About five years ago, when Lynnette and Steve Cunningham began researching the world of vegetarianism, they found a startling statistic.
"In a survey of 79 countries, we were the worst country in health," Lynnette said Sunday at the Fossil Creek Llama Ranch where she and her husband were teaching a class on vegetarian cooking.
Fifteen students traveled to the ranch in Strawberry on that cold, blustery day. They sat around the spacious window-lined room, warmed by a fire in the big stone fireplace and Lynnette Cunningham's vegetarian Mexican food.
"Every 34 seconds, somebody in the U.S. dies of cardiac disease," she told the group.
Lynnette said she was pregnant when she began her research. She went to a vegan diet, which excluded all meat and dairy products instead of the vegetarian diet, which only excludes meat.
She has written a cook book, "Heart Healthy Vegetarian Recipes," which includes a foreword quote by Dr. Michael Kaiser: "There is absolutely no nutrient, no protein, no vitamin, no mineral that can't be obtained from plant-based foods."
Lynnette combined her family background -- her mother works in a health food store and her father raises bees -- with a master's degree in counseling, and began teaching people what she had learned about health as it relates to diet.
"What I found so interesting was that my master's program was linking diet with behavior," she said. "Now they're finding diet affects people with mental illnesses."
She told the group about a recent experience she had at the Payson Public Library when a group of young children from a day-care center came in and were noisy and disruptive.
"One of the teachers said, 'We shouldn't have given them those cupcakes.'
"Everybody understands the link between diet and behavior," Lynnette told the group.
Steve Cunningham, director of rehabilitation and physical therapy at Payson Regional Medical Center, said he and his wife found a lot of information about meat and how it relates to a number of diseases.
"I didn't become a vegan overnight," he said. "I started by eliminating red meat, but I still ate chicken and fish."
Steve Cunningham said he had to travel a long way from his home to buy organic milk, and occasionally ran out of milk. He then tried the soy and rice milk his wife was making and got accustomed to the taste. "It wasn't something I liked right away," he said.
The couple talked about the acronym, NEW START, that has become their way of life, how nutrition, exercise, water, sunlight, temperance, air, rest and trust in God are important to health and well-being.
The people in the room talked about why they wanted to learn about vegetarianism.
Cross Moceri, of Pine, said he's retired and decided to make cooking his hobby.
"I understand that 70 percent of farm products are modified foods," he said.
Several in the class had medical problems and said they hoped to change their diets to improve their health.
Travis McGlothin, a young man who recently graduated from Northern Arizona University, was there with his mother. He will be going to Harvard Medical School in the fall. He said he brought his mother, Venida McGlothin, so she could learn to prepare the vegetarian foods he enjoys when he stays with her and his family in Payson.
McGlothin said he plans to go into family practice, but has always been interested in nutrition.
"I'm a vegan," he said, "and I'd like to be able to make things more tasty."
Willie Prest of Payson said he had two triple by-passes and his doctor had warned him that his arteries were clogging up again. His wife, Stephanie Prest, came along for the ride, he said.
They sat around eating Lynnette's enchiladas, made of egg plant, peppers, onion and soy cheese; bueno picaros, one of Lynnette's old family recipes; raw vegetable salad with lemon and avocado dressing; Steve's homemade salsa; and, a cheesy spinach dip. They finished lunch off with a soy-based ice cream and carob candy wrapped in a corn husk.
The lunch was not only tasty, but healthy, and contained nothing but what Lynnette called "good fats."
Steve and Lynnette told the group about "good" fats and "bad" fats and how bad fat from animal products is easily converted into body fat in people. They said that some fats -- polyunsaturated fats found in corn, soy beans, and safflower oils, actually help lower cholesterol, but get rid of both the bad fats and the good fats in the body.
Lynnette said the best fats were found in olive, cannola, peanut, pecan, sunflower and almond oils.
She said the myth of vegetarianism is that protein is hard to come by.
"There are a lot of sources for protein," she said. "We are used to ingesting too much protein in the U.S. The more protein you eat, the harder it is on the liver and kidneys."
Lynnette said her research also turned up the fact that there is more osteoporosis in the U.S. and in the Netherlands, where a lot of dairy products are consumed, than in countries like Japan and China where dairy products are scarce.
The group discussed the prevalence of disease and the possible link between genetically altered food, the addition of growth hormones in cattle, illegal antibiotics added to the diets of healthy animals and pesticide on fruits and vegetables.
"They're messing with things, I don't think they should be messing with," Steve said. "But we know there are (natural) things we can do to boost our immune systems.
"Almonds, broccoli, legumes all boost the immune system," he said. "Sugar is one of the worst that decreases the immune system."
But Lynnette said there's no reason to eliminate sweets from the diet because there are substitutes for sugar, coffee and chocolate that are nutritious and tasty.
Lynnette told the class that there are a number of places in Payson to buy the products she recommends: Bashas'; Payson Vita-Health and Back to Basics.
For information, call Steve or Lynnette Cunningham at 472-9351.