Children Of The Corn

Don't make the mistake of offering Jaclyn Stewart, 15, a pork chop. Or, for that matter, a hamburger. The New Jersey teen became a vegetarian 15 months ago. At first her dad treated it like simple rebelliousness. He gave a barbecue and made a point of having only ground round for the grill--not a soy patty in sight. Undeterred, Jaclyn ate buns filled with pickle slices instead. Her peers can relate. Chicagoan Gretchen Purser, 17, who gave up meat five years ago, suffers a brother who puts beef under her nose and says, "Eat! Eat!" And Chris Cullen, 14, an athletic 6-foot-1 soccer player from Ohio, indulged relatives by eating a sliver of turkey for Thanksgiving, and he . . . well, like, threw up.

Parents, be forewarned. If Big Macs and pepperoni pizza once defined the culinary side of teenage life in America, they are fast making room for tofu and eggplant. For the MTV set, vegetarianism is now mainstream. While no one knows the trend's actual size, a survey done this summer by Teenage Research Unlimited of Northbrook, Ill., found that $5 percent of the girls and 18 percent of the boys thought being veggie was "in." In another survey, $7 percent of teens said that they try to avoid red meat--that's 50 percent higher than people a generation older. Danny Seo, 18, founder of Earth 2000, a teens-only advocacy group, argues that the "defining focus" of his generation will be "no animal cruelty, no meat."

Concern for animals is the leading reason kids give up eating meat. As Troy Bast, 17, a swimmer from Pennsylvania, puts it, "It's not worth it to kill if you don't have to." Such compassion, while heartfelt, has not come about on its own. In the last decade, animal-rights groups have made teenagers a prime target. Last year alone, Animal earn made presentations on "alternative diets" to some 20,000 kids. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sends "Chris P. Carrot," the group's seven-foot-tall dancing mascot, to elementary schools to hand out buttons reading: EAT YOUR VEGGIES, NOT YOUR FRIENDS. Setting up booths at big rock concerts--like this year's Lollapalooza festival--PETA also shows stomach-turn-ing footage of the worst slaughterhouses. Amy Kennedy, 20, of Philadelphia, vividly recalls seeing its videos three years ago: "I knew instantly that I would never eat meat again."

Sara Gilbert, who plays the acid-tongued daughter on "Roseanne," often has her character lash out at "the meat-industrial complex." A real-life vegetarian, she knows such talk resonates with kids. Most veggies are indignant about factory-farming practices like debeaking chickens and clipping the tails off pigs. And they link eating meat with ecological destruction (another big teen concern). By listening to Gilbert or reading Vegetarian Times, they all seem to learn that cattle ranching in South America contributes to the destruction of the tropical rain forest. And it makes them mad.

The cause has also gotten a boost from its many celebrity followers. Vegetarians abound in the entertainment world and include such teen icons as Jennie Garth of "Beverly Hills, 90210" and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. Priyanka Jindal, 15, of Ocean Beach, N.J., says she looks up to these stars as role models. Her personal pantheon of great all-time veggies includes REM's lead guitarist Michael Stipe and--oh, yeah--Gandhi and Einstein, too.

Usually, moms and dads aren't too thrilled about their kids' vegetarianism--at least not at first. In July, Britain's Prince Harry, 10, announced he would no longer eat meat. Charles promptly ordered the palace chefs to prepare slabs of bacon for his son's breakfast plate. Of course, after years of reading about the dangers of red meat, the average American parent tends to be less resistant. Nevertheless, most worry about nutrition. Vegetarianism "scares the hell out of [them]," says Dr. David Herzog of Massachusetts General Hospital. But getting enough protein--usually parents' biggest fear--is not a problem. It is plentiful in the whole grains vegetarians are so fond of. Iron and zinc are a more serious consideration, however, since they are most concentrated in animal flesh (chart).

Most adolescent veggies have pretty much the same problems as their carnivorous peers: they like junk food. They tout such wholesome dishes as black beans and rice, but they often prefer to dine on french fries. "I probably eat more junk food than vegetables," admits Chris Cullen. High-school vegetarians, who complain about the limited options in their cafeterias, report that greasy cheese pizza and peanut-butter sandwiches (both high in fat as well as protein) are their staples. And then, of course, there is the all-important question of what to eat when hanging out. The vegetarian selection in restaurants is ample these days, observes dietitian Alicia Moag-Stahlberg of Northwestern University, but "not at the malls." And caramel corn and Cinnebons aren't exactly good for you.

Giving up meat can sometimes be a warning sign of something more serious, like an eating disorder. Experts say many young women who suffer from anorexia start out as vegetarians. "It can be a veiled way of dieting," says Ruth Striegel-Moore, a psychology professor at Wesleyan University. For anorectics, giving up meat is an inconspicuous, socially acceptable way to cut down on calories. Other, more destructive restrictions soon follow. That's what happened to Bonnie Sherman, a 20-year-old premed student at the University of pennsylvania. No one questioned her when she gave up meat at 15. By 17 she ate only raw carrots and had lost 40 pounds. Today, despite years of therapy, she eats mainly frozen yogurt and bagels.

Fortunately, most teen vegetarians face much more mundane problems-like fitting into the family's eating routine. Teens can be (surprise!) self-righteous. Whenever Jennifer Hahn, 14, passes the meat section of her Malibu grocery store, she turns to her mom and asks loudly: "Can we leave the graveyard?" Some parents cope by giving new responsibilities to their children. Tovah Walters-Gidseg, 14, of New Paltz, N.Y., now finds herself doing some of the cooking for the first time, and Jaclyn Stewart helps plan her own menus. Other parents just resign themselves to extra cooking because it is the only way to be sure their children eat decently. In the Ahkami household in southern California, mom Linda prepares two dinners most nights-one for her two vegetarian daughters, and another with meat for her husband. "It can be a nuisance," she admits.

After a time, some kids even succeed in making converts of their parents. Alice Easton, 8, became a vegetarian after seeing sheep, goats and chicken at a local farm. Her example led her mother, Wendy, to take her own no-meat pledge: "I thought 'maybe she's right'." Now the Eastons dine on grains and legumes--one more victory for Chris P. Carrot and his allies.

There's too much fat here, and even with the PB&J, there's not enough zinc, calcium or iron. Rice cakes are mostly air.

blueberry Pop-Tart glass of orange juice

peanut butter and jelly sandwich french fries can of Coca-Cola

Gardenburger with ketchup and mustard vegetarian baked beans

rice cakes low-fat frozen yogurt potato chips

Here's what a healthy 18-year-old strict vegetarian might eat in a day. Only $2 percent of the 2,260 calories come from fat.

orange bowl of oatmeal with soy milk slice of toast with jam

bowl of miso soup with tofu pita-bread sandwich with hummus, tomato and spinach glass of carrot juice dried figs

casserole of rice, beans, squash, onion and broccoli with safflower oil cooked kale

slice of watermelon strawberries handful of trail mix

Children Of The Corn | News