Raw food movement takes hold in South Sound
Imagine a diet that takes away most of the food you currently eat – and replaces it with better health, more energy and weight loss. That’s the claim made by many advocates of the raw food diet, which is gaining enough interest in the South Sound to spur on classes and even a raw food restaurant.
Yet as with any diet, you need to balance it with what your own body needs. The key, say proponents, is nutritional knowledge.
“I went raw six years ago,” said Shuanna Holt, a chef and co-owner at Tacoma’s Caffe Dei who also teaches raw food classes. “I’d been vegan for about 11 years and was looking for something even healthier.”
After several months of changing her entire diet to uncooked food, Holt found her health improving dramatically. “I got rid of eczema and asthma. I used to be inhaler-dependent; now I never use it. I’m completely medication-free.”
Tacoman Darrin London also found huge differences after going raw: no allergy issues, no sickness, increased energy and a 40-pound weight loss. In fact, he and his wife, Tina, felt so much better on the diet they decided to open a raw food restaurant – AmeRAWcan Bistro in downtown Tacoma.
The basic science of a raw food diet corroborates to some degree what those who follow it swear by. Food is never heated beyond 118 degrees in order to keep alive natural enzymes and vitamins that help digestion, fight free radicals and maintain overall health.
So what exactly does a raw food diet look like? Well, plenty of fruit and vegetables, obviously, but there are other components that add nutrition, flavor and texture. Zucchini is spiralized with a mandoline to look like pasta, which can be served with a cashew-based sauce that resembles alfredo. Walnuts can be soaked and ground to the texture of meat, then spices added to make a taco filling. Sprouts can be worked into something approaching bread; nuts can be ground to make milk and cheese substitutes. Dehydrators can heat food slightly to add crunch or warmth.
In other words, it’s not just salads. One look at AmeRAWcan Bistro’s menu is enough to convince anyone that raw doesn’t mean boring: vegan burgers, sesame falafel, kelp noodles, kale chips and cheesecake are just some of the possibilities.
But there’s no doubt that going raw requires a major change in food focus. Many stand-by favorites you might have just aren’t possible, including meat, pasteurized dairy, regular bread, crackers, tea, coffee or anything processed. Alternative sources of protein, including nuts and nutritional yeast, and superfoods such as acai berry and maca root start looking important. Carbs come from fruit rather than starches.
One myth about raw food, though, is that it takes heavy equipment and way too much time.
“Most of my recipes use about five ingredients and take five minutes to make,” said Holt. “I’m a mom, a businessperson – I need foods that is quick.”
One example of that is Holt’s taco salad. Swiftly demonstrating it at a raw food class at her cafe last month, the chef did indeed put it together in less time than you’d take to assemble the cooked version. Soaked walnuts got mashed up with Mexican spices. Tomatoes, onions, lime and cilantro got chopped into a pico de gallo. And lemon juice, garlic, tahini (a sesame paste), red bell and jalapeño peppers, onion, nutritional yeast and cashews got blended up with water to make a deliciously creamy nacho cheese sauce.
“It helps to learn to stock your kitchen properly,” says Holt. “And never underestimate the power of a good knife.”
While nothing Holt makes in her classes need anything other than a good-quality blender, it does help to have other equipment. A dehydrator not only warms food (helpful in winter, says Holt) but dries out sprouts batter to make tortillas and burger patties, as well as making other food more portable, such as fruit. A mandoline will help you create interesting and easier-to-chew versions of vegetables, like London’s zucchini pasta.
“It does take planning,” says London. “That can put people off. But as you get things going, it’s easier.”
So surely it must be hard to travel on a raw diet?
“Yes,” says London. “That’s why we opened this restaurant, because we love to go out and usually all you can eat is a salad.”
Holt herself travels up and down the West Coast giving cooking classes, and in fact takes her $300 blender with her. She also preps tortillas in the dehydrator beforehand.
On the positive side, Holt said, you do get to be creative.
“Raw food is visually appealing,” she said. “You get to really use your imagination.”
Not everyone who’s gone raw, though, has found it a good thing long-term. Olympia school librarian Donna Dannenmiller went 100 percent raw for three years, and at first found all the benefits Holt and London did: increased energy, better digestion. She only needed five hours of sleep a night.
“All the problems I had just dropped away,” Dannenmiller said, who took classes and educated herself thoroughly on the nutritional details of the diet. She also saw huge improvements in friends who took it with her: curing of diabetes, arthritis, even cancer.
“Basically it’s a detox diet, and the body heals itself,” she says.
But after three years Dannenmiller noticed the health benefits dropping, and her nails didn’t look so good. She consulted a naturopath, who advised her that she should be eating meat. Now she has a balance of both, including plenty of green raw smoothies.
“If you are ill it’s a healthy diet, no question,” says Dannenmiller. “But for long-term, 100 percent is not necessary. … Everyone’s body is different – you have to continue to read your body.”
Holt and London would agree. After a recent accident Holt went down to about 60 percent raw, and is working her way back. London makes a conscious choice to eat meat every now and again, having seen his sister develop health problems after eight years of totally raw food.
“People have to know how to do it, to take responsibility for their health,” advises Holt. “It’s the same no matter what diet you’re on.”
So is raw food the next big eating trend in the South Sound?
“We’ve stayed in business nine months now,” London points out. “It’s been trending up. People want to eat healthy food. They’re sometimes a little skeptical, but we haven’t had anybody say, no way (to eating our food). People are surprised.”