Vegetarian Action

Troubled Teens Turn Vegan

By Sarah Mugford

Can boys from the streets begin to turn their lives around with a vegan diet and a strong supporter who not only teaches them good nutrition, but how to prepare food? Antonia Demas, PhD, has a theory that by teaching at-risk students and having them cook their own vegan meals, they will improve their health by lowering their risk for heart disease, while increasing their energy and overall well-being. Her hypothesis was that there would be noticeable improvement in health, behavior, and attention to schoolwork.

The project was implemented at Miami's Bay Point South campus, a residential alternative high school, to which many of the students were sent by the courts. They were challenged by Demas to be vegan for a month in order to monitor their bodily and behavioral changes.

The beginning step in this project was to get the adolescents motivated so that they would be able to keep a vegan diet for the full month. In order to do this, Demas made the challenge into an educational effort by teaching them about foods that promote health and making sure that they were comfortable using the foods and considering their nutritional values. To complement the teaching aspect, the adolescents went on field trips to an organic farm, a fruit and spice park, and a health food store.

The effects of their new nutrition and health education were evident in their menus. The teens created and cooked their own vegan meals, which included various pasta dishes with vegetables, salad, fruit, nuts, stir-fries, tofu lasagna, soups, Mexican cuisine, and meals using soy burgers. Surprisingly, the kitchen supervisors noticed that the average price of the new meals was about a third of the cost of the meals in their previous menus.

While the teens were busy making their meals, the Miami Children's Hospital donated medical tests in order to measure their blood levels of lipids and homocysteine. Lipids include substances like cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL-cholesterol. Homocysteine is an amino acid derived from proteins in the diet. An excess of lipids or homocystines in the body can contribute to the development of heart disease. Demas hypothesized that by changing to a vegan, instead of a vegetarian, diet, the teens would show more apparent results that could be more readily associated with their nutritional changes.

The students have brought to the attention of Dr. Demas many of their improvements, such as better athletic endurance and higher grade point averages, but the test results are not back yet. This study was a pilot and there was no control group, but there are plans for expansion next year depending on available funding sources. Also next year, a cookbook that Dr. Demas is compiling will be available with many of the recipes that the teens created at Bay Point South.

Because of Dr. Demas, many will be watching and hoping that these teens continue not only a vegan diet, but also improving their physical and mental well-being.

For more information, contact Antonia Demas, PhD, at 60 Cayuga Street, Trumansburg, NY 14886, or write to her at <antoniad@yahoo.com>.

Note: We followed up with Dr. Demas and, aside from the promising and quite dramatic results, the culinary school Johnson and Wales has set aside 25 full scholarships for the students in the program, pending completion of their GEDs. Congratulations to the young men in this study and to Dr. Demas for her hard work and enthusiasm.