Transcript Staff Writer

"Dad, I'm going to be a vegetarian."

Naturally, I responded to my daughter as most parents would: "What?!"

No one on either side of her family is vegetarian, and this is Oklahoma, dang it, land of cattle ranches, thick steaks and barbecue. More than a month has passed since Taylor Tyree made her grand announcement a few weeks shy of her 12th birthday. Taylor is more firm than ever in her decision, and she is not alone.

According to 2000 U.S. census figures cited by the American Dietetic Association, about 2.5 percent of adults and 2 percent of children ages 6-17 are vegetarians, meaning they eat no meat whatsoever. Around .5 percent, or 1 in 200 kids, are vegans, meaning they eat neither meat nor animal products, notably eggs and dairy products.

It's one thing for adults to go veg, but can children and teenagers give up meat and stay healthy? Patrice Miller of Norman says absolutely. Her daughter, Laura, is an 18-year-old who became a vegetarian four years ago.

"I would say she eats much healthier than most teenagers," Patrice said. "I have a son who turned 20 and he's an alien to fruits and vegetables."

Karen Funderburg, chair of nutritional sciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, also said vegetarians can be healthy. But the more foods people shun, the tougher it can be to have a balanced diet.

"The most restrictive diet is the vegan," said Funderburg, an assistant professor and dietician. "If a child is a vegan, the nutrient issues they need to pay attention to include calcium, (vitamin) B12, D — some nutrients kids typically get from dairy. If they're not a vegan and they consume dairy and eggs, then it's the same as other kids and that's to say they need a balanced diet."

Funderburg has a daughter who spent four of her teen years as a vegetarian. It isn't something parents should argue about, she said, because it could only make the youth even more determined. The dietician/mother instead gave her daughter information about vegetarian diets and honored her decision when shopping and planning meals.

It's vital, Funderburg said, for a parent to learn the real reason why the son or daughter wants to stop eating meat and/or dairy products. Is it for genuine concern for animals, or is it to stay or get thin?

The diet reason can be deceptive, the dietician said, because lean meats often have fewer calories than grains and skim milk has far less than popular soft drinks. Parents also need to make sure the meat-free decision isn't a mask for a pre-existing eating disorder, and that kids aren't replacing protein-rich foods with junk food.

Susan Pacific, community dietician at Norman Regional Hospital, echoed those concerns. Children and teens, though, who participate in food selection and preparation are more likely to make healthy and balanced food choices, whether they are vegetarian or not.

"Try to instill knowledge they need for a balanced diet while they're young, so when they become teens and go out and eat — and they will — they can decide for themselves and make better choices," she said. "Have them in the kitchen with you and let them take part. If they never learn in the first place, how can they make good choices?"

Patrice Miller said she put some responsibility on her daughter by having her go to the Internet and find recipes she'd like to try. The family helps by buying alternatives like tofu and meat-free corn dogs, chicken nuggets and taco meat. Laura savored the waffles with peanut butter she had Thursday morning, adding "you can get protein in more foods than you'd think."

Because vegetarians and vegans limit some of their food choices, Laura would advise younger ones to expand their culinary horizons in other areas.

"Don't be afraid to try anything new," Laura said. "There are things out there that look weird or sound weird, but a lot of things are really good. Try everything and see what works for you."

Laura's friends are accepting of her choice, but she knows very few vegetarians. VegPAK (Parents and Kids), is a new subgroup of Vegetarians of Oklahoma (VegOK) that specifically brings together younger vegans and vegetarians and their parents.

Kids get to meet and socialize with fellow young vegetarians and vegans, while parents and other caretakers share ideas on how to deal with school menus, social situations, non-supporting relatives and other potentially tough situations.

VegPAK's next monthly meeting will be a back-to-school affair Aug. 28 at the Edmond home of Alissa Finley.

"They won't have to think, 'Is this vegetarian, is that a vegetarian,' because all the food is, and they can play and interact and have an outlet," Finley said of the kids.

"From what I've seen of how their parents handle it, it really varies," Finley said. "More often, (the youth tends) to stay alone in the matter. I've come across children who want to be vegetarian, but their parents are convinced they won't grow enough."

According to the American Dietetic Association's Web site, vegetarian children who eat eggs and dairy products "exhibit growth similar to that of their nonvegetarian peers." Vegan children "tend to be slightly smaller but within the normal ranges of standards for weight and height.

The ADA cautioned, though, that "poor growth in children has been seen primarily in those on very restrictive diets."

However, the ADA found the protein needs of vegan kids "are generally met when diets contain adequate energy and a variety of plant foods." Funderburg recommends an age-appropriate multivitamin to supplement nutrients, and for parents to make sure toddlers are getting the calories they need for their massive growth spurt.

No worries there for Taylor, considering she's 11 years old and 5-foot-3. She loves fruits and vegetables, and both of her parents are laying the law on her getting enough protein.

Now if something can be done about her new interest in Goth culture ?.

James S. Tyree 366-3539

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