy products and eggs, some exclude eggs or any foods with eggs. Others, who are called vegans, avoid eating and using any animal products or byproducts.

Depending on which diet they follow, teen vegetarians need to make sure they are getting enough calcium for their growing bones -- four servings a day, according to guidelines. If they don't drink milk, calcium-fortified foods, such as orange juice, and green leafy vegetables are alternative sources, nutritionists say.

Those who follow a vegan diet also need to make sure they're getting vitamin B-12, which helps tissue formation and is found in animal byproducts. Supplemental vitamin B-12 is available in such foods as soy milk, veggie burgers and fortified cereals.

Adhering to a vegetarian diet can be tricky, teens acknowledge. Emily Aaron, 16, of original Northwood in Baltimore says she sometimes forgets Starburst candy contains gelatin, a protein derived from beef and veal parts.

Emily, a sophomore at the Baltimore School for the Arts, has been a vegetarian for 3 1/2 years, eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, pasta, beans, dairy products and eggs. She has a parent, Mike Aaron, who is not intimidated by the challenge of cooking for a vegetarian, she says.

"My father likes to cook, so he sees it as an adventure," Emily says. "He buys all these cookbooks and gets to try all these new things."

Make-a-Hamburger-Jealous Burger

Makes 4 sandwiches

4 kaiser rolls

1/4 cup olive oil

1 1/2 pounds large button mushrooms, wiped clean with damp cloth or paper towel

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1 medium garlic clove, minced

juice of 1/4 lemon

salt and freshly milled black pepper

4 crisp lettuce leaves

Preheat the broiler.

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