Supplanting what I thought I knew about plant-based diets
What happens when a meat-loving father has his diet (and his morality) questioned by his animal-loving daughter? He gets a quick lesson in veganism.
“There is one thing I would let myself have: gravy. I cannot abandon poutine; I’m sorry, I cannot do that.” These are the words of an evolving vegan. My 10-year-old daughter is abandoning meat. For the moment, she considers herself a pescatarian, although considering the devotion she demonstrates toward her five pet fish (in four separate tanks), I can’t imagine she’ll be able to stomach a plateful of wild salmon for much longer. At 10 years old, I quickly developed a taste for porterhouse; she, instead, developed a conscience. Her reasoning is similar to many who adopt vegetarian and vegan diets: a deep sympathy for animals who, even in the hands of the most well-intentioned hunter-gatherers, meet a frightful demise. For her, the issue is black and white—exactly what I see when drooling over a well-marbled New York strip fresh off the grill. “I just don’t like how it tastes, and I sort of feel bad for the animals. Imagine you were an animal and you couldn’t go live at all. It was just like, ‘I’m going to die, now.’” I can’t blame her. She takes after her father, an animal lover. Although, while her compassion has bloomed into a willingness to act, mine has remained medium-rare. Her diet exploration has forced me to examine my own eating habits. It has also triggered that bizarre phenomenon of suddenly feeling as though I am the last person being let in on a secret. It seems vegetarians and vegans are everywhere, and I was out in left field with the Herefords. My teenage neighbour Oliver considers himself a “strict vegetarian, mostly vegan.” He says he became a vegan “for environmental and political reasons. It’s basically a middle finger to the environmentally destructive farm factory system.” Gulp. I don’t feel necessarily targeted, although this weekend I think I will be burying my meat freezer under my garden shed to be accessed only through a secret door under the tomato vines. My tween little girl expressing a desire to restrict her diet triggered in me a sense of foreboding. I have written often on the topics of eating disorders, teen peer pressure, and body image issues. These challenges can be devastating, especially for young women. Was my daughter’s new regimen a red flag? Did I have the knowledge to be able to guide a 10-year-old and, given her level of devotion, eventually a teenager through the minefield of vegetarianism and veganism? I got some impartial advice for my budding vegan. Kim Arrey is an author and registered dietitian. She says there are plenty of resources available to parents and kids interested in exploring alternative food options. One author Arrey recommends is Vesanto Melina, who is the lead author of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position paper on vegetarian diets. Melina has written a variety of books, including Raising Vegetarian Children (McGraw-Hill Education, 2002). I have no trouble imagining my daughter sitting at the table—her spoon firmly entrenched in her homemade bean and apple salad—quoting to me the benefits of veganism, thanks to excerpts from the book I recommended to her. The hunter has become the hunted.
According to Arrey, the most obvious resource is “our much-maligned Canada Food Guide. If you go to the Canada Food Guide and look at the meat and alternatives … you can get portions of pulses and tofu and things you would need in a day, like a soy beverage.” She explained that a routine blood test and a visit with a dietitian can be helpful to understand what a person’s baseline is. She says this can be especially important for teenage girls who “can already be iron deficient because of menstrual losses. If they then go on a diet that already has less iron in it, they may become anemic quite quickly. So it’s good to know what your baseline is, and then we can adjust.” Not only can a dietitian provide impartial expertise to a family with a budding vegan—such as being sure your body is getting enough B12—but they can also help arm parents with proper materials to educate them, and—especially where this nervous father is concerned—calm them down.
Surely there must be some correlation between my girl’s performance on a soccer pitch and humans having learned that skill while chasing our first meals across a plain? What incentive is there to chase after algae? If she gives up hot dogs, will she also give up swim team and spend her afternoons photosynthesizing on a couch?
Pearle Nerenberg is an author and a sports dietitian. She routinely works with elite and sub-elite level athletes, dealing with the needs of performance enhancement. She says there is no reason veganism should detract from an athletic routine.
“There are quite a few vegan athletes,” says Nerenberg. “Some people see veganism as a label … to me it is not a label. There are just some foods you’re not including in your diet, and it’s not an issue if you eat all of the foods that contain nutrients for your body’s performance.”
She explains to her young athletes that there are three categories of foods: energy foods, muscle-building foods, and superfoods or magic foods.
“If you get all of those into your meals and snacks, you can balance out all the nutrients you need. Plants provide all of those just as much as meat does, just in different quantities and balances.”
When I asked Nerenberg what role I should play with regard to my daughter’s new conservationist lifestyle, this sports dietitian ironically answered, “Don’t run from it. Embrace food exploration. It will make her feel like what she’s doing is interesting to you.”
Isn’t that what I’ve always wanted, where my children are concerned? To encourage them to foster their own ideas, to explore their own convictions, and to embrace their individualism.
It seems I am getting my just desserts.
If exploring a vegetarian or vegan diet means spending more time with my little tween, what does it really matter if chickpeas are the new chicken? Outside that bowl of legumes, everything else is just gravy.
Men’s health across the life course
Theodore D. Cosco, PhD (Cantab) CPsychol