EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a seven-part series about what it’s like to be a vegetarian in Maine today.

Ron Kramer is no slouch.

He exercises regularly and referees hockey at the high school and college level. He’s never been overweight. But three years ago he was diagnosed with early-stage heart disease and told the prognosis wasn’t particularly good.

“Like a lot of people who are very active,” Kramer told me. “I figured I was doing everything I needed to do to stay in shape and that diet wasn’t something I needed to worry about.”

After two doctors mentioned the link between heart disease and diet, his wife began investigating online and came across the 2010 documentary “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.” Kramer watched it and said “I could relate to a lot of what” narrator Joe Cross was going through in the film.

He started drinking freshly squeezed juices, as Cross does in the film, and for a while he ate a vegan diet; eventually, he added back some eggs and dairy.

“Within 90 days, I was off every medication, and I felt like I was 24,” said Kramer, who is actually 57 and lives in Cape Elizabeth. “All my aches and pains went away. Now I feel great, I sleep great. I’m dreaming again.”

Kramer’s story is a familiar one in Maine’s vegetarian community. After years of interviewing new vegetarians, I’ve met dozens and dozens of people who have adopted a vegetarian diet for health reasons.

The trend appears to be on the rise as the peer-reviewed studies continue to pile up linking vegetarian diets to lower disease risk and – in the case of a plant-based diet with very little processed food – the ability to reverse heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. It also reflects the popularity of films such as “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead” and, to a much greater extent, the 2011 documentary “Forks Over Knives.”

Julie Johnson knows the power of the later film.

Before watching “Forks Over Knives,” the self-described foodie who grew up in a “meat and potatoes” home admits to being skeptical about both the movie and people who don’t eat meat.

“To be honest, I have always been a person who rolled my eyes at vegetarians,” said Johnson, 51, a registered nurse who lives in Westbrook.

But the medically focused film, which explores the science connecting a plant-based diet to improved health, “struck a chord” with Johnson.

She began removing meat from her diet, and three years later is a full-fledged vegetarian.

“I have definitely seen an improvement in my health since not eating meat,” Johnson said. “I have more energy. My cholesterol is improved from borderline high to normal. My digestion is improved, and I have less aches and pains.”

While many new vegetarians today make the switch for health reasons, the ethical dimension of eating plants instead of animals remains the other main reason people choose a vegetarian diet.

Melissa Smith, 29, of Portland says when she became a full-time vegetarian two years ago, some of it had to do with her boyfriend, who has been a vegetarian for two decades, and some of it had to do with the fact she was recently back from a military deployment to Afghanistan, a period of her life she prefers not to talk about.

At its core, Smith said, her decision to become a vegetarian grew out of her belief in nonviolence and her Jewish faith.

“It was really more of an awakening,” she said.

The transition to a meat-free life has been relatively smooth, Smith said. So far her biggest challenge came during a recent trip to France.

“France is not a destination I would pick for a vegetarian unless you are extremely confident discussing menus in French with the chef,” said Smith, who describes her French as limited. “So we didn’t eat out much. We bought groceries and made things ourselves.”

She was pleasantly surprised to find the dining scene much different in Great Britain.

“England has a lot of vegetarian restaurants,” Smith said. “Pretty much every restaurant has vegetarian food. Indian is really popular, and there are a lot of vegetarian taco places.”

While in Wales, Smith tried a famous Welsh food known as Glamorgan sausage. Despite the name, it’s a vegetarian dish that’s traditionally made with cheese, eggs, leeks, mustard, fresh herbs and bread crumbs.

“I have found you don’t miss meat as much as you think you would,” Smith said. “At Thanksgiving, I made cranberry sauce, mushroom-stuffing-filled squashes, potatoes, carrot soup, a pumpkin pie, and I got a pie from Aurora Provisions. It was awesome because without the turkey, I could eat more of the things I really love.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland, Maine. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila