Here at Choosing Raw, we try to discuss the benefits of the raw vegan lifestyle: the smooth digestion, the boundless energy, the euphoria, the glow. But for all of its amazing benefits, the raw veganism can present the occasional pitfall: digestive hiccups, practical challenges, sneers from coworkers or friends, detox symptoms, or seemingly mysterious weight gain – all of these things can happen when one switches over to a mostly raw diet. In my experience, they’re infinitely less common than the sudden improvements. But they’re all possible, and it would be remiss of me ignore them as I wax poetic about the joys of raw, vegan eating.
A few months ago, my friend Val left me a comment asking me if I’d consider writing a post about some of the challenges of the raw lifestyle—some of the common stumbling blocks or problems that newbies to raw might experience. It’s taken me some time to follow up, but Val’s question resonated with me—so much that I’ve asked her to do a little guest post summing up her experience with high raw, vegan eating: the good, the bad, and the ugly! I’ll hand the mic over to Val, and after that, I’m going to share some of my feedback about what Val might have done a little differently to make her raw experience less tough, and to steer her in the right direction in the future.
Without further ado, I present everyone’s favorite Chicago marathoner, Valerie!
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After reading Choosing Raw for quite some time, I became curious about the raw food movement and decided to give it a try myself. In addition to reading Gena’s blog, I also spent many hours at Borders reading up on various raw cookbooks.
I began integrating more raw food into my diet almost immediately. I aimed to be as “high raw” as possible, eating all or mostly raw food until dinner time. I really loved so many aspects of the raw lifestyle, such as:
• I realized that raw food is SO much more than just a plate of carrot sticks! It was so much fun to learn new raw recipes, as well as new techniques to prepare food (making raw soups, nut pates, etc.)
• Prompted by my desire to eat a wider range of fresh produce, I joined a local, organic CSA which really opened my eyes to all of the amazing varieties of produce out there! Every week I anxiously anticipated the arrival of the CSA delivery, and I can honestly say that each week I was surprised with at least one new vegetable that I had never worked with before, and many that I had never even heard of.
• With my newfound love of local and organic produce, I found that preparing food was so much more interesting than before. Oddly enough, while the raw food diet seems restrictive at first glance, it actually provided me with more creativity and freedom in the kitchen than ever before.
• As you probably know, green juice is a focal point of the raw food diet, and I instantly got hooked on the energizing boost that I would get from drinking my morning cup o’ green!
• Most importantly, I found that the raw food lifestyle opened my eyes to the world of veganism. I didn’t start off on the raw food path intending to go vegan – in fact, many raw foodists are actually meat-eaters – but this ended up being a lovely bonus, as I am still a vegan to this day, and know that I will be for life.
Overall, when I was eating high-raw I felt utterly amazing . . . with a few exceptions.
1) I gained weight, despite the fact that I was training for a marathon at the time. I’m not sure if this is due to the fact that I was adding more nuts and oils into my diet or the fact that I got addicted to “un” baking and was constantly in the kitchen creating tasty raw desserts?
2) Occasionally I would get very bad stomach cramps that were sometimes debilitating. I think that this may have been due to the fact that I was too quick to add too many raw foods into my diet which may have been a shock to my system?
3) When I began the raw food journey, I was a school social worker with an entire summer off – a.k.a., I had time to kill. However, when work resumed in the fall I found that my time was limited and I no longer had the energy to prepare delicious salads and other raw lunches to take to work – it was simply easier to make a large pot of something (soup, quinoa and veggies, etc.) every Sunday to package up for my work lunches. I also found that pre-made salads are just not as crisp after sitting in a lunch bag for a few hours and that after a stressful morning at work, I never craved cold veggies but instead wanted hot comfort food.
4) Which leads me to my fourth concern – as my time waned and I began making less and less raw food, unfortunately that had the inverse effect and I desired it less and less! Now that it’s December, I find that I am eating far less raw food than I would like but my taste buds have changed so that I now long for conventional warm foods and I’m unsure how to make the transition back to the high-raw lifestyle in the dead of winter!
Thanks for any advice you may have for me, Gena!
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Thanks, Val, for your honesty! I should preface my response by saying that I am so, so, so proud of your choice to go vegan, and honored beyond belief that I had something to do with it! I always tell blog readers and clients that I am a vegan first, a raw foodist second: veganism is the core of my nutritional perspective, and it’s more meaningful to me that I persuade my readers to consider veganism than that I inspire them to eat raw. Keep it up, Val! (For those of you who are interested, Val made a gaggle of incredible Christmas treats, all vegan! Here is an example of only one of my favorites.)
Now, I’d like to address Val’s pitfalls one by one.
Val: I gained weight, despite the fact that I was training for a marathon at the time. I’m not sure if this is due to the fact that I was adding more nuts and oils into my diet or the fact that I got addicted to “un” baking and was constantly in the kitchen creating tasty raw desserts?
Gena: Without knowing more about exactly what Val was eating, day in and day out, it’s a little hard for me to identify the culprit. Many, many women gain weight while marathon training, so over-compensating for training with food could have been a contributor. It could have been nuts and oils, too: I’m a huge proponent of healthy fats, and a fan of nuts on the whole, but it’s not hard to overdo it with nuts accidentally. I suggest no more than 3 oz nuts daily (that’s generous!) and about 1-2 tbsp (max) oils within a single meal. These are very, very loose guidelines: each body will react differently to nuts, oils, and fats in general. But 3 oz. within a day is a decent starting point.
It’s rarely oils or nuts, though, that are the singular culprit behind raw weight gain. Val hit the nail on the head when she said that getting addicted to un-cooking might have been the issue! Rule of thumb: if you’re not supposed to be eating a ton of a certain kind of food in a cooked diet, you shouldn’t be eating a ton of that same food on a raw diet! So if you’re not supposed to be eating a ton of cookies (and most of us are not), then you shouldn’t be eating a ton of raw chocolate chip cookies, or fudge babies, donut holes, oatmeal raisin bites, or the like.
I could throttle raw foodists who claim that you can eat “as much of whatever you want, as long as it’s raw”; this is madness! Of course you shouldn’t, and can’t. While raw vegan desserts and raw dishes are generally much cleaner and healthier than their cooked, non-vegan counterparts (and therefore more appropriate to eat), you have to evaluate them by the same criteria you would evaluate everyday food: a dessert is a dessert (i.e., something to enjoy once in a while, and in moderation), a sweet treat is just that — a treat–and rich dishes are best reserved for special occasions. Period.
90% of the time, newbie raw weight gain results from people scouring cookbooks and getting entranced with super sweet desserts, shakes, smoothies, nut sauces, and the like. Don’t forget, this lifestyle is about the fundamentals: juice, greens, and vegetables. Juice, greens, and vegetables. Juice, greens, and vegetables. Yes, of course, fats, starches, nuts, and desserts have an important place in the diet, and they’re worthy of your love! They keep us sated, nourished, and energized. But they shouldn’t be eaten in excess, nor are they the main event of the raw, vegan diet: it’s veggies, veggies, and veggies that should take center stage.
Val: Occasionally I would get very bad stomach cramps that were sometimes debilitating. I think that this may have been due to the fact that I was too quick to add too many raw foods into my diet which may have been a shock to my system?
Gena: Yes! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again: do NOT attempt to go raw overnight unless you are highly accustomed to a vegan and semi-raw diet already. This is not only unwise, but dangerous! If you’ve been eating a mainstream diet, the abundance of cleansing foods (especially if you’re juicing) can be a serious shock to the system. Eat mostly raw, but not all raw: make sure to cook some of your vegetables (eating cooked at night is a good way to go, but you can incorporate some cooked vegetables into your lunch if you wish
This is an excellent way to avoid tummy distress. Also check out my post on transitional belly aches for guidance!
Val: When I began the raw food journey, I was a school social worker with an entire summer off – a.k.a., I had time to kill. However, when work resumed in the fall I found that my time was limited and I no longer had the energy to prepare delicious salads and other raw lunches to take to work – it was simply easier to make a large pot of something (soup, quinoa and veggies, etc.) every Sunday to package up for my work lunches. I also found that pre-made salads are just not as crisp after sitting in a lunch bag for a few hours and that after a stressful morning at work, I never craved cold veggies but instead wanted hot comfort food.
Gena: This is a toughie, Val! Certainly, eating raw vegan means being willing to spend a lot of time on preparation and packing (if you bring lunch to the office or school, which many of us do). All I can say is that the effort of prepping your food will pay off again and again, as you start to feel and look incredible.
But to make life easy, wash and prep veggies over the weekend (yes, this can mean chopping or slicing them) and then store them in tupperware, glass, or plastic bags. It’ll be so much easier to prep salads if you have them chopped and ready the night before work. Also, use weekends to prep a nut pate or two, a salad dressing or two, and a raw entrée: you’ll be grateful throughout the week!
Remember: effort pays off in the form of vibrant health and feeling. And some cooked food is fine, too: just alternate! Quinoa and veggies or soup is fine for lunch several days throughout the week. Just include raw dishes in the rotation, too. Find a balance that works.
Val: Which leads me to my fourth concern – as my time waned and I began making less and less raw food, unfortunately that had the inverse effect and I desired it less and less! Now that it’s December, I find that I am eating far less raw food than I would like but my taste buds have changed so that I now long for conventional warm foods and I’m unsure how to make the transition back to the high-raw lifestyle in the dead of winter!
Gena: Fear not, Val! This is a very common concern—even for raw veterans!! I have a few pieces of advice for you. The first may surprise you: eat some cooked food! Living a high raw lifestyle does not preclude eating cooked food when it comes naturally. So go ahead and enjoy a baked yam, or a piping hot vegan supper, or a stew. You can balance it with a nice raw meal at some other point in the day, or by eating more raw when the temperatures rise again. It’s about the big pictures, guys—not daily perfection!
It’s also possible to warm foods without cooking them. Put soups in a pot over a low flame, stirring until they’re heated, but not too hot to touch. Steam or blanch vegetables. Warm up sprouted bread in a dehydrator or oven set to 150 with the door ajar. Easy!
Most of all, rely on spice! Cinnamon, cloves, anise, curry allspice and ginger are very warming, and they add tremendous flavor and character to your dishes without adding fat or density. Adding fresh ginger to juices and soups will lend plenty of heat—and it’s likely to help ease digestive distress, too! And pepper, of course (peppercorns, cayenne, or raw peppers) is also helpful in warming up your frozen appendages.
I hope this helps, dear Val. And I hope it gives you a sense of the flexibility and relaxed attitude that you should take when transitioning! Always keep your eyes on the big picture—the macrocosm, as my friend Gil likes to call it. Whether or not you go raw overnight or eat 100% every day or week is not the point: the point is to eat lots of raw, lots of the time, and doing your best to adhere to a clean, vegan routine.
Was this helpful, guys? If so, I’d like to make Val’s excellent testimonial and questions a Choosing Raw tradition! From now, I’ll have a monthly feature called raw food rehab. I invite you to write in and, as Val did, express one or two (no more than three, please) difficulties with the raw diet that you’ve encountered, and would like me to address.
Note: I can’t comment on extensive health histories, litanies of problems, or raw difficulties that demand my analyzing years of dietary back story. And my responses will be based only on informed guesswork, since I won’t be working with each rehab writer on a counselor/client basis. So the ideal sorts of questions to submit are those that you suspect might be relatively common and easy to cope with.
If you’d like to be featured, please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Raw Food Rehab.” I look forward to the conversations that ensue!
On that note, I hope you all had a great raw Wednesday! I’ll have some new raw Wednesday photos to share later this week!