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More Youths Say Bring On the Veggies

In response, schools offer non-meat alternatives as main course. Trend is strong enough for beef group to take action.

March 09, 2003|Martha Irvine | Associated Press Writer

Jessi Lehman may not know it, but she's the sort of girl who's stirring a battle between the beef industry and pro-vegetarian groups -- with each attempting to sway young people to its side of the table.

The teen from State College, Pa., grew up surrounded by farm country and in a family of meat-eaters. Yet at age 16, she's been a vegetarian for more than six years and says a growing number of her friends are following suit.

"In America, we eat so much more than we need," said Jessi, who talks about "sustainable agriculture" and "slaughterhouse conditions" as easily as most teens talk about their favorite music or TV show.

There are signs that young people are increasingly interested in eating vegetarian. Surveys show that more schools and universities offer non-meat alternatives as main courses. The Vegetarian Resource Group cites its veggie nutrition information for teens as the "top page" on its Web site.

And a recent survey of 12- to 19-year-olds done by Teenage Research Unlimited found that 20% of all respondents -- and 28% of girls -- said vegetarianism is "in."

That's one in five teens overall, but a spokesman at Teenage Research -- a suburban Chicago firm that tracks youth trends -- notes that the percentage is not particularly high when compared to other trends, such as using the Internet (92%) and downloading music (84%).

Still, the interest in going meatless is substantial enough that the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., a trade group for cattle ranchers, is taking action.

In December, the group posted a Web site titled "Cool-2B-Real" aimed at girls ages 8 to 12. With message boards, computer games, self-esteem tests and advice -- and recipes featuring various forms of beef -- the site encourages girls to be confident and active.

"We are out to promote that all foods fit into a healthy diet," said Mary K. Young, executive director of nutrition for the National Cattlemen, who remembers a time when eschewing meat was considered "fringe."

Young concedes that a vegetarian diet can be healthy. But too often, she says, it isn't. And overall -- whether girls are vegetarian or not -- she says federal statistics show that, after age 11, many girls' diets lack important nutrients found in beef and other food.

The data show that 60% of girls ages 12 to 19 are not consuming recommended levels of iron; nearly half don't get enough zinc, and a third don't eat foods that contain adequate levels of vitamin B-12.

Sylvia Rimm, a child psychologist who served as an advisor for the cattlemen's site, says there are also concerns that some girls use unhealthy eating tactics to lose weight.

"We need more industries out there to come out and say, 'Look, be real! Don't build your self-confidence based on peer pressure and your appearance,' " said Rimm, author of the "See Jane Win" series of books.

On the other side, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is stepping up its pro-vegetarian campaign. PETA officials say that next month in New York City, they'll circulate a bus covered in an ad featuring an obese child eating a burger and the slogan: "Feeding Kids Meat Is Child Abuse -- Fight the Fat."

The National Cattlemen call the ad, slated for circulation in other cities, irresponsible.

But PETA spokesman Bruce Friedrich believes that there are better sources of vitamins, iron and other minerals than meat. As PETA's director of vegan outreach, he goes as far as to recommend a vegan diet for adults and children: fruit, whole grains and vegetables, including legumes (beans, peas and lentils). That means no meat or fish and no dairy products, such as milk and cheese -- a recommendation that goes against federal food pyramid guidelines.

It's a difference of opinion that even shows itself in the school cafeteria.

"A lot of kids will criticize me for it. Or when they're eating meat, they show it to me and say 'Meeeeat, meeeeeat!' It's kind of annoying," said Grace Marston, an 11-year-old vegetarian from Silver Springs, Md.

Research on the subject is mixed, although many health experts, including researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, recommend eating more fish, beans and chicken as a source of protein than red meat.

In the end, though, some worry that -- in a nation with millions of overweight young people -- the overall message to eat healthy is getting lost in a polarized meat-versus vegetarian debate.

"What we need to do is teach kids, and their parents, how to eat healthier," said Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Medical Center in New York.

Whether they eat some lean red meat or not, Heller says that means eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and nuts -- and less junk food.

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