Vegging out!

Courtesy: Daily Herald
BY LAURA BIANCHI - Daily Herald Correspondent

In seventh grade, Melissa Richgels of Arlington Heights rather abruptly stopped eating red meat. She doesn't remember any particular incident that prompted this sudden change in diet, it was just a growing aversion to meat.

"The thought of eating something that was alive ad always bothered me,'' says 18-year-old Melissa today. "To me the thought of chewing on something that had once been living, moving and breathing - it disgusted me.''

Three years later, as a freshman at Rolling Meadows High School, Melissa, stopped eating meat altogether.

"I saw a video in one of my classes about a chicken being brutally killed,'' she says, "and I came home that day and said, 'Mom, I'm not eating meat any more.'æ"

Melissa is hardly alone in her decision to become a vegetarian. An increasing number of teenagers - redominantly girls - choose tofu dogs and veggie burgers over Vienna beef hot dogs and Big Macs.

Stephanie Pierson, author of "Vegetables Rock! a Complete Guide for Teenage Vegetarians" (1999 Bantam, $12.95), reports that 11 percent of girls aged 13 to 17 said they don't eat meat at all. She cites a 1995 national survey showing that 37 percent of all American teens are trying to avoid red meat completely - 50 percent more people than a generation older.

She also says that 15 percent of the nation's 15 million college students eat vegetarian during a typical school day.

A national study of "what's in'' by Teenage Research Unlimited in Northbrook confirms that 25 percent of teens think being a vegetarian is "in.''

Parents whose offspring subsisted on hamburgers, chicken nuggets and hot dogs during their formative years may be excused if they feel a little dazed by their teenagers' latest fad, and for many teens it is just that, a short-lived experiment. But for Melissa and a growing crop of other teens, vegetarianism seems to be turning into a way of life.

Eighteen-year-old Mike Mayer of Rolling Meadows gave up meat three years ago after being deeply moved by some animal rights literature he saw at a punk rock concert.

"It made me sick,'' says Mike, a recent graduate of Rolling Meadows High School. "I've always liked animals, but I had never felt this strongly about it.''

Mike gave up meat cold turkey because "it made me so sick I didn't want to look at it.'' A year later he took a step beyond that and became a vegan, a vegetarian who does not eat dairy or other animal products, such as eggs and honey, and does not use leather products such as belts or shoes.

"Vegan was a lot harder to do,'' Mike concedes."But I never went back to it. After the first couple of months, it didn't bother me any more."

Apprehensive parents But how about the parents of vegetarian teens? Does it bother them?

Some parents voice apprehensive when their teens announce they are giving up meat, but there is a wealth of information available about vegetarianism that can calm the nerves of omniverous parents. It just takes a little research.

"I was totally against it,'' says Ronnie Mayer, Mike's mother. "I didn't know that much about it, but he was headstrong about it so we went to the doctor.''

Mike's doctor explained that a vegetarian or vegan diet can be perfectly healthy as long as teens make the effort to eat properly. Mike agreed to be careful, and promised to have annual blood checks just to make sure he's getting all the nutrients he needs.

"I have to honor his feelings about it,'' says Ronnie Mayer, who recently whipped up a batch of vegan muffins for her son.

Melissa's mother, Kathy Richgels, also acknowledges that her daughter's announcement was a little scary.

"My first concern was for her health,'' she says. But once she learned that Melissa could get everything she needed, "my concern became rather selfish,'' Kathy Richgels admits. Just what the heck would she make for her daughter to eat, and how much extra time would it take to prepare separate meals?

A family affair Clearly, a teen's decision to become vegetarian can affect the entire family.

It may take time to adjust to the vegetarian's needs and extra time to prepare meal, and not everyone may be happy about the change. Melissa's 13-year-old brother J.P. was disgruntled when his mother began cooking favorite meals with ground turkey instead of ground beef after Melissa gave up red meat.

"For a while my family was annoyed at me,'' says Melissa. But when she gave up meat entirely, " myfamily made the transition back to hamburgers and I ate veggie burgers and tofu.''

Despite some initial apprehensions and adjustments, the families interviewed for this article all agreed that having a vegetarian in the family has been fairly easy to adapt to, especially in today's more enlightened society with well-stocked supermarkets.

Even mainstream grocery stores such as like Jewel and Dominick's carry easy-to-prepare veggie burgers and meat substitutes like tofu and tempeh. "Health food'' stores like Whole Foods stock extensive selections of ready-made nutritious vegetarian dishes such as whole grain and tofu salads, bean and lentil salads and a host of others.

Vegetarian teens find that it isn't that difficult to modify mainstream meals. They eliminate the meat in a sub sandwich and just eat the cheese, vegetables and bread. They eat their stir-fry with tofu instead of chicken and their spaghetti with marinara sauce instead of meatballs. They choose cheese pizza, meatless lasagna, salads, soups and tofu dogs.

High school and college cafeterias and restaurants also have become much more accommodating to vegetarians of all ages, allowing teens to join their friends at a fast-food restaurant for the salad bar or even an order of fries cooked in vegetable oil.

Eighteen-year-old Annaliese Calhoun of Lisle, who became a vegetarian as a high school sophomore, says a typical day's menu might include a bagel or toast with peanut butter for breakfast; a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with chips, cookies and fruit for lunch; and stir-fried rice and vegetables, pasta with marinara sauce, tofu or veggie burgers for dinner. For snacks, she eats cheese and crackers. A recent blood test showed her cholesterol levels low enough to surprise her doctor, and she says her general health is excellent. To keep their nutrients in check, some teen vegetarians take a mineral-packed multivitamin.

Melissa says she starts the day with cereal and soy milk with carrots or fruit, or even pizza or pasta. At lunch she might get a baked potato and salad at Wendy's or at home, a vegetable sandwich, tomato rice soup or a tofu dog. For dinner, if the family is having chicken with couscous, green beans and salad, she'll avoid the chicken and add some bread.

Sometimes a teenager's vegetarianism rubs off on other family members.

Annaliese, for example, became a vegetarian after her older brother took the plunge. Susa Stone, a recent Barrington High School graduate, says that since she became a vegetarian her mother now eats a lot less meat. Melissa's mom, Kathy, says she and her husband partially jumped on the bandwagon and now eat veggie burgers and stir-fry with tofu, although they are not complete vegetarians.

The hip thing to do "Culturally, vegetarianism has become a very popular thing for our young people to do,'' says Dr. Garry Sigman, director of adolescent medicine at Evanston Hospital and a member of the Lutheran General Hospital staff in Park Ridge.

"Of course, there's some rebellion in it, but I wouldn't put it first on the list.''

Developmentally, normal teens are seeking ways to be different than their parents. They are working on their identity, and vegetarianism is one way to do that. But if teens have always tried to define themselves, so why is there more interest now?

"Never before in our modern society has there been more concern about animals and animal rights,'' Sigman says. "That tends to be one very common motive.''

That was the case for Susa of Barrington, who became a vegetarian at the tender age of 5 after the local librarian read a Thanksgiving book to her kindergarten class about a beloved pet turkey who is beheaded in the final pages.

"It was totally distressing,'' says Susa. "It was the first time I realized that turkey was an animal. So basically after that, I didn't eat any meat.''

Eating a healthier diet is another motivation for young people to become vegetarian, says Sigman. The growing number of messages in our society about eating right are hitting the mark.

In "Vegetables Rock!," Pierson says population studies have shown that vegetarians tend to have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, adult-onset diabetes and some cancers. People eating no meat have 24 percent less heart disease than meat-eaters. Those who eat no meat or dairy products have 57 percent less heart disease.

"Vegetarian foods tend to be healthier and young people are aware of that,'' says Sigman.

Melissa, of Arlington Heights, counts herself as one of those well-informed vegetarians. She reads vegetarian magazines, articles in the newspaper and labels on food and she checks out vegetarian Web sites on the Internet. (See related story for resources.)

Other than watching her diet, she works out almost every day, in addition to frequent cheerleading practices, and when she walks the dog, they set a brisk pace.

"I'm not obsessive about it,'' she says. "I don't weigh myself every day.''

But weight control is another major component in the growing number of teen vegetarians, says Sigman, because a vegetarian diet is perceived to be lower in fat and calories. In a few cases, that can lead to trouble, whether deliberate or not.

"Teens have special susceptibility to excess in decision-making,'' says Sigman. "We find there is a higher percentage of vegetarianism in young people who become eating disordered.''

That doesn't mean parents should assume their child has an eating disorder if they choose to be vegetarian. It simply means parents need to monitor their children's diets to be sure they are eating enough and eating the right things, Sigman says.

Mike, of Rolling Meadows, says he inadvertently lost too much weight when he first became vegetarian because he was not watching what he ate.

"I didn't look into it enough,'' he says, "I learned as I went.''

Today he's careful to eat a balanced diet, take his vitamins and go in for an annual blood screening.

Perhaps more teens are choosing vegetarianism because it has never been easier or more accepted.

Restaurants and grocery stores are catering more to vegetarian diets and society in general has become more understanding and supportive of vegetarians. Vegetarians no longer are viewed as pale, frail people who eat nothing but twigs and berries.

A case in point is Susa, who made her vegetarian decision in kindergarten after that ill-fated story time. Her parents supported her decision from the start, and Susa doesn't remember having any problems with her classmates. In fact, when she was in fourth grade, her teacher brought a bowl full of clams, crabs and other shellfish to school for the children to sample after reading a book about an ocean-side dock. Knowing that Susa was vegetarian, the teacher agreed that Susa could take her share of shellfish home and keep them as pets.