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Teen's love for animals prompted her to turn vegan

March 21, 2007

Two years ago 16-year-old Erica Bergstrom decided to just say no to Big Macs, pepperoni pizzas, and sub sandwiches piled high with meats and cheeses.

Because of her love for animals, she joined a small but growing number of young people who are becoming vegetarians.

In fact, when she became a vegan last December, Erica joined an even more exclusive sub-set of vegetarians who nix dairy products and eggs, as well as meat, from their diets.

"At first I was just thinking that I like animals and I didn't want to eat them," says Erica, a junior at Fremd High School in Palatine. "When I learned more about how animals are treated at farms and in factories, I really didn't like how that sounded, the animal cruelty that was going on.

"I didn't want to be part of it."

BOB CHWEDYK/ [email protected]
Erica Bergstrom stirs together soy flour, flax seed, fake eggs and dairy-less chocolate chips to create cookies, below, that fit her vegan lifestyle.

Initially Erica ate family meals minus the meat, adding something extra like a frozen vegetarian dish or fresh fruit. But about a year ago, with almost no previous experience, she started to cook for herself and now prepares her meals four days a week.

She gathers ideas from cookbooks, but often just wings it.

"It doesn't have to be exact," she says. "You can mix a bunch of random things together."

Instead of typical teenage fare, Erica prepares vegetarian stir-fries, soups and wraps. She makes her own granola with oats, almonds and sunflower seeds and occasionally develops desserts made with olive oil instead of butter and tofu instead of milk.

Recently she created a frozen pie with a crust made of crushed, whole-grain cereal, brown sugar and oil. The filling was a blend of pureed silken tofu with dairy-free chocolate chips and raspberry jam.

Erica may be one of a minority, but she is far from alone. According to a 2005 national poll by Vegetarian Resource Group, 2 percent to 3 percent of young people ages 8 to 18 are vegetarian. That's 1.4 million people. The number is even more dramatic among 13- to 15-year-old girls with 11 percent claiming they never eat meat.

Like many parents of vegetarians, Erica's mother, Lynn, worried about her daughter getting enough protein.

"When I saw her eating nuts and drinking soy milk, I felt better," she says. Erica also includes tofu, hummus and textured vegetable protein in her diet, three more good sources of protein.

Now Lynn is just happy that her daughter is eating a healthy diet and that she is learning to cook.

For breakfast Erica might prepare a wrap with hummus, lettuce or spinach and mock chicken made of textured vegetable protein. For lunch she might eat a sandwich of hummus, soy cheese, green peppers and tomatoes. Dinner might be a stir-fry like the recipe she shares today or a prepared veggie burger.

"I never crave meat," she says, "but sometimes cake or ice cream might look good."

When she wants something sweet, Erica eats lightly sweetened, whole-grain cereals with soy milk, or she might make a batch of her favorite vegan cookies prepared with whole grain cereal, peanut butter, apple sauce and cinnamon, a favorite spice.

Though Erica knows it is unusual for a teenager to be vegetarian and cook her own meals, some of her friends are vegetarian too, "so it is pretty normal to a lot of them.

"They don't think it's weird."

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