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Vegetarian diet poses challenges for family, yields benefits

Eric and Chantal Kerr sit with their son Tyson at the table in their Grand Forks home. Chantal is a vegetarian and Eric is a traditional meat-eater, their son, Tyson, follows a vegetarian and dairy free diet. Dorothy Edwards / Grand Forks Herald

For a recent reunion of her husband's family, Chantal Kerr brought sloppy joes made without an ounce of ground beef to the potluck dinner. She's a devout vegetarian.

Her in-laws are not.

The meat-lovers at the gathering had no idea they were enjoying a meat substitute made of soy, she said. "No one knew. They ate it and said it was delicious. That was my victory."

At times, she's had to defend her food choices, notably with her father-in-law.

"I guarantee that if they had known, they would never have eaten it."

Her husband, Eric, is "a North Dakota farm kid," he said, who grew up in a family of meat-eaters who enjoy hunting and fishing. "The way we look at (diet) is totally different."

When they met, Chantal was a strict vegan who didn't consume any animal products such as eggs and dairy. She has adhered to a vegan or vegetarian diet for 13 years.

"Eric was a cook when we met," said Chantal, a native of Las Vegas where they met and married. "It was fun educating each other and learning how to cook for each other. He's a meat-eater to the core.

"I could have sworn I'd marry someone with the exact same passion as I have."

When they began to consider starting a family a few years ago, he convinced her to move to North Dakota.

"For a while, she was ready to pack up and go back to Vegas," Eric said, because of insufficient choice of appropriate foods. "But now, she loves it. A trip to the Farmers Market on Saturday morning makes her forget all about winter."

Finding vegetarian food products locally can be a challenge, but it is improving. "You have to test the waters to see what brands you like," she said.

Benefits for baby

For the sake of convenience,Chantal turned to a vegetarian diet during her pregnancy as a way to more easily receive needed protein from eggs and dairy products.

"Eric knew from the get-go that there was no way I would cave on our child being vegetarian," she said. "We have the occasional disagreements (about the diet). He wishes we could give Tyson certain things."

Eric said looking down the road he might want to share a T-bone steak with his son "but now, knowing the pros and cons, and seeing how healthy he is," he's retreated from that scenario.

"I kind of struggled with that for a little bit," he said. "It would be nice, when he's a teenager, to be out grilling a bunch of manly entrees or take him fishing and eat what we catch, but we probably won't be doing that -- unless we do a catch and release.

"I respect Chantal's ethics on treatment of animals. I like and love and respect her so much more because she has these convictions, and she sticks to them. That's one of the coolest things about her. And she does it in a small town."

Working out their divergent views "can be sort of a challenge, but we're still hitched; she still likes me. So far, so good."

Some people express concern about how her diet might affect Tyson's health, but Chantal and Eric's approach to food seems to be paying off.

Fourteen-month-old Tyson is "not chunky, he's solid," said his mother. "He's stronger than any other one-year-old I know.

"He's in the 99th percentile for height."

The baby eats no processed foods and no dairy, Eric said.

When he was two months old, Tyson exhibited signs of dairy allergies, so they stopped giving him those products. Instead, the family drinks soy, rice or almond milk.

'Biggest vegetarian baby'

"Tyson is the biggest vegetarian baby the doctor has ever seen," Eric said. He was born weighing 8 pounds, 9 ounces.

"He hasn't been sick. It's just amazing. He's big and strong and healthy. He's 30 pounds and 30 inches tall and looks like a 3-year-old. It's real cool to see."

The family diet consists mainly of fruits, grains, vegetables, beans and tofu, she said. They focus on natural, whole and nonprocessed foods, and less on meat substitutes, although she does cook meat for her husband.

"I try as hard as I can to eat like my wife," Eric said. "There are times when I'll have a hamburger, or whatever. Mostly, though, I just go with the flow."

Eating a vegetarian meal leaves one "feeling like you're a lot lighter, not as sluggish," he said. "You don't feel like you have a brick in your stomach, like you just ate Thanksgiving dinner and you feel like crap. You're more energized, alert, happy, healthy.

"You know what you ate; you know where it came from. It's night and day, absolutely."

Moral basis

While the health benefits are important, Chantal embraces the vegetarian lifestyle on moral grounds, she said. At age 11, she was influenced by an aunt who inspired her "to learn what treatment of animals is, compared to what it should be."

She plans to pass this viewpoint on to Tyson.

"I do want to teach my son that just because we can use animals this way (as food), doesn't mean that we should."

She also will not buy leather products, such as shoes, she said. "I have to look at that too. Why would you be wearing it if you're against eating it? It's hypocritical."

When Tyson gets older and begins to socialize more, like going to birthday parties, his parents are not terribly concerned about dietary issues.

"I don't think it'll be too hard," Chantal said. "I package things for him or call ahead to see what they're serving. I let parents know. I'm extremely clear on that, we don't expect people to know our diet when it's not their diet.

"I try to make Tyson's food similar to other people's, so it's not so different."

When he heads to school, will he be tempted to switch lunch with a classmate?

"If he wants Johnny's chicken nuggets, he probably will," Eric said. "That would be his choice. Even as a child, there's only so much we can do. We can't force this on him.

"A child doesn't care about being healthy -- the child just wants to have a good time."

Chantal said that, as long as her child knows the facts about where his food comes from -- that an animal had to die for it -- she's OK with whatever decision he makes when he's older.

"Right now, I think we have to make these choices for him."

Others' interest

As Tyson grows, "the main reaction we get is interest, like, how he's doing," she said. "People seem generally interested."

Although some wonder aloud if Tyson isn't going to miss out on typical childhood experiences -- like eating at McDonald's.

"Really, if those are the only experiences he misses out on, that's not a very big thing," Chantal said.

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