Many of America’s media outlets have fallen over themselves in recent weeks in their haste to tell us vegetarianism is on the rise. In fact, many tout the recent nationwide survey of 1,258 children aged 8 to 18 that claims 3 percent never eat meat, poultry or seafood, which is up from 1.4 percent from a similar survey in 1995.
Trendy food writers and editors like to take such numbers as an indication of a national trend, and they incorporate those trends into their stories. But, really, a 1.6 percent increase in 15 years? At that rate America will be well into the next century before vegetarians would comprise a demographic worthy of being termed a minority.
Even if you view a doubling of young vegetarians in 15 years cause for concern, it’s important to note that…well, the survey wasn’t very scientific. And the numbers are not what a statistician would call reliable. That’s because the survey wasn’t a survey, it was one of those online polls conducted by a Baltimore-based organization called the Vegetarian Resource Group. So, in other words, this online poll of vegetarians by vegetarians found a whopping 1.6 percent increase in the practice of vegetarianism by young people.
Among adults, vegetarians number somewhere around three to four percent of America’s population, and those who support the practice say there are many health and environmental reasons, and even some religious reasons.
Adults who choose vegetarianism will get no grief from me. That’s certainly their choice. But, is it also a choice for children? And, more importantly, should vegetarianism be a choice for children?
I like science, and science-based arguments. Regarding vegetarianism, there’s plenty of research that confirms adults can get the nutrition they need without eating animal products – the key word being “can.” But, what about children? In this case, a science-based argument may not be relevant. For instance, Hemant Sharma, a pediatrician at Children’s National Medical Center told the Washington Post this week, “Vegetarian is not synonymous with ‘healthy;’ you have to be making good, healthy food choices and avoiding junk food.” He also said parents of young vegetarians often need to be extra-vigilant in monitoring their children’s diet. “It’s important to pay special attention and to plan different factors of a plant-based diet out carefully, to ensure that growing children get all of the nutrients they need.”
Sharma also says that typically the more strict a child is about being a vegetarian (i.e., the more foods avoided), the more oversight is needed. And, typically, getting enough food may be the biggest worry for young vegetarians.
“In plant-based diets, which tend to be very high in fiber, children often get a sense of fullness before they really ingest enough calories as they need, or eat enough food to provide adequate energy,” Sharma says.
In short, you can probably raise healthy kids on a vegetarian diet, but you’ll need to monitor that diet fairly close. But really, just what kind of advice is that for an American parent today? Don’t we have enough to monitor about children already without worrying that they’ve eaten enough tofu and beans to make up for that cheeseburger they avoid? Shouldn’t our focus be on school, good nutrition, and good character?
Children should make all the choices they are capable of making. It helps them become independent, and it often helps them learn that choices have consequences. But the consequences of poor nutrition choices during childhood are not always reversible. Unless you can devote the time and energy necessary to monitor your growing child’s diet, encouraging young vegetarians is unhealthy and unwise.
Commentary by Greg Henderson, Editor, Drovers/Cattlenetwork