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One of my son’s eighth-grade friends recently became a vegetarian. He joins the approximately 4 per cent of youths in America (up from 2 per cent 10 years ago) who have gone meatless. As much as my boys respect his choice and recognise his passion for the environment that spurred the decision, neither of them truly understands it.

Although my sons eat plenty of vegetables, their most requested dinners include sausage, pork or ground beef. In fact, their favourite meal is grilled tenderloin with bacon corn relish. We eat it with loads of green vegetables and rotate fish, chicken and quinoa on other nights. But I won’t lie: I make it a lot.

The boys asked how their friend could put on enough muscle, possess enough energy or be such a good athlete without meat? I told them that meat can be very good for growing boys and athletes, as its protein helps to build muscles, repair tissues, provide energy and balance mood — but it is by no means necessary. If he’s eating enough vegetarian sources of protein, iron and B vitamins, their friend will perform just as well. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ position on vegetarian diets is that “well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and for athletes”.

There are many athletes who have risen to the top ranks of their sports while being meat-free, including tennis legend Martina Navratilova, football hero Joe Namath, 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, Olympic track star Carl Lewis, baseball slugger Prince Fielder and tennis icon Venus Williams. In 2011, Venus was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that caused her to step off the court for a period. She attributes her strong return to tennis to her mostly vegan diet and better lifestyle choices such as rest days. Ricky Williams told Men’s Journal that going meat-free “changed my game, and it changed my body. I had tonnes of energy”.

There is no doubt that meat provides protein, but so do beans, eggs, nuts, yoghurt and even broccoli. The following non-meat foods contain plenty of protein:

n Nuts and seeds (four-ten grammes per one ounce serving): Walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, sunflower seeds, almond butter, hemp, chia and flax seeds.

n Beans and legumes (seven-ten grammes per half-cup): Black beans, white beans, lentils, chickpeas, hummus and green peas.

n Grains (five-eight grammes per cup): Quinoa, brown rice, oats, millet and barley.

n Soy (nine-16gm per cup): Tofu, edamame and tempeh.

n Fruits and veggies such as avocado (four grammes per cup), dark leafy greens (about 5gm per cup) and broccoli (4gm per cup).

n Dairy (milk, yoghurt, cheese) and eggs provide six-nine grammes of protein per serving.

n Here’s a surprise: Raw cacao nibs provide four grammes of protein (plus antioxidants, vitamins and minerals) per 1 ounce serving.

According to the Institute of Medicine, we should all consume between 10 per cent and 35 per cent of our daily calories from protein. This really is not that much and can be easily achieved with the non-meat foods listed above.

n Babies: Ten grammes a day.

n School-age children: 19-34gm a day.

n Teenage boys: 52gm a day.

n Teenage girls: 46gm a day.

n Adult men: 56gm a day.

n Adult women: 46gm a day (more if pregnant or breast-feeding).

There are many benefits to eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet including cost savings, loads of fibre (which aids in digestion), less saturated fat (good for the heart), and a wider variety of vitamins and minerals proven to reduce diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Just last month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a pilot programme to bring meatless Mondays to 15 public schools. His isn’t the first city to take this approach; Baltimore, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Sacramento and many other towns have launched similar programmes in an effort to reduce obesity and halt climate change.

De Blasio is onto something: People can reduce their carbon footprints by cutting back on meat just once a week. According to the United Nations, the meat industry generates nearly a fifth of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change worldwide. And approximately 1,800 to 2,500 gallons of water go into making a pound of beef, far surpassing the amount needed for vegetables and grains.

I don’t eat a lot of meat myself; in fact, my 13-year-old son loves to tease me for eating so many vegetables. If I say I’m hungry, he encourages me to roast the potted plant in our hallway. I am doing just fine, even though I eat more vegetarian proteins than “pig on pig,” and so will my son’s newly vegetarian friend.

— Washington Post

Casey Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based nutrition education company, and co-author of The Super Food Cards, a collection of healthful recipes and advice.