By Chrissy Makris | firstname.lastname@example.org
“This is insane,” I thought, as I stared blankly at $170 of fruit, vegetables, nuts and hemp milk sprawled across my kitchen counter. I didn’t even know you could make milk from hemp. And really, what was I going to do with 14 pounds of carrots?
It was day one of my raw vegan diet, and I was already suffering from sensory overload. The beautifully-colored cornucopia of shiny green avocados, ripe red tomatoes, jicama, spinach, peppers, mushrooms, bananas, lettuce and three different kinds of apples was inspiring, but left me feeling sufficiently overwhelmed. As I stood contemplating my options for dinner, I repeated the words “two weeks” in my head, which was echoed by a not-so-encouraging stomach growl. Two weeks was the minimum sentence I gave myself for a raw vegan diet. For two weeks I would purge beloved pasta, cheese, meat, bread and candy from my life, documenting my experience and specific mental and physical changes. I wanted to be enlightened, motivated and detoxified. I wasn’t sure I would make it.
True raw foodists live by the number 116. According to The Raw Food Primer, heating food above 116 degrees F destroys enzymes that aid in the absorption and digestion of food, causing toxicity in the body and that sluggish feeling that comes with eating a double cheeseburger or a plate of fettuccini alfredo. Raw foodists and some nutritionists also believe a primarily raw diet is healthier for your body, mind and the environment. Whole fruits, vegetables and nuts contain no added fillers or by-products that could be harmful when eaten. They require little or no packaging and are natural, making them more eco-friendly than processed, packaged TV dinners.
Some raw foodists suggest whole grains as a transition food while adapting to a raw diet. Some drink green smoothies with spinach or kale and various fruits. Some grow their own sprouts, make “pasta” out of zucchini and tacos out of lettuce leaves. If you think cooking food is an art, you’d probably be surprised at how much talent and skill goes into not cooking food.
Since it was cold, I decided to make soup, which was a terrible idea considering how hungry I was and how long it would take to prepare. With a thermometer in-hand and an array of random food items by my side, I began creating my first raw meal. I was strangely confident despite my lack of knowledge and planning. The mixture of dried seaweed, miso, mushrooms, spinach and liquid amino acid sat stagnant in the saucepan.
After three hours, a smell resembling a crusty litter box permeated my kitchen. The thermometer read 84 degrees F. As I sunk my spoon into the unidentifiable, luke-warm mixture and brought the first taste to my lips, I cringed. To my surprise, the awful smell was a terrible indicator of how amazing the soup actually tasted. I had successfully “cooked” my first raw
I was overly pleased with myself for about 45 minutes until hunger began to creep its way back into my life. As I ravenously devoured half of a can of mixed nuts, I planned a trip to the raw food restaurant The Present Moment Café in the morning.
Craig Hornsbee has been a raw chef at The Present Moment Café for two years. After an eye-opening conversation with him, I began to realize how much I didn’t know about how food affects your body.
“It’s more than a diet, it’s a lifestyle choice,” Hornsbee said. “People don’t really understand what eating raw is about,” he said.
I didn’t want to be one of those people. Despite the countless hours I spent wearily hunched over my laptop doing research, scouring blogs and finding new recipes, no amount of reading could compare to the insight of raw foodists.
“People think raw foodists are part of some sort of cult or religion, but it’s more like a subculture,” Hornsbee said. “You just have to listen to your body.”
I had read accounts of people who had overcome supposedly incurable illnesses by transitioning to a raw diet. Arthritis. Diabetes. Hypoglycemia. Even cancer. I have always believed that you are what you eat, but could food really eliminate disease? According to Hornsbee, it can.
“The reason people have health problems is because of what they are eating,” Hornsbee said. “It makes me angry when I see people feeding their kids Twinkies and McDonald’s. If you start feeding kids good food from the beginning, it will affect them positively.”
Switching to a raw diet can’t technically cure anything, Hornsbee said. However, by eliminating the foods that cause health problems and introducing nutrient-rich fruits, berries, vegetables and minerals, the body regains its natural healing abilities to prevent disease.
“People come in to Present Moment all the time and say ‘keep doing what you’re doing, we love you. I’ve had cancer or I’ve had cirrhosis of the liver and after eating raw, I’ve recovered,”” Hornsbee said. “Some of them are people who were told they only had a few months left to live.”
The third day of my raw diet was my first day back to work in a week. Working in a restaurant when you’re hungry is hard, but working in a restaurant when you’re hungry and can’t eat the food is near torture. I delivered plate after plate of fresh fish, crab cakes and pasta to my tables, envious of the feasts they were about to enjoy. I couldn’t bond with my co-workers in the employee closet as they sneakily gobbled french fries during breaks. Instead, I pretended to enjoy my plate of spinach with lemon juice and olive oil and ignored people who referred to my lunch as “rabbit food” or told me to “go eat a cheeseburger.”
Once you transition to a raw diet, something happens to you- you become weird. Friends no longer want to come over for dinner. Servers giggle when you order celery and water at restaurants. Television commercials featuring greasy pizzas and heart attack-inducing pastas both disgust and intrigue you. Suddenly, you are forced to change everything you’ve ever known about food, and that changes peoples’ perceptions of you.
My perception of myself was beginning to change as well. By the fifth day, I had begun to notice a change in my moods and energy levels. I felt more stable, happier and active. I even started to develop a normal sleeping pattern, which had always been a struggle for me.
I started to become creative with my meals. I began my days with a bowl of granola with vanilla hemp milk, bananas, walnuts and blueberries. I made smoothies with spinach, banana, pineapple and agave nectar. I made avocado cucumber soup, stuffed peppers and veggie chips. I befriended my juicer and whipped up concoctions like carrot apple pear ginger juice. When the fruits and vegetables in my refrigerator began to wrinkle, I turned them into pickles or jam. Friday nights were spent preparing daring new creations. I felt like the possibilities were endless. Then I got sick and everything changed.
I knew that I was doing something good for my body, but too much of a good thing can be bad. I was detoxing too quickly and my body was in shock. I started getting terrible cramps, nausea and headaches.
On day nine, I caved. I was sitting on my friend’s couch, writhing in pain from the stomach cramps. I felt strange. I didn’t want to talk or move or think. My friend handed me a plate and I stared at a golden-brown toasted bagel with butter questioning my health and my judgment.
“Eat it,” she said.
And I did.
Within 20 minutes, my cramps and headache were gone. I felt great for the rest of the evening, but the decision to stray from my diet caught up with me in the morning when I woke feeling sluggish and bloated. I was confused, frustrated and as usual, hungry. I needed to talk to an expert.
Yvette Schindler was just the expert I needed to speak with to set myself at ease. Schindler owns and operates The Present Moment Cafe and has been eating raw for five years. She believes that raw food is a natural medicine and healing comes from within.
“I began by eating 100 percent raw for three months,” Schindler said. “It was a transformation, like a new religion, a new lover, a new life force. It was amazing.”
After speaking with Schindler for nearly 30 minutes, I mustered up the courage to confess.
“I cheated,” I said.
There was a pause. Instead of chastising me, Schindler actually made me feel better about my guilty diversion.
“There is no cheating,” Schindler said. “Eating 100 percent raw is a lot for the body to take at once and it’s like overdosing in a way. It’s a cleansing experience, and it’s not comfortable, but once you get in the groove, you’ll feel the difference.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and decided that I probably shouldn’t mention that I had just eaten a slice of pizza. However, even after only nine days, I could feel a difference. After eating wheat, dairy and processed foods, I had stomach pains. Maybe it was in my head, but I felt awful. After eating a raw meal, I felt satisfied but never overly full. I felt clean and rejuvenated. The difference was astonishing. While it was hard to shake the guilt entirely about my hasty food choices, I felt it was a crucial part of my learning experience. Eating cooked and processed foods while on a mainly raw diet made me realize how beneficial fruits and vegetables are.
Schindler assured me that the cravings would eventually stop, but that it was normal to be craving cooked foods at this stage.
“I’m about 80 percent raw- I can’t say that I don’t eat any cooked food,” Schindler said. “I will never turn down food that someone has cooked for me, and I think whole grains in the winter time are great. As long as you are consciously trying to eat better, you’re on the right track.”
I sat at an outside table drinking organic tea from a glass pot and enjoying the warm sunshine. It was day 12. While I was proud of most of the new recipes I had created at home, eating a meal at The Present Moment Cafe was always a tasty treat. At home, there was usually a moment of questioning whether I’d be feeding myself or my garbage. But not here. As I ate I wondered how raw food could possibly taste this good. I felt like an amateur and wished that I knew how to prepare such intricate meals.
“You know we’re working on a cookbook,” chef Molly Jane Hammond said. “We get so many new customers who’ll come in asking for recipes and peeking into the kitchen in disbelief that there are no ovens.”
Hammond has been at The Present Moment for two years. Though she admits that the raw food lifestyle can be challenging, her diet has changed drastically since starting at the café.
“If someone told me a few years ago that seaweed would someday be a mainstay of my diet, I would have held my nose and laughed them off, but I’m telling you, that stuff is delicious,” she said.
Hammond recently became a vegan, eating no meat or dairy products. She eats raw whenever possible and credits her fellow employees at The Present Moment for a support system during and after her transition to a vegan diet. She says she feels rejuvenated and healthy at the end of her workday.
I knew that replacing chips and french fries with fruits and vegetables was obviously better for me, but was I getting all the nutrients and protein that I needed without meat and dairy? Is a raw food diet healthier than the average American’s carnivorous, sugar-filled and processed complacency? I felt better, but I still wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing for my body.
I spoke to nutritionist Tanya Seally of the Metabolic Research Center in St. Augustine, who explained that eating healthy is about providing your body with the correct balance of nutrients it needs to function.
“Think of your body as a wood burning stove,” Seally said. “Instead of fueling a fire, you’re fueling your metabolism.”
Seally said removing refined sugars and processed foods from your diet would definitely have a positive impact on your health. However, she stressed the importance of getting nutrients from alternative sources, especially if your diet is primarily vegetables. She said vegans and raw foodists often don’t have enough protein in their diets.
“You’re supposed to have 2-3 ounces of carbohydrates for every gram of protein that you eat,” Seally said.
She also suggested taking supplements and drinking vitamin or protein drinks.
“If you’re not getting what you need from meat or dairy, you have to improvise or your immunity will be too low,” she said.
If I had a personal chef, things would have been a lot easier. By day 14, I had spent more money on food than I had ever anticipated, thrown three uneaten meals in the garbage and gained five pounds from eating copious amounts of nuts. Despite the challenges of my new diet, I ended up eating mostly raw for nearly a month-11 days longer than planned. It was rewarding in the end. I had energy. I was happier. I woke up and went to my 9 a.m. classes on time. I convinced my mom to eat seaweed.
And I learned to listen to my body.