Sam Silverman is co-captain of his high school football team — a safety accustomed to bruising collisions. But that’s nothing compared with the abuse he gets for being a vegetarian.
“I get a lot of flak for it in the locker room,” said the 16-year-old junior at Westborough High School in Massachusetts.
“All the time, my friends try to get me to eat meat and tell me how good it tastes and how much bigger I would be,” said Silverman, who is 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds. “But for me, there’s no real temptation.”
Silverman may feel like a vegetable vendor at a butchers’ convention, but about 367,000 other kids are in the same boat, according to a recent study that provides the government’s first estimate of how many children avoid meat. That’s about 1 in 200.
Other surveys suggest the rate could be four to six times that among older teens who have more control over what they eat than young children do.
Vegetarian diets exclude meat, but the name is sometimes loosely worn. Some self-described vegetarians eat fish or poultry on occasion, while others — called vegans — cut out animal products of any kind, including eggs and dairy products.
Anecdotally, adolescent vegetarianism seems to be rising, thanks in part to YouTube animal slaughter videos that shock the developing sensibilities of many U.S. children. But there isn’t enough long-term data to prove that, according to government researchers.
The new estimate of young vegetarians comes from a recent federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of alternative medicine based on a survey of thousands of Americans in 2007. Information on children’s diet habits was gleaned from about 9,000 parents and other adults speaking on the behalf of those under 18.
Vegetarians say it’s animal welfare, not health, that most often causes kids to stop eating meat.
“Compassion for animals is the major, major reason,” said Richard Schwartz, president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, an organization with a newsletter mailing list of about 800. “When kids find out the things they are eating are living animals — and if they have a pet ... .”
Case in point is Nicole Nightingale, 14, of Safety Harbor, Fla. In 2007, Nightingale was on the Internet to read about chicken when she came across a video on YouTube that showed the birds being slaughtered. At the end, viewers were invited to go to the Web site peta.org — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Nicole told her parents she was going vegan, prompting her mother to send an angry letter to PETA. But the vegan diet is working out, and now her mother is taking steps to become a vegetarian, too, said Nightingale, an eighth-grader.
She believes her experience was typical for a pre-adolescent vegetarian.
“A lot more kids are using the Internet. They’re curious about stuff and trying to become independent and they’re trying to find out who they are,” she said.