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The Over-Processed, Hormone-Injected, Super-Sized Backlash: Could Your Family Go Vegetarian?
By Lisa Poisso
Mad cow disease, meat and milk afloat with hormones and antibiotics, virulent food-borne illnesses, super-sized junk meals packing on “diseases of nutritional extravagance,” heart disease, cancer, diabetes – after biting into news like this about meat, your favorite down-and-dirty, fast and healthy chicken breast recipe doesn’t taste quite so succulent anymore.
Mounting evidence points to animal products as less-than-ideal sources of nutrition, while even the most straight-laced organizations tout the virtues of a plant-based diet. Savvy parents are turning to vegetarian and vegan eating in record numbers. But isn’t vegetarianism imbalanced and extreme? Could it possibly be right for your busy family?
For many families a vegetarian lifestyle is a healthy, simple, cost-effective – and yes, tasty! – answer to growing concerns about the safety of consuming animal products. Once the province of hippies and other radicals, vegetarianism is snowballing in public acceptance and popularity.
“What once seemed to be overwhelming judgment and criticism has slowly been overrun by curiosity, intrigue and interest,” says Lucy Watkins, a vegan mom and “Veg Buzz” columnist for Veg News magazine, site manager of VegetarianBaby.com and co-founder of VegetarianTeen.com. “We’ve moved from across-the-board statements such as ‘Don’t you have to have meat in your diet to be healthy?’ to ‘I wish my daughter would eat her vegetables. How do you do it?’”
Despite the common misconception that you can be vegetarian and still eat chicken or fish, a true vegetarian does not eat animal flesh of any kind -- beef, fish or poultry. Some vegetarians do consume dairy products (a “lacto-vegetarian”) or eggs (an “ovo-vegetarian”). A vegan (pronounced “VEE-gun”) is a vegetarian who abstains from eating or using any type of animal products including milk, cheese and other dairy items as well as eggs, wool, silk and leather.
The benefits of vegging out
So why would a family consider a vegetarian lifestyle and diet? For many, the answer is simple: health.
“ I think that every American would be 100% healthier if we were all vegetarian,” says Dr. William C. Roberts, director of the Baylor Heart and Vascular Institute in Dallas and editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Cardiology. He rattles off a horrifying list of diseases frequently linked to carnivorous (meat-eating) diets: cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, many types of cancer, kidney stones and gallstones, diverticulitis and appendicitis, osteoporosis, constipation and still more.
According to the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada, vegetarians have been reported to have lower percentages of body fat – a huge bonus in an age when childhood obesity is epidemic -- as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease, lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes and prostate and colon cancer. “Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle,” add the two agencies, “including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.”
Veggie families enjoy even more than the considerable health bonuses:
• Economy Bulk grains and legumes are extremely economical; even tofu is cheaper than an equivalent serving of meat.
• Ecology Eating low on the food chain reduces exposure to pesticides, antibiotics and hormones and relieves the enormous strain on land and water resources associated with raising livestock.
• Weight control It’s hard to get fat (or stay fat) on a plant-based diet.
• Compassion Animal agribusiness relies on many cruel practices.
Vegetarians eat more whole foods, more organics and fewer processed foods than most Americans, dovetailing with the growing trend toward removing highly processed, hormone- and antibiotic-laden, pesticide-sprayed foods from children’s diets. “The real benefits of healthy, plant-based diets full of whole foods and natural products show in many ways that aren’t often recognized as diet-based issues,” Watkins points out. “Besides creating a physically healthier child, families switching to whole-food, vegetarian diets often see changes and reductions in their child’s negative behavior.”
Vegan mom Jamie Lattanzio from Arlington, Texas, says the nutritional research she did when she became vegetarian uncovered a Pandora’s box of artificial flavors and colors, chemical additives and hydrogenated oils. “Once we started looking, all of these dirty little secrets started coming to the surface,” she says. “No one wants to admit that by choosing not to eat these things, so many horrible issues could be reduced or eliminated, such as cancer, heart disease, obesity, hyperactivity and developmental issues in children. It's true -- we are what we eat!”
But isn’t it such a pain?
We may be what we eat – but the days of perceiving vegetarianism as a noble sacrifice are over. Vegetarians today no longer follow iron-clad “complimentary protein” rules requiring foods such as beans and rice to be eaten together at the same meal. They do not find themselves relegated to a life of side dishes and substitutes. In fact, vegetarianism is less about finding substitutes for meat and animal products than it is creating a whole new way of eating. Modern vegetarianism smoothly integrates snacks and smaller portions with mainstays such as casseroles and ethnic foods.
The availability of whole grains, legumes, produce and other vegetarian staples has soared in recent years. Public awareness and acceptance of the vegetarian lifestyle is rapidly climbing. Support systems, from social networks to restaurants and even health care providers who are knowledgeable about vegetarian nutrition, are growing steadily. “The good news is that our society, though still immersed in the Standard American Diet of chips, colas, white bread and other highly processed food, is slowly becoming more aware of correlation between diet and health,” Watkins says. “Veggie-friendly doctors are becoming more numerous. Veggie-friendly school meals are cropping up everywhere.”
“ The greatest misconception I've had to deal with is people assuming my children are under-nourished,” Lattanzio acknowledges. “I think that this belief is slowly dying away, though, as all of these issues such as mad cow disease are surfacing and even meat-eaters are being forced to stand up and take notice.”
But what about the kids? Won’t your vegetarian kid be looked at as – well, as a weirdo?
“Kids can handle this!” says Carol Adams, an internationally known feminist-vegetarian author and vegan parent. “Kids can handle it emotionally, kids can handle it physically, and kids can handle it socially.”
Kids won’t feel awkward about their vegetarianism, Adams explains, if parents talk to them about it. Kids need to hear why their family has chosen vegetarianism, why other families don’t, how meat-eating people do things and what questions they might expect to hear. In fact, the process of discussing eating habits and even the process of learning to live as vegetarians can be a bonding process. “There’s a strong trend of ‘tweens’ choosing to becoming vegetarian,” Adams notes. “This is a great opportunity for mother and child, especially daughters, to do something together, to learn to cook vegetarian and eat these things together. At an age when many parents and children are moving apart, vegetarianism can be the force that moves these families together.”
Eating out: A manageable challenge
As the trend toward healthier eating sweeps America, vegetarian and veg-friendly restaurants are multiplying. “The biggest problem is finding out the ingredients of items on the menu,” bemoans vegetarian Lara Ashmore, founder of Dallas Veggie Kids support group. “Oftentimes, the wait staff does not know if the soup or sauce, for example, is made with animal broth.”
Ashmore’s family looks for restaurants where the wait staff will ask the chef about the exact ingredients of a dish. She scans the menu for vegetarian options at new restaurants before the rest of the family comes in, heading off the kids’ disappointment if the selections prove unsuitable. Flexibility helps. “Most kid’s meals at restaurants include chicken, for some reason,” she says. “If there is not a vegetarian option, the safest bet for the children is usually a baked potato and salad or plain pasta with olive oil.”
Lattanzio’s family takes a pragmatic approach to dining out with others. “When we are eating out with a group and end up in a regular restaurant, we try to do our best to remove anything that can be removed and not worry about too much more than that,” she says. “It's practically impossible to be 100% vegan in our culture unless you choose to prepare every meal at home from scratch. Since we choose to eat out occasionally, we know that there will be some things getting on our plates that we would rather not be there. We just do our best.”
What about school and parties?
Common sense, education and respect go a long way in preventing awkward social situations between vegetarians and meat-eaters. “It's important to keep it positive and focus on how easy it is to be vegetarian,” advises Melanie Wilson, senior editor of Veg News magazine and herself a vegan parent. “In the beginning, you may have to bring substitutes for your child and offer to assist during birthday parties, but it gets easier as time goes on. Labeling your child's lunchbox can also serve as a reminder to those in charge of serving food or overseeing mealtimes.” She advises making things as easy as possible for caregivers by putting requests in writing and spelling out exactly what children may eat – not what they may not eat.
Some families find it easier to homeschool or choose private schools for their kids. “We purposefully sought out a school that would be supportive of a vegetarian lifestyle,” Ashmore says. “The lack of healthy school environments was one of the factors that led me to homeschool my children.”
And then there are the parties. Watkins advocates bringing vegetarian dishes. “It never fails, at any party I attend, the vegan dish I bring for my children and me is usually devoured by the non-vegetarians at the event,” she says. “This, in itself, is a lesson that vegetarian food is not just sticks and hay.” Watkins also frequently feeds her kids before they leave for the party.
Ashmore also advocates bringing veggie fare. “I think about my children’s birthday parties as an opportunity to showcase healthy foods for the children and hope the parents will get some ideas for their parties,” she says.
Helping children navigate the social waters is also something parents can prepare for in advance. Wilson roleplays with her children before a big event, practicing a simple, polite “No, thank you” for situations where a child may have to refuse something that’s offered.
She advocates helping children learn to recognize how foods make them feel. “Teach them to pay close attention to the ups and downs of sugar consumption, the heaviness after eating meat or dairy products, or the irritation and headaches that may come with consuming artificial colors and empty calorie snacks,” says Wilson, who is also editor of VegetarianBaby.com and co-founder of VegetarianTeen.com. “(Co-editor) Lucy (Watkins) is careful to point out these physical changes and feelings to her daughters so they can predict how foods will make them feel and make wiser choices.”
Sticky family situations
And just when you thought you had everything worked out, along come old-fashioned grandparents or a stubborn sister-in-law. “The problem becomes trusting relatives to respect your family’s diet,” Adams says. “Suddenly, your parents are screaming ‘child abuse’ because you are not feeding your children meat. What should you do?”
In her book Living Among Meat Eaters, Adams suggests giving family members educational material on vegetarianism to read before discussing the issue. If they won’t read it, she says, the issue is not really about nutrition but about control. “Know your bottom line,” she advises. “Betrayal by your parents is not acceptable. Let them understand very clearly, ‘I love you, Mom and Dad. But you must respect my decisions on this. If you cannot respect my decision, you are telling me that I can’t trust you.’ This may feel very tough, but often it succeeds in communicating your bottom line and from there negotiating something acceptable to you and your parents.”
In situations where your child will be eating with others, Adams suggest reviewing acceptable and unacceptable foods beforehand with a responsible adult. “Once the child is 5 or so, they know how to reject meat,” she adds. “By the time they are 9 or so, they can negotiate even the esoteric issues of chicken stock in gravy, etc.”
A light approach and plenty of tact helps keep the peace at holidays and other special occasions. “For holidays and family celebrations, I usually serve or bring the main dish, such as a ‘tofu turkey,’” Ashmore says. “This past Thanksgiving was a problem, however, when one of our daughters was offended by the real turkey on the table next to the tofu turkey. It was difficult for her understand why some people choose to eat animals. We try to promote respect and tolerance for other’s people’s choices, even if they are different from our own.”
“Keep it simple, to the point and avoid getting dragged into a debate at the holiday dinner table,” advises Wilson. “Such tried-and-true methods of ignoring snide comments, changing the subject and repetition (just keep saying no) often help to get past those difficult moments. I do believe that the holidays are the time to focus on positives: family, togetherness, support and acceptance.”
More about vegetarianism
The Vegetarian Resource Group www.vrg.org
Vegetarian Baby & Child Magazine www.vegetarianbaby.com
The Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine www.pcrm.org
Healthy school lunches
CHOICE (Citizens for Healthy Options In Children’s Education) www.choiceusa.net
Project Healthy Beginnings www.projecthealthybeginnings.com
© Lisa Poisso; first appeared at Dallas Child magazine.
Lisa Poisso has performed in ballet and musical theatre, edited magazines, slogged through the world of corporate communications and run a home-based writing and editing business while raising a family. A passionate advocate for attachment parenting and natural family living, she is the founder and publisher of APConnect!, Dallas/Fort Worth’s online resource for AP and natural parenting. She writes for publications and edits for authors specializing in the natural family, attachment parenting, vegetarian and parenting fields.