When growing up in Kansas City, Kan., the home of barbecue, Carmela Countz often gave the ribs her mom put on her plate to the family dog.
"I never liked the taste of meat," said Countz, whose parents encouraged her to partake in the region's traditional fare.
As an adult, Countz began to eliminate meat from her diet, and found being a vegetarian and, ultimately, a vegan -- a person who eats no meat or meat byproducts -- more satisfying and healthier. The new diet was easier for the 5-foot-tall, 110-pound woman to maintain, and she felt better.
"I love the fact that I am doing something positive for the Earth and for our children," Countz said. "I want to leave something behind for the next generation. Every vegan can save more than 100 animals a year by not eating meat."
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The Hilton Head Island resident is a top 10 finalist in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' Sexiest Vegetarian Next Door contest. This is the fourth year she's entered the contest. Last year, she made the top five, but this year she's hoping to take home the grand prize of a trip to Hawaii.
"I figured, I'm sexy and I'm a vegetarian, so why not?," she said.
BECOMING A VEGETARIAN
Becoming a full-time vegan wasn't possible for Countz until about four years ago, after receiving a medical discharge from the Army. During her 10 years as a public affairs and human resources specialist in the U.S. Army, Countz found that MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) were not made for vegetarians or vegans, so she had to make some concessions.
"In the service, you ate what they gave you in the MREs when you were in the field," she said.
Countz slowly changed her diet on her way to becoming a vegetarian. She gave up all meat except chicken and fish.
"You will feel lighter, healthier and happier," she said.
Her next step was to eliminate chicken, then fish.
"Once you see the weight drop off and you feel better, you will want to do more," Countz said.
She also noticed that her new diet had a positive effect on her life with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease. The lupus causes rheumatoid arthritis in all of her joints.
She recommends others do research and eat a diet that suits them.
"In my case, it has made all the difference," she said.
The 45-year-old mother of three has influenced her 3-year-old grandson to become a vegan. Even her 5-year-old American Eskimo dogs, Drill and Sergeant, are vegans.
VEGAN FOOD CAN BE FUN
Becoming a vegan or vegetarian didn't mean Countz had to give up her mother's "old-school recipes," such as collard greens, cornbread and fried cabbage.
Countz modified her mom's foods and created a few, such as a vegan Lowcountry Boil that eliminates seafood, and consists of potatoes, corn, onion, seasonings, cherry tomatoes and broccoli.
"People think being a vegan is boring," Countz said. "No, it is not."
One of her favorite go-to foods is white or brown rice with sugar and butter with garlic bread. She also favors vegan grilled cheese sandwiches as well as veggie burgers seasoned with garlic pepper and onion powder.
Eating out is becoming easier for vegans and vegetarians, she said. Among her favorite restaurant foods is one area resort's portobello mushroom sandwiches served on a bun with tomatoes and provolone cheese.
"If you ate it with your eyes closed, you'd think you were eating a steak," she said.
PETA's website offers a vegetarian/vegan starter kit with a 14-day menu of healthy recipes. "It gives you someplace to start. Even if you mess up and eat a hamburger, don't beat yourself up, just start over tomorrow," Countz said.
Vegetarian and vegan diets are even more popular now for health reasons as well as for people who want to help animals, said Ashley Byrne, a PETA representative.
"It is so easy nowadays," Byrne said. "You now can find soy and almond milk on grocery store shelves, and veggie burgers and more are very accessible. Even fast food and chain restaurants have realized the demand for vegan food. Most now have at least one vegan option."
Countz said she doesn't miss meat.
"While I come from a family of meat eaters, they have accepted my diet," she said. "At family picnics now, everyone brings one vegetarian dish, including vegetarian ribs for me."