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Abilene Reporter-News story on vegetarianism

Following is the transcript from a story on vegetarianism that ran in the Abilene (TX) Reporter-News
Reprinted with permission from the author.

Vegetarians define their passion differently

By Brian Bethel
Reporter-News Staff Writer
Sunday, September 15, 2002

Here in the heart of beef country, Joy Hollowell is having none of it.

"I grew up on a farm, and I never really warmed to the idea of killing my animal friends and then eating them," said Hollowell, 61. "I've eaten meat in the past on occasion when I thought that it was socially required, but I don't feel that way anymore."

She is not alone.

For reasons ranging from health to religious devotion, more than 30 million Americans have explored vegetarianism, according to the American Dietetic Association. In doing so, vegetarians cite everything from worries about the treatment of domestic livestock to purely health-oriented reasons. Most vegetarians cite a mixture of ethical and health reasons for their decision.

Studies have shown that vegetarianism seems to offer some health benefits, including reduced risk for heart disease, though its practitioners also must ensure they get sufficient nutrients, especially proteins.

Dieticians at Abilene's two hospitals report local interest in vegetarianism is on the rise. Marcie Prachyl of Hendrick Health System said the trend is most noticeable among teen-age girls, though the demographics are growing.

"I was surprised by how many vegetarians we have just here at the hospital alone," said Jamie Richardson, a dietitian at Abilene Regional Medical Center. "It's a lifestyle choice that is definitely of interest to many."

A sticking point among vegetarians old and new might be what the word means. Some vegetarians eat eggs and cheese. Others eat one but not the other - or neither.

Labels aside, what matters most is that vegetarians have clear reasons for the choice and stay mindful of potential health risks, Richardson said.

"My position is that a vegetarian diet, when properly planned, can be healthful and nutritionally adequate," she said. "You need a solid understanding of the nutrients and vitamins your body needs to function. But with that kept in mind, it's a good, healthy choice for many people."

To your health

There is convincing evidence that vegetarianism can improve one's health. One of the largest research studies showed that if participants' diets were high in animal protein and contained fewer vegetables, there was a higher risk for heart disease and some cancers.

In another study, researchers concluded that substituting some soy protein for animal protein can significantly lower so-called "bad" cholesterol. Additional research found that soy fiber can help achieve a more consistent blood sugar level, which can help diabetics and those at risk for the disease.

Also, studies indicate that if women daily eat 1.5 ounces of soy foods such as tofu, they may experience fewer hot flashes during menopause. Similarly, women lowered their risk of breast cancer when they consumed 3-4 ounces of tofu or 8 ounces of soy milk each day.

"The health benefits are real," said Pamela Rice, author of 101 Reasons Why I'm a Vegetarian and director of the Vegetarian Center of New York City. "Once you start looking at how much of a difference a vegetarian lifestyle can make in overall health and quality of life, then it becomes an extremely attractive option. I know I'll never go back to eating meat."

Making the choice

The decision to become a vegetarian, followed closely by a decision regarding the level of commitment planned, is highly personal, Rice said. In her pamphlet describing her reasons for becoming a vegetarian, Rice cites concern about the mortality rates of fishermen (fishing is the world's most dangerous occupation, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) to worries about the ethical treatment of livestock to studies that diets high in fruits, vegetables, cereals and legumes help prevent cancer.

In addition to the health advantages, other considerations include concern for the environment, ecology and world hunger issues. Vegetarians also cite economic reasons, ethical considerations and religious beliefs as reasons for switching to a meatless diet, the ADA reports.

"The reasons to make the choice are so very different for each person," Rice said. "But each of them involves a level of commitment to a lifestyle choice that is still not quite as well understood as one would always hope."

Many make the initial promise to stop eating meat - and to do so for life - but fall by the wayside, she said.

"Realize that it's going to require some work on your part," she said. "It's easy to stray, especially given the pressure from so many others to eat meat. But I think if you approach this decision seriously and thoughtfully, then you'll never even really be tempted."

Hollowell was not thinking about health when she became a vegetarian. For her, the choice was mostly ethical. She finds eating animals distasteful, having grown up around and bonded with them.

"I didn't want to eat my friends," she said.

McMurry University art instructor Kathi Walker-Millar became a vegetarian because of health reasons, saying that meat made her feel lethargic.

"That's the main reason I stopped eating it," she said. "I just feel better, both about myself and health-wise."

Deciding to become a vegetarian is only half the battle. The most important step is deciding how far to take it.

Anyone who decides to eat no meat, eggs and cheese risks not getting the vitamins and minerals they need, said Prachyl, the Hendrick dietician. Those serious about the change should study before starting, she said. Get books, magazines and professional advice from a dietitian, she advised.

An increasing number of Web sites, books and other resources are available to help novices. Rice recommends that new vegetarians join or start a support group.

"All you have to do is go put a small notice on your grocery store's bulletin board, and I guarantee you'll get calls," she said.

Prachyl added: "You're thinking about making a change that will ideally last a lifetime. Just like any commitment, it's best to know what you're getting into."

Things are getting easier for prospective vegetarians. Consumer demand has resulted in increasing numbers of vegetarian options, the ADA reported. Most university food services and restaurants offer such choices.

Vegetarians agree that knowing nutrient sources is key. Rice said that with available food choices from veggie burgers to soy-based treats, no one should have to worry about getting proper nutrition.

"Labels are your friend, so read them," she said. "You really need to know what you're eating and what it's giving you - and not giving you - nutritionally."

For vegetarians who choose to eat eggs and cheese, the choices are even easier, said Richardson, the ARMC dietician.

"If you include those elements, your options explode," she said.

In New York, with more than 100 vegetarian restaurants at her disposal, Rice said she has it easy. In West Texas, Prachyl said, be prepared for a tougher time.

"You're not going to get as much help from, say, grocery stores, and there are going to be people who may look at you a bit curiously," she said. "That shouldn't stop you, though. It's certainly a healthy lifestyle if you pay attention to your nutrition."

Living the life

Vegetarianism is something its practitioners do every day, although after awhile it becomes something they do not think about, Hollowell said. She eats all kinds of vegetables, dairy products and cheese, while taking vitamin supplements to help maintain a nutritional balance.

"It just feels natural now," she said. "This is just the way I eat."

Millar said her family eats meat, but there are few problems from her decision not to indulge.

"The only problem is when they want to go out for barbecue," she said.

In addition to eggs and dairy products, her diet includes healthy amounts of beans and lentils to ensure her protein needs are met, supplemented by lots of whole wheat grains, fruits and vegetables.

"My energy levels are really so much better now," she said. "It's been one of the best decisions I've ever made."

It's not all easy, though. Hollowell concedes that "vegetarian" does not always mean healthy. Cheese enchiladas, grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries are some of her favorite foods.

"Not very healthy, I know, but they are good," she said.

Rice knows a few obese vegetarians.

"Just because you don't eat meat doesn't mean you get to stop making healthy choices," she said. "I started gaining weight when I first started out because I was eating the wrong things. But once I figured out what to eat and how to eat, it's made all the difference in the world in my life.

"It's become my mission and my passion to help others go along this same road. It's one of the best choices you'll ever make."

Contact wellness writer Brian Bethel at 676-6739 or

(c) 2002 by Brian Bethel.


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