Tuesday, May 28, 2013

One Year of Raw

As of May 23, 2013, my husband and I have been mostly high-raw for one year.  What started off as an experiment for one summer has become a way of life.  This is a summary of my main observations during our first year journey.  I'm not claiming to be an expert on this and it's not my intention to tell others how to be raw.  This is MY take after one year of being mostly high-raw, and different people will have different opinions and experiences.  Different opinions and experiences are good.

Defining Concepts

The first and biggest defining concept was the paradigm shift.  Many things contribute to our beliefs about what is a healthy diet, such as our culture and the foods we ate as children, advertisements in the media, and the guidelines provided by our government.  Some of our beliefs about food and diet can become as fixed as our beliefs and opinions about religion and politics.  It can be a challenge to open up to new ways of experiencing food.  People who find it difficult to make big changes in their lives may find it almost impossible to change their diet - even if they would benefit for health reasons.

Transition is another big concept of our first year.  Our first raw foods were elaborate replicas of our familiar Standard American Diet (SAD) fare.  Despite being raw, these meals were too high in salt, sugar and fat.  Over time, we learned to appreciate simpler raw foods, like green smoothies, salads with fresh raw dressings, wraps made with lettuce, kale or collards instead of flat bread, energy soup, raw veggie pasta, and fresh raw dips with veggies.  Eventually, our taste buds began to change, so that foods containing things like artificial flavorings, MSG, HFCS, (high fructose corn syrup) and unhealthy fats no longer tasted as appealing.

We are not done with transition.  While some folks do switch to 100% raw overnight, I think it can take a long time for some people to make the many small changes involved in adjusting to a different lifestyle.

Another defining concept was the learning curve.  We learned new food prep techniques, to have a new relationship with food, new ways of perceiving the food and agricultural industries, and possibly the biggest learning curve of all was about nutrition.  I thought I was pretty well informed about nutrition until we made this change.  We are still learning.  Currently I am taking a nutrition course, and I hope that will help me take charge of our nutritional intake.  My experience was that when I stopped relying on food labels for nutritional information, it was like being in uncharted waters.  There is still much to learn.  For example our raw fermenting and sprouting skills need work, and we are still learning how to grow our own food.  

Challenge was another defining concept of the past year.  I think that when people make the decision to live a more healthful lifestyle, they are likely to face their own unique challenges.  It's impossible to predict what those challenges will be because they depend on many variables.  In my case the main challenges were the lure of familiar non-raw foods especially during the holidays, the cost and occasional inconvenience of raw food, monotony when more variety was needed in the diet, staying raw when other family members were not making raw choices, and mild nutritional inadequacy when I didn't eat enough of certain raw foods.   (Maybe I'll write about this later.)  I'm still learning how to deal with these challenges, and I think the main thing I need to do is to keep at it.


Lessons Learned

Generally, my husband and I feel a whole lot better physically on a plant-based, mostly raw food lifestyle.  We have more energy, experience less physical discomfort and enjoy better health overall.  I personally experience less stiffness and fatigue and find it easier to exercise.  While cooked whole-food plant based meals do not seem to bother us physically, we do feel lighter and more energetic when we eat raw vegan type food.  We also have noticed that now when we occasionally eat a meal of SAD food, we can feel the difference in our bodies the next day, such as fatigue, stiffness, lethargy, bloating, etc.  With the exception of the few organic, raw, and/or vegan restaurants in town, this is especially true if we eat out.  There is no way to know exactly what additives are in the food if we don't prepare it ourselves.  There are still times when we will eat a SAD meal, such as times when time is tight and we just want to get something to eat.  We realize that when we do this, we are making a choice, and there likely will be a consequence to that choice in how we feel the following day.  We've tested and confirmed this many times.  There is a definite cause-and-effect relationship between what we eat and how well we feel.

The main point I want to make is the benefits of being raw far outweigh the challenges.  Being raw is completely worthwhile to us.  This is especially true in the summer when the temperatures can exceed 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

It's possible to be malnourished or overweight on a raw foods diet. This doesn't mean that the raw food lifestyle is necessarily bad for the particular individual, because it might mean that they need to make different raw food choices if they wish to stay raw.  Some raw foods are higher in fat, and some are more dense in certain nutrients.  The raw food lifestyle may not be for everyone, but if a person really wants to be raw and it's not working, it probably means they need to make adjustments to the diet, not quit the lifestyle altogether.  Blame individual food choices, not the entire lifestyle.  It's important to also keep in mind that no two healthy raw food diets will be identical - some people need more fat, carbs or iron, and some need less.

I think that if a person goes on a raw plant-based diet for a few weeks to shed a few pounds, they probably don't have to be as concerned about nutritional adequacy if they are well nourished to start with, because they most likely will get enough vitamins and minerals for the short term in the raw food.  However, I do think that if a person is going to go on a high or 100% raw vegan or raw plant-based diet for a few months or longer, it may be a good idea to examine your unique nutritional needs and the nutrients in the food you eat to be sure you are getting enough of everything.  This partly is because certain raw, plant-based food nutrients are harder to absorb by the body.  It is necessary to be aware of a variety of sources of these nutrients.  Some nutrients are said to be completely nonexistent in raw vegan food, although some raw foodists dispute this.  This does not in any way negate the benefits of raw food; it's just something to be aware of in order to make the necessary adjustments.  It wouldn't hurt to consult a doctor or a nutritionist who is familiar with the raw food lifestyle, especially if you are too busy to do the research yourself.

I've heard of 100% raw foodists who have been successfully raw for ten or more years without taking vitamin and mineral supplements.   From what I've observed, it seems these are mostly people who are able to consume large quantities of green juice made from greens and vegetables grown nearby in fortified organic soil.  My family and I may not have access to sufficient quantity of food of that quality, and much of what we eat is shipped long distances which causes it to lose some of its nutritional value.  It may be more realistic for us to take supplements in addition to eating the best quality diet that we can.  The quality of our diet may improve as we improve our ability to grow some of our own food.

My suggestion is that unless you are only temporarily going on a raw, plant-based diet for a few weeks, and already are well nourished, don't assume that just because you are eating nothing but fresh fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds, that you have automatically covered all of your nutrients.  Keep in mind that American soils are depleted, and possibly even foods grown in certified organic soil isn't what it could be. 

Beware of claims.  There are raw foodists who have completely cured themselves of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other conditions while on a raw food diet, and plenty of people leap to the conclusion that this means raw food is a cure-all for everyone.  However, while it may seem like common sense that if the SAD can lead to chronic disease, and changing the diet should reverse it, it's not that simple.  This should be obvious, but the raw food lifestyle is not some magical protective shield that wards off all disease and illness.  Some folks are surprised when they catch a cold while they are raw.  Others will say that colds are merely a symptom of "detox."  In my view, a cold is still just a cold, and unfortunately people who live the raw lifestyle can and do still die of terrible diseases.  Better nutrition will improve one's health, and it has saved some lives, but there are no guarantees.  In our home, we dealt with minor viruses over the winter, but it was nowhere near as bad as it has been in previous years.  And yes, my husband did lower his blood pressure and reduce his blood pressure medications after we switched to this diet.  In my opinion the raw, plant-based food lifestyle is the healthiest diet on the planet, and I believe that if everyone were raw our national health care costs and life expectancies would improve dramatically.  However, disease would still exist.  There would simply be less of it.

This is not to say that "raw food" detox isn't a real thing.  The food industry claims that the additives used in our food pass through the body harmlessly.  This does not explain how weird things get for the first few weeks when you completely eliminate them from your diet.  Maybe I'll write more about this experience later too.

Forget about percentages!  Sometimes it seems like everyone who is into raw food wants to know what percentage of your diet is raw.  Don't beat yourself up if you aren't 100% or even 75% raw!  Do what is best for yourself and your lifestyle.  If you feel good on 50% raw, great!  For us, I would estimate that we have been 95 - 100% raw for as long as 2 or 3 weeks before we took a "break" and ate something cooked before going back to 95 - 100% raw again.  More recently, we have started eating cooked whole food a bit more often, and we've even eaten some SAD food, (gasp) but it's summer again, and we will definitely be very high raw for most of the season.

Homemade Kale Chips

Biggest Obstacles to Raw Success and Possible Solutions

The lure of familiar foods:  It was hard during traditional family holidays and vacations to avoid SAD food.  It's also hard to contemplate that being raw means never again eating French pastry or Cajun food or whatever occasional delicacies that are a part of life.  My feeling about it today is that for me personally, if I eat SAD food sometimes, it's not optimal but it's something I will accept for now.  It's not worth worrying over it.  Fortunately, an occasional SAD meal probably won't kill me, although I am aware of some raw foodists who do not have that option due to severe health consequences if they go off their diet.  If I do eat a cooked or SAD meal, my next meal will most likely be raw, and if it's not, that's okay too.  Each meal, each bite is a choice, and if my choice is to eat a mostly healthy diet, I will benefit.  One day I may give up SAD food and even cooked vegan food forever, but  I'm not going to concern myself with that today.

One pitfall that I ran into was that I sometimes had the attitude that since I drank a quart of fresh green juice on a given day, I could give myself permission to go off the rails and eat something unhealthy.   While I still believe that an occasional indulgence SAD food is not worth worrying over, it is not in my best interest to make it a mainstay in my typical diet. I have accepted the fact that I may occasionally eat unhealthy foods but I also acknowledge that this is not optimal. 

I am still struggling with this - it's as if I have two minds.  When I am thinking more like a raw foodist, or a nutritionist, or a vegan, factory-farmed animal products and processed foods seem abhorrent and completely out of the question.  Eating raw seems like the most obvious, sensible thing to do.  However, there are times when my priorities are completely different, and my food choices seem less rational.  During these times, I am coming from a place of comfort, emotion, craving and convenience.  The experience of eating a decadent brand of ice cream seems to trump common sense. 

My husband and I think that this may have to do with different parts of the brain.  When we are making reasoned, intelligent, thoughtful food choices, we are probably using our prefrontal cortex. Desire for a quick infusion of calories and fat with the least amount of effort probably comes from more primitive regions in the brain.  The best solution I can think of for this problem is to plan ahead with intelligent food choices before hunger and temptation activates the more primitive urges.

The cost: I think the ideal raw food lifestyle would involve massive quantities of locally grown, organic bio intensive produce,  at least quart of fresh green juice each day, and plenty of fabulous things like raw hemp hearts, chia seeds, spirulina, goji berries and so on.

Unfortunately, the reality is that we are on a tight budget.  My husband is starting to grow wheat grass, and we've been slowly learning how to grow food in our small back yard.  I do buy some organic produce when we can afford it but we also eat a lot of "conventional" produce. I stock up on foods like nuts, seeds, and raw super foods in bulk when I find it for a good price, and otherwise we do without.  Once a week or more, we'll have a meal of cooked lentils and rice with veggies.  Despite the steps we take to be economical, we do spend a higher percentage of our income on food than we did before.  However, we prefer spending a bit more for food which we believe is better for our bodies and the environment than buying into the subsidized SAD food industry - and paying more for health care on the other side.

I think that if a person is on a low income, it's important to purchase the most nutritious food possible for the least amount of money, and that means staying away from processed food whenever possible.  I think it might be possible on a low income to eat a diet that contains high quantities of fresh raw produce and smaller quantities of cooked whole food.  However in some low income areas, the availability and variety of fresh raw produce might be lower than in other areas.  A possible solution to the cost problem is to join food co-ops and community gardens wherever possible, and simply do the best we can.

The SAD is subsidized.   Please excuse me while I indulge in a short rant here.  Think for a moment how screwed up this is.  The diet that is the biggest contributor to obesity and chronic illness in our nation, the diet that is driving up our health care costs - is subsidized.  As a result,  it costs more to to eat what many people believe is the best and most healthful diet on the planet.  This, in my opinion, exploits the poor.  It's wrong, it's unfair, it's upside down, and it's flat-out crazy.  End of rant.

Monotony and raw fatigue:  At first, raw food seemed to me to be the most amazing, magical  discovery ever.  After one year, the honeymoon is definitely over.  However, I am still in love with raw food.  It's not the only type of food we eat 100% of the time, but it does make up the main portion of our diet.  Now, it's not particularly special.  It's just food.

The answer to raw fatigue is to continue to explore new raw foods and news ways to prepare them.  I  intend to teach family members to make more of the raw meals that we eat so that I can take a break.

So, it's been a year.  We've become raw food fanatics, slacked off a bit, and returned with gusto.  We've lost weight and gained some of it back.  We experimented with different ways of being raw, rebelled against our own raw food rules, and challenged everything we believe. Overall, we've grown and changed some, and I think we are better for the experience.

We are still here.  We still love raw food.  Our journey has just begun. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Variations on a Theme: Energy Soup

Recently we learned about a new tool for our toolbox of raw techniques:  Energy Soup.

Energy soup is very nutritious, fast to make and clean up, and can be suited to individual tastes.

If you haven't heard of energy soup, it is a recipe developed by Ann Wigmore.  Ann Wigmore was the co-founder of the Hippocrates Health Institute and is considered the mother of the raw foods movement.  She made wheatgrass popular in the 1970s. 

Energy soup is a blend of fresh, living greens, sprouts and vegetables, sometimes with a little fruit,  blended into a creamy soup.  It was a part of the healing regimen at the Hippocrates Health Institute.  Today you can find the current recipe here.  The original recipe can easily be found with a quick online search.  It apparently involved rejuvelac, baby spinach, dulse, avocado and sprouts.  Other versions include an apple.

It's common now for people to take the basic recipe and adjust it to their own personal needs.  For example, Angela Stokes Monarch uses coconut water instead of rejuvelac to make her energy soup.  If you watch the video and wish to skip the parts about the adorable dancing baby who helps pick the greens and then eats energy soup, go to the 8:05 time mark. However, if you have an extra eight minutes, it's worth it to watch the adorable dancing baby.

One way to think of energy soup is like a more savory version of a green smoothie.  For a person who is new to raw food, it's possible that it might seem unappetizing at first. People who have been drinking green smoothies for a while might find it easier to appreciate energy soup.

It's a convenient food because for a family on the go it can be served in a cup.  Or, it can be served at the table with a spoon and a bowl.   

In our family, we have found that we can adjust it according to our preferences and nutritional requirements. For example, even though my husband's blood pressure has improved since we've changed our diet, he still needs to keep an eye on it.  As a result, I might be inclined to use vegetables that are said to be good for fighting high blood pressure, like fresh beets.  For my growing son, I might add kale or collards, and for more iron, extra iron-rich ingredients like chia seeds. I also like adding ingredients that are good for healthy skin and for fighting inflammation.  Since I'm still a little intimidated by the process of making Rejuvilac, I tend to use other liquids in energy soup. 

Our most recent batch of energy soup included the following:

1 red bell pepper
several handfuls of baby spinach
handful broccoli florets
couple of handfuls peeled baby carrots
1/2 English cucumber
several ribs of celery, including leaves
1 avocado
the juice of one lemon
the juice of one orange
1 apple
1 handful parsely
1 clove of garlic
1 tsp turmeric
pinch of sea salt

It was basically a little of everything that was in the fridge in the moment.  It was ready in 15 minutes, and cleanup involved rinsing off a knife, a cutting board and the blender container.  It was poured into shaker cups as family members ran out the door.  To us, it was satisfying and delicious.

This is going to be another staple in our arsenal of fast and easy meals.  If you want to get healthy, energy soup is a terrific, nutritious dish.