MAGAZINE: It’s Not Easy Eating Green

From The Bark magazine, Fall 2011 What do Glee star Lea Michelle, former Beatle Paul McCartney, singer Jack Johnson, and Bearden junior Tabitha Colter have in common? They are all vegetarians. In recent years, vegetarianism seems to have taken center stage in the dieting world as both a healthy and environmentally sustainable lifestyle. Teens nationwide have considered becoming vegetarian, removing meat from their diets, or even becoming a vegan, removing all meat, dairy, and honey products from their diet. Many Bearden students, too, have investigated the vegetarian lifestyle and whether or not it’s right for them. 2008 documentary Food, Inc. revealed that the average American consumes around 200 pounds of meat annually. Yet, according to, the U.S. is home to over one million vegetarian adolescents. What has motivated this million to make the change? Vegetarians make their case with two major arguments. Colter, a lifelong vegetarian, says her parents raised her accordingly with these concerns in mind. “Part of it was the animals, and part of it was health,” Colter says. Studies have linked meat and dairy consumption to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, cancer, and high blood pressure. A diet free of these food groups is lower in saturated fats and trans fats, and can sometimes be a contributing factor to weight loss. Although he is not a vegetarian himself, junior Ethan Pollack agrees that a vegetarian lifestyle may help to shed some pounds. “If you are trying to lose weight, being a vegetarian is a great idea because it removes the fatty meats from your diet,” Pollack says. Another primary motivation for vegetarians is the environment. As Colter says, animal cruelty is among these concerns. Various investigations have revealed unjust treatment of livestock in factory farms. Supporters of meat-free diets also allege that slaughterhouses and the meat production process are responsible for tremendous amounts of pollution. Water infected with animal waste and increased emission of greenhouse gases are the results. “I don’t think it’s wrong to eat meat,” says senior Sydney Wilcox, a vegetarian of 2 years. “I think it’s wrong the way they go about it.” Another protest of human herbivores is that raising and feeding livestock is an inefficient use of resources. According to PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, production of one regular portion of meat requires the equivalence of 55 square feet of rainforest. Because South America has lost millions of acres of woodland to livestock farming, deforestation and habitat destruction are additional risks in the meat industry. PETA and other proponents of vegetarianism argue that the 80% of agricultural land used each year in raising and feeding livestock could more effectively be used to feed those with plant-based diets. Those against vegetarianism, however, also have substantial support for their position. Vegetarianism, they argue, is both impractical and unhealthy in a nutritional sense. Junior Eric Alley tried vegetarianism for five months before deciding it didn’t suit him. “I felt like I was lacking in energy, and it was really inconvenient,” Alley says. Nutritional deficiencies are one risk associated with a vegetarian diet, especially for teens. Vegetarians and vegans sometimes have trouble consuming adequate amounts of iron, zinc, protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, and Vitamins D and B12. The limitations of a vegetarian diet are also alleged to increase the risk of eating disorders, like anorexia, in adolescents. “If a person just eliminates meat, eggs, and dairy and eats a lot of highly processed, low nutrient foods it would not be a good choice,” nutrition specialist Laurie Plachinski says. “Like any other meal plan, particular food choices determine if a diet is healthy.” An additional challenge for vegans and vegetarians is maintaining a limited meal plan in a world of restaurants that caters primarily to a meat-eating crowd. Appropriate selections are particularly difficult in the fast food industry, though many corporations have made changes in recent years to accommodate a new breed of customers. Salads and substitutions are now an option on menus of common eateries like Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Burger King. In general, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike agree that choosing a suitable diet is a personal decision. “I wouldn’t force it on anyone,” Wilcox says. “It was a choice for me.” For those thinking about beginning a vegetarian lifestyle, keep in mind that meat-free choices are not all healthy. Plachinski stresses the importance of a “well-planned” diet for vegetarians. “Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables with a rainbow of colors,” Plachinski says. “Focus on whole grains instead of refined. “Be sure that you are getting enough protein from plant-based foods, including beans and peas.” Nut and soy products are often a staple in vegetarian and vegan diets. Meat substitutions are also popular. “There’s a lot of fake meat out there, like veggie burgers,” Colter says. “They’re all really good.” Knoxville offers a wide variety of restaurants with vegetarian choices. Chains like Tropical Smoothie, Panera Bread, and Jason’s Deli host menus largely including plant-based entrees. Market Square and the downtown area is a haven for vegans and vegetarians. Tomato Head, for example, serves several tofu dishes and even homemade vegan chocolate chip cookies. Cafe 4 gives the option of fried green beans or a tomato and avocado grilled cheese. While for some it has its advantages, vegetarianism is not something for everyone. For some, a meat-free diet seems do-able and beneficial for both themselves and the environment. For others, sacrificing the morning Chick-fil-a chicken biscuits and the occasional Buddy’s Bar-B-Q sandwich simply isn’t worth it. “It wasn’t right for me,” Alley says. “I was 15, still growing, and I needed protein. “I love animals, but they taste good.” Rachel Riley is the news editor for The Bark. Follow The Bark on Twitter @BeardenBARK, and like The Bark (Bearden High School) on Facebook.