Vegan with a Vengeance

This strict form of vegetarianism is attracting young adherents.

By Jeff Grossman, published March 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Historically, vegans have been misunderstood or treated with suspicion because of their beliefs. Now, this strict form of vegetarianism is attracting young adherents.

The transformation goes like this: Teen learns about the animal-rights movement. Teen shuns meat. Family and friends scratch heads.

Although any vegetarian diet demands sacrifice, the small group of adolescents who opt to become vegan stand out for their commitment to principle, their political activism and their ability to withstand pressure from outside expectations. Because of the rigor of their beliefs, vegans have until recently been misunderstood or treated with suspicion.

Regular, or “ovo-lacto,” vegetarians don’t eat meat. But vegans don’t eat any sort of animal product, usually because of the way the animals are treated, even if the animals aren’t slaughtered. They don’t drink milk or eat eggs, honey or anything made with gelatin.

“When I was 10, I was a closeted vegetarian. I was so afraid to tell anyone,” says Patrick Kwan, 22, a vegan who lives in New York City. At school, other kids pelted him with meat when they discovered he wouldn’t touch it. “I used to run home from school crying and call PETA,” Kwan says, referring to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a national animal-rights organization.

Vegans are used to scorn and misunderstanding. In 1999, a student was suspended from a Salt Lake City–area high school for wearing a shirt that said “vegan” on the back. School administrators insisted that veganism was a gang-related activity. Now though, “Most people kind of understand,” Kwan says. Veganism and vegetarianism have become socially accepted as more people learn the health risks of eating too much meat, says Andrea Wegner, a clinical psychologist in Westport, Connecticut, who specializes in eating behavior.

About 2 percent of all Americans ages 6 to 17 are vegetarian, and 0.5 percent are vegan, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group.

Vegans can have trouble getting nutrients, especially vitamins D and B12 and iron, warns Johanna Dwyer, a nutrition scientist at the National Institute of Health. They should get professional nutritional guidance, she says, and make vitamin-fortified breakfast cereal a cornerstone of their diet.