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(Chicago Tribune file photo)

(Chicago Tribune file photo)

By Maggie Harden, Vernon Hills

In the past, finding a high school student who was voluntarily vegetarian could have been an impossible task. Now, it seems there are adolescent vegetarians and vegans everywhere. Some students make the switch out of concern for animals’ rights, others do it to help the environment, while still others are just looking to eat healthier. No matter your reason, here are five things you should consider before cutting meat out of your diet.

1. The level of commitment you’re ready to make

Many variations of not eating meat fall under the vegetarian umbrella: there’s regular vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan and (believe it or not) many more. To help decide which level is best for you, consider the reasons why you’re looking to eliminate meat. If it’s for animal rights concerns, vegan might be the way to go. If you’re simply looking to eat fewer processed foods, vegetarian or pescatarian might be a better fit.Vernon Hills senior Carlos Marin decided to become a vegan after considering animal cruelty in the meat industry.

“I thought about how you see all these animal cruelty videos, and those hooked me the first few times I saw them, because it’s actually a big deal we don’t talk about,” Marin said. “So when I thought about going vegetarian, I decided to jump right into veganism and skip vegetarian altogether, because I thought if I was going to do it, I would do it 100 percent.”

The different classifications of eating a no-meat diet often require different levels of commitment, and some may be more expensive than others. It all depends on how far you’re willing to take it, so make sure you do your research before making the switch.

“The greatest advantage of going vegetarian is that a wholesome balanced vegetarian diet may reduce your risk for developing chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity,” said Marta Schechura, a registered dietitian. “In addition, a plant based diet is more environmentally friendly and promotes animal welfare.”

2. Cost

Many shy away from vegetarianism because they expect it to be expensive. While that can be true, especially because certain health foods like organic vegetables can come at a higher price tag, those products don’t necessarily reflect the price of all vegetarian foods. It all depends on what type of product you’re buying and how often.

“Eating a vegetarian diet can actually be more affordable,” Schechura said. “Meat can be a very expensive protein source, especially if you purchase high quality meat. My suggestion is to take advantage of the bulk section of grocery stores when purchasing vegetarian staples, such as whole grains, peas, lentils and beans. Another tip is to shop for produce at local and international or ethnic markets, which are many times less expensive.”

However, if you decide to go vegan, that may get more expensive because some foods will be using animal substitutes (which are manufactured at a higher cost).

“It’s true, most vegetarian or vegan meals may cost more than an average meat meal,” Phoenix Military Academy senior and vegetarian Anna Ochoa said. “However, the quality of vegan food is way better.”

You may also have to factor in the cost of certain vitamin or nutrient supplements, depending on the diet you switch to. However, the cost may balance out with the health benefits you’ll experience, so it’s all about weighing what’s most important.

3. Health

As with any lifestyle change, going vegetarian will affect how you feel physically. You may have to become more conscious about what you’re eating and checking food labels, but you will likely start feeling healthier overall as well.

“After I became a vegan, it did change how I was,” Marin said. “It changed how I looked; my parents, they saw me every day and told me, ‘you look different, you almost have a glow to you’ and I did lose a lot of weight, and overall I looked healthier. I loved it.”

While keeping a balanced diet is important, registered dietitian Amari Thomsen also argued it’s somewhat of a misconception that vegetarians have to work hard to make sure they’re getting all the same nutrients. Even with nutrients like vitamin B12, which are only found in animal products, vegetarians can make sure they’re stocking up on that through dairy products and eggs. However, vegans will likely have to take a supplement to make sure they’re getting enough B12 to help with red blood cell formation.

“When implemented correctly, a vegetarian diet rich with plant-based foods can provide a wide variety of vitamins and minerals,” Thomsen said. “Vegetarians generally have little concern for missing out on nutrients. I encourage individuals who are looking to transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet to focus on whole foods, like fruits, veggies, nuts or seeds and beans or lentils, and avoid vegetarian or vegan junk food, which offer little to no nutritional value.”

Eliminating meat can also protect vegetarians from high cholesterol, high blood pressure and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, according to Thomsen. It’s also worth noting that if you become vegetarian and switch back, you’ll have to slowly reintroduce meat into your diet so your body’s digestive system has time to adjust. While most people readjust naturally, it is possible others could experience some discomfort when starting to eat meat again.

4. Social effects

If you’re the first or only one in your family or group of friends to go vegetarian, that can make it more difficult. Going out to a restaurant with friends, or even family dinners, can suddenly become a stressful experience if you’re the only one not eating meat.

“Outside of home, my family eats meat on a normal basis,” Ochoa said. “At first, it was very frustrating for me to be out at large family events, because I ended up simply eating rice and beans. Coming from a Hispanic household, most, if not all, of the casual meals that we make contain meat. I recently started taking my own homemade meals to parties so I wouldn’t be left out hungry.”

However, one of the reasons friends or family members can be so quick to judge is because they may not understand the reasons you choose not to eat meat. But, if you come prepared with a defense ahead of time, it will be easier to derail any potentially unpleasant conversations.

“It’s important not to try and push your beliefs onto your family and friends at social events,” Thomsen said. “Don’t become preachy and argumentative. Instead, focus on how your nutrition choices make you feel and respond accordingly—for example, ‘I choose not to eat meat because I feel amazing without it.’ It’s tough to argue with personal choices that make others feel great.”

Going vegetarian doesn’t have to be a choice that separates you, either. Even if your family and friends still eat meat, you can still bring some delicious vegetarian foods to parties that will make not eating meat more of a communal experience.

“To survive parties where you may feel guilty declining the meat dishes offered, I suggest you wow your family by bringing a shareable hearty veggie entree along,” Schechura said. “Make it fun and delicious to give your friends and family the opportunity to try vegetarian cuisine and get a sense of your lifestyle. This is also a great way to ensure you have something to eat at a meal centered around turkey or ham.”

5. Convenience

Finally, people considering going vegetarian should consider the convenience factor. You may have to prepare meals ahead of time, or shop at a different, more vegetarian-friendly grocery store to get the food you need, which can take a little extra time. However, vegetarianism is much more accessible now than it was even just a few years ago.

“You can find vegetarian options almost anywhere today,” Thomsen said. “The increasing number of health-conscious individuals and vegetarian cultures has led restaurants and supermarkets to recognize the importance of catering to this population, and the number of vegetarian offerings are becoming more prevalent than they were in the past.”

Even if the thought of typical vegetarian food, like meat substitutes or tofu, sounds scary, finding edible alternatives for meat doesn’t have to be that big of a challenge. Marin’s vegan diet consists mainly of fruits and vegetables, and other products found at his local supermarket.

“My metabolism was super fast after I turned vegan, so normal days were full of fruits every hour, vegetables in order to slow down the digestive system, and then there’s a lot of fake stuff you can buy at Mariano’s or Trader Joe’s, like fake meats or fish-less filets,” Marin said. “They really stepped it up, because if you would’ve gone vegan five years ago, the meals would taste like cardboard. Now, they actually taste like meat and have that texture to it.”

Even if you eat at a restaurant, vegetarian options can usually be found all over the menu. Even if something isn’t listed as meatless, you can talk to your waiter and work together to find something you can eat

“With vegetarian diets growing more and more common, being vegetarian today is easier than ever,” Schechura said. “Especially here in Chicago, where there are a great number of vegetarian or vegan restaurants and veggie-friendly options on just about every restaurant menu. A lot of menu items can be made vegetarian, so if you don’t see something listed make sure to ask. Grocery stores are also supplying the growing demand of vegetarian options by expanding their products of vegetarian staples.”

Sample vegetarian meals:

Thomsen’s recommendations:

  • Breakfast
    • Oatmeal Bowl: oatmeal + nuts/seeds + dried fruit
    • Smoothie: frozen fruit + non-dairy milk + flax oil or avocado
  • Lunch
    • Salad: lettuce + beans + olive oil/vinegar dressing
    • Lentil Soup – veggies cooked in olive oil + lentils
  • Dinner
    • Taco Bowl – brown rice + black beans + veggies + avocado/guacamole
    • Quinoa Stir Fry – quinoa + veggies + sesame oil

Scechura’s recommendations:

Breakfast: Oatmeal made with milk topped with fruit and nut butter or scrambled eggs with spinach and whole grain toast and milk.

Lunch: Vegetarian black bean tacos with rice served on corn tortillas or a chickpea egg salad on whole grain bread.

Dinner: Tofu stir fried with colorful veggies served on a bed of brown rice or quinoa or whole grain pasta with a hearty, easy-to-make vegetable lentil bolognese sauce

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The Mash is the Chicago Tribune's newspaper and website written for teens, by teens. The paper is distributed for free every other Thursday at Chicago-area high schools and is written largely by high school students.

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