This opinion piece was first published on Mamamia on 26 January 2018.
Today, my teen daughter is veggie, and things have changed. She bought a T-shirt recently that says, ‘Eat beans not beasts’ and wears it proudly. She’s part of a growing number of teens in Australia and around the world who are choosing a veg*an diet.*
Our world is changing, slowly progressing forward. Ideas that seemed fringe in the past are becoming the new norm and our young generation (hallelujah!) is leading the way.
And even though us grown-ups are making unprecedented dietary changes with veg*an diets booming, it is particularly teens and millennials who are ditching the bacon to become the fastest growing adopters, far surpassing us oldies**.
Why do teens care?
As the ‘veil of secrecy’ on factory farming is lifting through more and more exposés, articles, documentaries and undercover footage, youth are finally seeing what happens to animals in piggeries, broiler sheds and more. And they’re horrified.
We all know kids have a natural connection to animals and our society encourages it through picture books, TV and films that anthropomorphise animals. Many are then shocked to discover the farm animal they’ve grown to love in their bedside story suddenly crumbed on their dinner plate. We tell them animals are food and only sometime-friends. We’ve all seen the viral videos of kids crying because they don’t want to eat their favourite creature. We want to protect them and help them compartmentalise.
Teens are creating their own support networks
When kids come to us, adults, to share their feelings about not eating animal products, we often respond with genuine fear and concern about how to find equivalent plant-based sources of protein, iron, and calcium. This, by the way, is one hundred percent understandable, and parents must be super careful and seek expert advice when taking any food out of a child’s diet.
But we also react to our children with a defensive attitude, one that is so powerful and unbending, it’s been studied and coined ‘Carnism’ by psychologist Dr Melanie Joy. It’s the dominant belief system that eating meat is normal, natural and necessary.
So aspiring veg*an teens have stopped waiting. They've given up on us worried time-poor adults, often suffering from what's now known as 'compassion fatigue' and too habituated to our supermarket aisles and products to change our family menus.
Today, thanks to social media, they are circumventing their family and forming networks of their own. There are city-based meet-ups and support groups that help young veg*ans discuss the sensitive social issues that can arise with school friends and family.
Search on YouTube and you'll discover thousands of vlogs and videos - all made for and by veg*an teens and spanning the entire globe. Together they draw millions of young followers and subscribers.
Like 16-year-old Aussie, Avalon, with 12,000 Instagram followers who's written an e-book 'The Modern Day Guide for Going Vegan at a Young Age'. Or 17-year-old Anna who runs a successful global blog, Vegan Teens, YouTubers Nina and Randa who attract 600,000 subscribers with their vegan tips, or 16-year-old Jose who has half a million followers obsessed with his vegan desserts.
How can parents help?
Being veg*an today is way more common (and cool) than when I was a teen, but it is still a small minority and possible cause for social isolation, unhealthy eating and emotional hardship.
If your child, grandchild, niece or nephew has gone veg, rather than trying to protect them, I encourage you to explore the many tools available to help support them in the process. A mountain of resources are helping parents keep their teen veg*ans nutritionally balanced and feeling secure and happy. The market has become so big, even publishers are selling cookbooks for the audience, like 'Easy Vegan Meals for Teens'.
Try joining your teen by choosing healthy plant-based alternatives, or begin the journey by cutting back and becoming a 'reducetarian', another new growing trend.
Animals are voiceless and their only hope is with a new generation that will vote with their mouths and send inhumane industries into the dustpan of history. Our youth can and will change our world for the better. Let's help them get there.
*veg*anism (with an asterix) covers the spectrum between vegetarianism and veganism as there are many shades of grey and it's often a process that can take months or years with back and forth movements along the way (and I'm no exception!).
** The USA has seen a 600% increase in vegans in the last three years and 350% in the UK in the last decade. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of Aussie veg*ans has grown from 1.7 million (9.7% of the population) to almost 2.1 million (11.2%).