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"Would you like fries with that?"

This may be the question American teens hear most often, but a growing number of them are skipping the double burger altogether and opting for salads with their fries.All age groups are backing away from meat. But where adults often cut down on meat because of health concerns, teens often are motivated by different reasons, says Lorraine Asturino, president of the Pittsburgh Vegetarian Society.

Sally Clinton, founder of the Vegetarian Education Network and editor-publisher of "How On Earth!" a newsletter for and by teenage vegetarians, says concern for animals is the primary reason teens say they give up meat.

"It's really an issue that moves them," she says.

Other ethical concerns, Clinton says, including environmental and global issues, also mobilize teens.

By taking control of what they eat, Clinton believes, a young person feels empowered to make a difference in the world - often for the first time.

Some teens come from families whose religious beliefs (Seventh-Day Adventist, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist) embrace vegetarian diets.

Health, however, is toward the bottom of the list of reasons why teens don't eat meat, Clinton says. "They aren't too concerned about heart disease at that age."

Amy Cottrill, 15, a sophomore at Carrick High School in Pittsburgh, says she became a vegetarian five years ago "when I realized what I was eating was animals." She has since become active in animal-rights groups, even forming a club at school.

Jacob Zack, 16, has been a vegetarian for about six months and decided to give up meat after a talk with Cottrill, a classmate. Looking at a pamphlet with graphic photos of animals in a meat-processing facility persuaded him to take a stand, Zack says. So far he's been able to stick with it.

So what do teenage vegetarians eat? Things that begin with "p" seem to be favorites: pizza, pasta, peanut butter and potatoes. Although Zack likes pasta for dinner, he says he skips breakfast and lunch. "I don't care about my health," he says, admitting that he's lost 17 pounds since going vegetarian. "I just care about the animals."

All too frequently, nutritionists say, teens (vegetarian or not) are more interested in quickly filling their bellies than getting nutrients in their bodies. School lunches can be particularly challenging.

Many young vegetarians pack their lunches rather than deal with inadequate cafeteria choices. But Andrew Haridis, 15, a sophomore at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts in Pittsburgh, says he buys his lunch because he doesn't have time to make it. He prefers salads and yogurt but admits to the occasional lunch of chips, chocolate cakes and soda pop.

"I don't generally go down the junk-food path unless there's absolutely nothing else," he says.

"Health food" advocates and vegetarians have criticized school lunches for years, partly because, Clinton says, the same government agency (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) regulates the animal industry and the school lunch program. Reform has been slow, but there has been some movement in the past five years.

The biggest change occurred in 1990 with the introduction of the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, as well as recommendations for schools to decrease fat in lunches to no more than 30 percent. Now under consideration is a proposal to begin "nutrition-based menu planning" (or NBMP) for schools, rather than one based on food groups.

Ginny Diehl, director of food services in the Franklin Regional School District in Pittsburgh, says thousands of food service directors across the nation are evaluating NBMP.

Diehl balks at what she sees as the "trendiness" of teens - girls in particular - who become vegetarian while turning their noses up at alternate sources of protein, vitamins and minerals.

"Iceberg lettuce and carrots won't do it," says Diehl, "and you'll find most kids won't eat beans or tofu."

Like many health professionals, Diehl says a nutritionally sound vegetarian diet can be safe for teens as long as it doesn't eliminate essentials.

Adolescence is a time of rapid growth and change, says Dr. Reed Mangels, nutrition consultant for the Maryland-based Vegetarian Resource Group. She says teenage vegetarians should (and often do) pay attention to what they're missing, but Mangels is quick to add that all of these nutrients - with the exception of vitamin B12 - can be found in vegetable sources.

"The American diet is full of protein," Mangels says. Chances are good that if "always hungry" teens are eating beans, breads, cereals, nuts, peanut butter, eggs, milk and cheese - all easy sources of protein - they are getting enough.

Between the ages of 15 and 18, boys need 59 grams of protein a day, she says. But because they are consuming so many calories, they are bound to be getting their daily requirement of protein, even without meat, Mangels believes.

Because girls' growth peaks are earlier (and approximately 80 percent of teen vegetarians are female) they require just 44 grams of protein per day in the 15-18 age group. Girls, however, must watch their iron intake once they begin menstruation. Foods rich in iron include broccoli, spinach, raisins, strawberries, watermelon and chick peas.

Since vitamin C aids in the absorption of iron, Mangels recommends adding tomato or citrus juices to meals.

Vegetarian girls also must be careful to get adequate amounts of calcium, which helps build bones. Some juices and soy milks are fortified with calcium for non-milk drinkers.

Anita Koehler, a clinical dietitian at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, concurs. "Sometimes (teen-age) vegetarians have a better diet than those who are not."

The most recent guidelines from the American Dietetics Association, updated in 1994, say a "well-planned" vegetarian diet is healthy, Koehler says.