GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - Joni Karp remembers the teasing.
"Want a hotdog?" "Let's have a barbecue!" "You can't eat that?!?"
A vegetarian for 35 years and a vegan for 19 years, Karp has long kept a plant-based diet devoid of animal products, and folks haven't always accepted her meal choices. That said, she's seen a growing acceptance of her diet over the years, and increasing options when she dines out.
"Now more people are curious, not teasing," she said. "I don't feel so different from everybody else anymore."
People taste Karp's homemade vegan recipes, and they say things like, "I can do this!" or "You'd never know that wasn't made with dairy!"
And there's more vegan and vegetarian dishes at restaurants throughout the Grand Valley, a classic meat-and-potatoes region.
"Now if you order something vegan, staff at local restaurants seem to know what that is and they'll work with you," Karp said.
Karp, 49, is part of a growing demographic of Grand Valley residents who maintain vegan or vegetarian diets for both health reasons and a compassionate belief that animals shouldn't be harmed so people can eat.
Marian Dorn, a Grand Junction resident and practicing vegan since 1990, is also the organizer of the Grand Junction branch of Vegan Life Colorado, a statewide educational nonprofit. She said she plans monthly vegan potlucks through Meetup.com to promote fellowship between like-minded individuals.
"We've only had our Meetup page up since December (2012), and we already have 32 members," Dorn said. "It's a really good thing to have other people to eat with who have similar dietary choices."
Though there are challenges to keeping a strict vegan diet - like being able to eat at certain places or purchasing clothing without animal products, like leather and wool - Dorn said she's happy every day because of her choices.
"I benefit from being vegan in my heart because of love," she said. "I'm happy to have compassionate choices available."
Dorn strongly believes that "nothing should die that I may live," and she said cruelty to animals is common throughout all aspects of food production, whether that's dairy, eggs or meat.
"That's not OK with me," she said.
Wanting a healthier body influences folks to change their diets, too.
Orchard Mesa resident Joseph Hayes first went vegetarian and then vegan to optimize his health, and he said he's seen amazing results.
"About 15 years ago, I was going through a hard time," he said. "I was overweight, sluggish and tired."
Tests at an annual doctors exam revealed high cholesterol and blood pressure as well.
"Changing my diet was an experiment," he said. "I could always go back."
But, after losing 30 pounds and seeing vast improvements in his cholesterol and blood pressure, Hayes was sold.
"There is plenty of evidence that red-meat consumption is associated with increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer," said Dr. Scott Rollins, M.D., a local physician specializing in complex medical conditions.
Rollins added that vegan diets generally provide enough protein calories, but it can lead to B12 deficiencies, "so vegans need to be sure to consume plant foods with plenty of B12" or take a supplement.
"Being motivated to start was the hardest part," Hayes said. "Once the motivation was there, it was easy for me."
While some vegans and vegetarians practice their diets strictly, others take on aspects of the animal-free food movement for better health and global awareness
Dee Goodsell, a 53-year-old Grand Junction resident and member of Vegan Life Colorado, said she's not quite vegan, not quite vegetarian, but she's close.
"I try to limit myself," Goodsell said. "I've been interested in health for many, many years. Like a lot of people, I've dabbled in different things, and over the last few years I've gravitated to a more raw, vegetarian diet for the health benefits."
And like many others with plant-based diets, she's also very aware of where food and other products come from and how it impacts the lives of all animals and the environment.
"I pay attention to my purchases, where as in the past that may not have crossed my mind," she said. "I'm continuously evolving."
Christine Strickland, a Grand Junction mom, buys many vegan products because her son has multiple dangerous food allergies surrounding dairy, eggs and more. Her family also eats some meat.
Strickland said she relies on stores like Vitamin Cottage and Sprouts to get many vegan food products that aren't carried at regular supermarkets.
Though Strickland's unsure if the vegan movement will catch on like wildfire in Grand Junction like it has in, say, Boulder, she hopes more options will become available as awareness grows.
"Some restaurants will cater to severe food allergies, but we don't eat out a lot," she noted.
Another Grand Junction vegan Stacey Morton-Cohen said she's frustrated with the limited or no vegan menu options when dining out.
"Just give us one good healthy dish on an entire menu and we are happy," Morton-Cohen said. "It can even be a dairy dish with a cheese-less option (like pizza)."