(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, April 4, 2001)

Having dealt with illness most of my life, I've always been aware of the importance of diet. Unfortunately, no matter what I tried to do for myself, as long as my family insisted on having all manner of "sinful" victuals in the house, it was impossible for me to maintain a really strict dietary regimen. Finally in the mid-1990s, Jim's diagnosis of diabetes helped me convince him that we both had to take control of our eating habits.

Besides limiting sugar, we lowered our fat intake, and we decided to eschew meat entirely. We still eat some dairy products, though we use nonfat and low-fat products whenever possible. At first we tried a variety of foods and recipes, searching for a program we enjoyed, and the diet did help us both lose some weight. But an even greater life change loomed as we prepared to sell our property in Georgia and move to Arizona. That's when we got lazy about the tedious work of preparing fresh fruits and vegetables--"live" plants, as I call them. At that point, we both found ourselves on a plateau, weight-wise.

The upshot of that experience could aptly be called the "lazy vegetarian" program. I wouldn't call it a "diet"--not because of any Richard Simmons-y attitude toward the "die" in "diet"--but it's not a regimen one should adhere to exclusively for very long. At least for us, during the summers (which are far too short in Georgia) we felt better and ate more fresh produce than in winter (again, too long--and for me, too hard--in Georgia). Our "escape" clause was that when we were completely settled into our new Arizona home, we'd start eating more "live" produce again.

After spending six months in a rental house during one of Arizona's "worst" winters, according to some natives, (but still a lot better than it was in Georgia) we did settle into our own home in Arizona City, complete with "dream" kitchen. The timing was perfect. As the weather continued to warm, we had no more excuses for not implementing a more well-rounded regimen of "live" fruits and veggies, along with an array of cooked meatless dishes.

Still, the experience gave us a nice range of products we continue to use, which you'll find listed in the "Tips" article below. I've also shared my favorite chili recipe in the next article, then finally, the secret to making the best grilled cheese sandwich in the universe! But first, I'd like to share a few points I've learned about vegetarianism.

When we launched this program, we were daunted by the difficulty of finding and preparing so much of our own food, but a little research revealed that most grocery chains today carry an extensive selection of organic and vegetarian products, including many healthful convenience foods. In addition, I developed several recipes that are easy to prepare and produce a lot of food which can be frozen for future meals. Two categories of those are soups and chilis, both of which can be made from scratch or by using prepared foods available at most supermarkets.

People who avoid meat but still eat eggs and milk products are called "lacto-ovo" vegetarians, while those who eschew all animal products are known as "vegans." By the way, the first-choice--and therefore considered proper--pronunciation of that second term is not "vee-gan," as some claim with noses in the air, but "vej-an," according to the "Random House Dictionary of the English Language," (Second Edition, Unabridged, 1987). It's like the difference between "to-may-to," "to-mah-to"; "po-tay-to," "po-tah-to." So feel free to pronounce it any way you like.

Obviously, vegans have to work harder to meet their nutritional needs, whereas lacto-ovo vegetarians get the necessary "complete" proteins from dairy products and fish, which many vegetarians also include in their diets. Both types use a variety of beans, mushrooms and soy products as a substitute for meat in most recipes, and the addition of grains, especially rice, to these dishes helps fill out protein requirements and adds a lot of other nutrients to the mix.

To those people who scoff at our decision to avoid meat, I invite them to try this simple test: Cook soup in two different pans, one with meat and the same recipe without any meat or grease at all. When the soups get really hot, let them simmer for a while, letting the scum form freely on the sides of the pans. After you eat the food (if you're a vegetarian, you can feed the meat dish to your carnivorous pets), run water into both pans, then take a paper towel and clean out the pans. What? Can't get the meat leavings off that pan without serious scrubbing? Now you understand why we avoid meat.

When food passes through your system, it actually gets "cooked" even more as your body uses chemicals and heat to extract nutrients and prepare the waste for disposal. (And that's as close to bathroom humor as we're going to get here. At least for today!) The same meat scum that sticks to the inside of the pan adheres to your body tissues as it passes through your system. But look how easily everything wipes off the pan that had no meat in it. That's how clean your insides could be if you fueled them only with products that contain no meat products.

While dairy products do contain animal proteins, I've found that they leave a cleaner, thinner residue than meat. We do plan to try a strictly vegan regimen sometime in the future, just to see how we feel with it. The majority of people who avoid meat have no problem with eggs and cheese, and especially the perennial "health" food, yogurt. And, of course, certain kinds of fish provide so many nutritional benefits with so few of the problems of other foods that nutritionists consider it to be superior to any type of meat.

To those who wonder, poultry is still meat. A woman I knew in Georgia insisted on calling chicken and turkey "vegetarian." However, these are only leaner meat products and, as I learned the hard way, still boast one of the negative properties of other meats. One evening we were at a meeting at her house when her husband pointed out a plate of what he called "vegetarian" sausages. After I'd eaten a couple of pieces, trying to be polite, he explained that they were actually made of turkey, and not the wonderful "faux" meat products of Morningstar Farms, Gardenburger, etc., that I'd thought they were. Worse, these turkey sausages were highly spiced and left a definite influence along the trail they had to take through my system, an experience I prefer not to describe here.

Trouble was, those few bites of turkey took more than three days to move completely through my system. The beauty of eating a completely vegetarian diet is that, even if you get hold of something volatile, like those spices, food moves through the system at a remarkably faster pace when there's no meat to slow down the process, because meat doesn't have the fiber that other foods do. And that, besides the fact that vegetarian food doesn't leave a trail inside your pipes, is the reason I prefer not to put any more meat into my innards.

Now that I've explained why the only carnivores in our house sport fur coats and tails for everyday wear, I feel compelled to include my usual disclaimer. With all the information I share on this subject, please be aware that I'm not a nutritionist. However, you can easily learn more about it from any doctor who keeps up on the latest data on nutrition and health, any chiropractor, at your local health food store, and on the internet.

Next comes our favorite chili recipe, as promised. And I also promise that it'll treat you better than those [not] "vegetarian" turkey sausages I had in Georgia.


Debbie Jordan