Vegetarianism is defined as the practice of not eating meat, but just ask any vegetarian and they will tell you that there is much more to it than that. Being a vegetarian is a state of mind and a lifestyle.
Teens become vegetarians for many different reasons. Some do it for their love of animals, some for health reasons, some to help the environment. For many, it is a combination of these things. Teen vegetarianism is on the rise; at any one time 3 percent of teens in the United States are vegetarians, reports the Vegetarian Resource Group, and many are finding it easy to live without eating meat.
Martha Pace, a junior at West Seneca East, has been a vegetarian for almost two years. She says that she finds it easy to be a vegetarian. "Even though I used to enjoy eating meat, I find it very fulfilling to know that I am saving animals' lives and I know that I can survive without eating meat." Martha gets a lot of support from her aunt, uncle and cousins who are vegetarians; they are the ones who really got her thinking about her decision to eat meat. Martha makes sure to get enough protein by eating a lot of soy products and meat substitutes. "I like chicken nuggets from Morning Star Farms, they taste like and have the same consistency as chicken. I eat them almost every night!" Martha finds that most restaurants are happy to make dishes without meat and she can often find more than just a good salad. Martha says she can't really imagine going back to eating meat.
Katie Mapley, 14, of Akron became a vegetarian fairly recently mainly because the thought of killing animals for meat disgusts her. She says that even though she sometimes finds it hard to find good vegetarian food on menus, she likes the feeling she gets from saving animals' lives. Her family is supportive, too. "My family is really cool about cooking a little extra for me and my sister, who became a vegetarian to support me." Katie defends her decision to those who doubt her choice by being informed and making sure that people know that she is in it for the right reasons. "A lot of my friends didn't believe me at first but now they're very supportive," she said.
Some teens become vegetarians because they are for animal rights or because they think that it is better for the environment. However, David Eddy, a senior at St. Joseph's Collegiate, says he has been a vegetarian his whole life because he just doesn't like meat. "I'm not the typical animal rights crazy vegetarian," says David. He stays healthy by getting nutrients from food groups other than meat. He makes sure to drink plenty of milk and eat a lot of vegetables. David's favorite vegetarian food is Mac and cheese and he says that he finds it easy to get food he likes. "I have no desire to eat meat," he said.
Matt Distasio, a sophomore at St. Joe's, said he became a vegetarian because he supports animal rights and wanted to be healthier. But now Matt is less about the animal rights and is enjoying the health benefits of being a vegetarian. Matt says he has lost 20 pounds in his year of being a vegetarian. "It was hard for me not to eat meat at first," he says, but he says he feels he will stick with it. He says his family is supportive and his mom makes special food for him.
Leah Wilson, a sixth-grader at William Street School in Lancaster, has been a vegetarian since the age of 5! "I kept asking what hot dogs were made of," says Leah. "My parents weren't sure, but they said it was made out of pigs. I could not take it; I had to stop eating meat!" Leah's mom helps her cook vegetarian meals, Leah says. Although it's hard to find food she can eat at school, restaurants are more open to vegetarians. "My family is very supportive and people at school are often surprised that I am a vegetarian," she says. Leah is very content being a vegetarian and hopes that it helps animals in one way or another. She plans to be a veterinarian when she grows up so she can help animals.
Emily Bolles, a freshman at Mount St. Mary Academy, has been a vegetarian for seven years now. Emily's family is very supportive. Her grandparents are vegetarians, and even though her parents aren't, they respect her beliefs. Emily is what many would call a strict vegetarian. In addition to not eating meat, she does not eat gelatin, which is made from animals. This means that Emily doesn't eat marshmallows, gummy worms, some mints, s'mores or Lucky Charms. Emily describes vegetarians as moral, independent and aware people. She says: "I respect people who eat meat the way I want to be respected for being a vegetarian," and she finds that most people don't mock her for being a vegetarian, especially since she has been one since she was 8 years old.
*HEALTHY EATING: Many parents and teens worry about staying healthy and getting enough protein, iron and vitamins. With the help of a vitamin supplement, teens can be healthy as long as they substitute healthy items, not junk food. For vegan teens who don't eat eggs or dairy, it is a little harder. Growing teens need calcium. Soy milk, calcium fortified orange juice, spinach, tofu and broccoli are all good sources of calcium. When it comes to iron, cream of wheat, dry cereal, hummus, lentils and wax beans are good. It is easier today to be a vegetarian than five years ago; with all the meat substitutes, almost everyone can find something they like.
*HEALTH/ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS: Health and environmental issues are not always at the top of the list as reasons for being vegetarian, but the benefits of not eating meat on a person's health are enormous. According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), vegetarians have a lower risk of getting some cancers, being obese and having heart disease. PETA notes the environmental benefits of being a vegetarian: for example, it takes 25 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of wheat, but 390 gallons to produce a pound of beef.
*FAMOUS VEGETARIANS: Stars such as Tobey Maguire, Kristen Bell, Alicia Silverstone, Joaquin Phoenix, Constance Marie, Alyssa Milano, Sir Paul McCartney, singer Common, Russell Simmons, Alec Baldwin and Clint Eastwood are all vegetarians.
*MORE INFORMATION: Many resources on being a vegetarian are out there. PETA has a few Web sites and magazines that can help inform someone on being a vegetarian. Cookbooks and online recipes are out there, too. They are not hard to find.
Carly Scherer is a junior at Mount St. Mary Academy. Alex Eadie of St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute contributed reporting to this article.