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When The Wall Street Journal put the word “vegetarian” in a headline (October 21, 2006), it was a sure sign that meat-free diets have gone mainstream. Nowadays, die-hard carnivores no longer ask, “What do you eat if you don’t eat meat?” but “When and why did you become a vegetarian?” And they’re listening more closely than ever to the answers.
The reasons for adopting a veg lifestyle are always extremely personal. An 8-year-old realizes the bacon on his plate comes from a pig like Babe. A lifelong meat-eater is told to bring his blood pressure down. A college freshman reads an article on the environment and worries about what raising livestock is doing to the world. A member of a meditation class at the gym becomes a Buddhist. The scenarios are endless—and equally fascinating.
And each decision brings on a wide variety of joys and demands. We took a peek into the lives of five vegetarians at different ages and stages (including a family spanning three generations) to learn the hows and whys behind their choices. We delved into the perks and pitfalls of being veg during each of their life phases so that they—and you—can be 100 percent sure of living the healthiest lifestyle on the globe.
all in the family
Often our diet choices are influenced by those around us. Here are three generations of vegetarians who inspire each other, and the ways they personally benefit from their decisions.
Scrub in stages
Meet Ethan Lake, age 11. A hard-playing goalie on his Salt Lake City lacrosse team, his top interests are science fiction, advanced math and … a meat-free meal plan? “It’s never been a big deal and I’ve never been teased about it,” says the sixth-grader, who’s been a vegetarian-almost-vegan his entire life. But what about parties or going to a friend’s house for dinner? “If there’s pizza, I peel off the pepperoni, and if there’s spaghetti and meatballs, I just eat the spaghetti,” he explains, summing it all up with an adamant “I don’t want to eat a dead animal—ever!”
easy weight maintenance
“A veg kid is probably less likely to be obese than his meat-eating counterparts,” says Nancy D. Berkoff, RD, food service advisor to the Vegetarian Resource Group in Baltimore. As a result, Ethan lowers his risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life.
poise and maturity
“Just by example, Ethan will be influencing his friends and essentially helping to sustain the planet,” says Berkoff.
Some studies say vegetarian children have a higher risk of anemia, a blood condition caused by lowered iron levels. Berkoff suggests adding iron-enriched foods to their diet like fortified cereals and breads, as well as a good source of vitamin C, which helps the body absorb iron.
“All kids have an increased need for B12, because they’re growing at a rapid rate,” says Berkoff. “Without animal sources of B12, vegetarian kids should consider supplementing with nutritional yeast. It’s great in smoothies or sprinkled over pasta.”
Put the freeze on energy drains
It’s not surprising Ethan has been a vegetarian his whole life, since his 39-year-old mother, Erica, went veg her senior year in high school, after reading Diet for a Small Planet. “I was struck by the environmental aspects,” she says. “It just seemed that if you can easily have a diet without meat, why not?”
Concerns for the environment weren’t her only reason. After Erica’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39, she started thinking seriously about her own health, which eventually led to a vegan diet. “It encompasses everything I believe in—compassion for all living beings and the environment,” she says. “Still, my main concern is health. I’m lucky that veganism fits in with that.”
Vegetarians eat more fruits and veggies, and get more of the anti-cancer or immune-boosting phytochemicals found in them, meaning they’re probably better protected against age-related diseases.
lowered heart risk
Adult vegetarians are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, because plant proteins lower cholesterol levels, while animal proteins raise them.
“What with juggling a family and a career, adult vegetarians need to plan meal choices,” says Berkoff. “Skip frozen dinners and do your homework about which stores and restaurants will meet your needs.”
Vegans like Erica are particularly at risk for deficiency since aging bones require more calcium to stay healthy. But a diet that includes calcium-rich soy products, beans and greens, plus a good source of vitamin D, should be enough.
the grandpa who gave it a try
Art Wimble, Erica’s 64-year-old dad and Ethan’s granddad, is not your average senior citizen. He lifts weights regularly, takes Spinning classes and only recently stopped running marathons because of his knees. His diet also changed because of a book: Mad Cowboy, the true-life tale of a cattle rancher turned animal rights activist and vegan.
“The book really hit home for me,” he says. “And Erica has been a vegan for years, so I thought I’d give it a try.” Art cut meat and poultry completely from his diet, and only eats dairy and fish occasionally. “My decision stems from not wanting to consume the chemicals, hormones and other things in meat. I mean, what the heck are all these animals eating before people eat them?”
Older adults become less active (even Art had to give up his running), making weight maintenance tricky when your appetite stays the same. Vegetarian diets help keep calories in check.
pain relief and longevity
More and more physicians recommend a meat-free diet to treat chronic diseases such as arthritis, high blood pressure and diabetes. “It’s not uncommon for baby boomers to become vegetarians or vegans these days, because they don’t want to end up like their parents,” says Berkoff.
Omega-3 fatty acids keep skin supple and prevent disease, so older vegetarians need them more than ever. Getting enough is as easy as eating a handful of
with each meal or taking a flaxseed oil supplement.
making a lasting change
Going veg later in life means altering habits that can be hard to break. “It’s important to use substitutions that provide nutrients without extra calories,” says Berkoff.
fresh starts and new horizons
Then there are the vegetarians whose change of heart comes from a change of life. Two tell their stories.
the conscientious college student
Marie Simpson, 19, always hated the idea of eating animals, so as soon as she left home for Auburn University she took charge of her own meals. “I quit cold turkey,” she laughs. The only difficult part of the switch was finding healthy food while living in a dorm, so she spent her first year eating vegetarian pizza and microwaved quesadillas.
As a sophomore now, Marie lives in an apartment where she can finally make her own meals—with fresh vegetables and whole grains. “It’s funny,” she says, “because my parents think this is just a phase I’m going through, but I think the next step is that someday I’ll become a vegan.”
“Vegetarian choices in college can be more economical, especially when you’re cooking for yourself, because rice and beans cost a lot less than meat,” says Berkoff.
reduce risk of foodborne illness
Vegetarians automatically eliminate the worst food-poisoning offenders from their diet—meat, chicken, pork and fish—limiting exposure to tummy-troubling ailments.
“The main challenge is college food,” Berkoff says. Snacks like
, or bagged
and fruits that don’t spoil easily (like apples), can set the stage for a healthy experience.
new life, new lifestyle
Cathe Olson, 44, was already a vegetarian during her first pregnancy—just not a very good one. She hadn’t done her nutritional homework and admits her diet wasn’t exactly healthy. “I was tired all the time and never felt very well,” she says. But backtracking to a meat-eating lifestyle wasn’t an option. “So when I got pregnant the second time, I started doing a lot of reading about my needs,” Cathe says. “I had a great second pregnancy, and I attribute almost all of it to the diet change.”
lowered fetal risks
Pregnant vegetarians avoid hormones in meats and mercury in fish, which means they’re not passing them on to the fetus, says Berkoff. Vegans, as well as people who choose organic dairy, also eliminate potential hormones from milk products.
vitamin and mineral deficiencies
Pregnant vegetarians should skip chip and pickle cravings, and instead turn to nutrient-dense foods like leafy, green vegetables that are high in iron and folic acid, plus calcium-rich foods like yogurt, tofu or—yes—ice cream.