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Give it to me raw

Part one of a three-part series chronicling a Gauntlet writer's attempts and experiences with specialized diets.

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When we use 'diet' colloquially, it carries negative connotations, yet the root of the word refers to the kind of food habitually eaten. It can be argued that our obsessive "thin culture" that fuels individuals to go on fad-diets and drinking lukewarm salt water with cayenne pepper, has led to the tainting of the word 'diet.' The counterculture to this thin obsession is a world of Epic Meal Time rip-offs and bacon explosions. Even though a margin of hilarity comes with this backlash movement, it raises major health concerns. It seems like in this world of dieting extremes it's easy to fall into an apathetic rut. When you consume RockStar energy drinks and Ichiban noodles at every meal, how can you decide when bombarded by an overwhelming amount of information what is the "healthiest" way to eat?

Unfortunately, the life of an average university student does not lend itself to healthy eating. The freshman 15 is an acceptable, almost expected outcome of your first year of university and, between a 12-page paper and trying to make rent, it is hard for the average student to prioritize healthy eating. "It's about convenience foods," states Dr. Raylene Reimer, a registered dietitian and professor at the University of Calgary, about the average student diet. With inexpensive fast-foods available throughout campus, it's easy to take a route of convenience when it comes to consumption. The mental and physical health ramifications of a poor diet should be enough to make students prioritize their health, but a lack of awareness is a major factor in poor dietary choices.

Reimer teaches a first-year course on nutrition where her students do a dietary analysis within the first month. "Students are quite shocked [at the results]. Too much sodium usually comes up and the vitamins and minerals they are not getting enough of." Deficiencies are a big concern when it comes to healthy diets. Reimer gave the example of a calcium deficiency eventually leading to osteoporosis in the future. "The effects of a deficiency might not show up today, not in 10 years but in 20 years when you might not be able to treat a chronic condition." With only 180 students taking Reimer's first-year class, the majority of U of C students will not see their diet analysis. The cost of seeing a registered dietitian also deters students who would rather assume their diet is sufficient.

While we know it is important to eat healthy and sustainably, why does it seem so hard? The organics section at the grocery store costs twice the amount as foods grown with chemicals, yet both agricultural methods use chemicals, as 'organic' pesticides are still chemicals. The healthy foods have exotic names and take time to cook when it's more convenient to purchase Michellina's from Safeway. A diet with optimal nutritional value shouldn't be this hard to obtain as a student.

I made the decision to put myself through three diets, all of which claim to be healthier and more sustainable than the mainstream western diet. Partaking in this litmus test of health for myself, I decided to immerse myself in a raw diet, a local food diet and a gluten-free diet in an attempt to understand their scope. At the end of this dietary journey awaited two possibilities: I could reach a dietary nirvana or be emaciated.

The first diet I ventured into was the raw, or living food diet. The roots of the raw diet can be traced back to the Essenes, a religious sect in the second century B.C. who ate a diet of raw fruits, vegetables and sprouts. As Tonya Coleman, a certified raw chef and co-owner of Healthy Living, stated, "We want to eat as close to nature as possible." Therefore organic, unprocessed and uncooked foods are the ideal things for raw foodists to consume. Raw foodists see themselves as following a lifestyle, not just a diet. It's a more holistic approach to nature and a relationship with food. It's common for those who follow the raw diet to own or volunteer at an organic garden. Growing your own vegetables, herbs and sprouting your own seeds gives you greater control over what goes into your food before it hits the plate.

Those with a penchant for hot cooked meals might have a hard time adjusting to an all-raw diet-- cooking foods above 40 degrees Celsius is believed to eliminate the nutrients and enzymes from the food. Most of the raw cookbooks call for you to own a dehydrator, a food processor, a juicer and at least a blender if nothing else, which can be a bit costly for some. There are sects of raw foodists who consume raw meat or raw fish like sashimi. Many raw foodists claim the living food diet has healing properties, especially when it comes to chronic illness. Diana Stoevelaar attests to the healing powers of a raw food diet after it cured her lupus, which she had been combating for 24 years. The certified raw educator and chef was not familiar with a living diet prior to her illness. "Most people find this diet out of desperation, not inspiration." Because the diet is not sustainable for students, Reimer classifies the raw food diet as a fad diet.

"It doesn't have to be all or nothing," argues Stoevelaar. "That's where I think most people have a hard time taking the step, because they think it's all-raw or all-cooked." Stoevelaar is a proponent of an all-raw diet but she does acknowledge that for students it might not be realistic. She, like many other raw foodists, strives for optimal health and balance in her diet. If a student cannot live an all-raw lifestyle, incorporating elements of the raw diet is encouraged in the raw communities.

Dr. Riemer agrees with incorporating more raw elements into the daily diet, but she explains the health concerns with going all raw. "There are pros and cons to it. The advantage is the amount of vitamins and nutrients in the food that will be protected. Broccoli in its raw state is great but tomatoes release more cancer fighting elements when cooked. If you just eat raw you're not getting all the benefits."

Throughout my research and experiences with raw foodism, I kept coming across an emphasis on organic foods. The absence of pesticides made these foods the superior choice. The claim that organic food is healthier is much debated. Denis Manzer, an employee of The Light Cellar, commented, "You can get organic chips and organic pop, but it's still processed." With no conclusive evidence that organic foods are the only way to eat healthy it was hard to convince myself to spend the extra dollars on organic apples. Raw chef Tonya Coleman addressed this issue by stating she encourages students to volunteer at farms throughout the summer, where it can be easy to go a day's work of labour to get free vegetables. In theory this seems like a logical route for those who wish to obtain inexpensive living foods, but for the students who must work more than one part-time job to pay tuition, going out for the week and volunteering on a farm is not feasible.

"When we think of organic we also have to think of where it comes from. You can go to Community [Natural Foods] or Planet Organic and get all organic food, but most of it is from California. How fresh is the produce you're eating if it has to travel across the country?" questioned Manzer. The Light Cellar employee raised another important point about the raw food consumption in relation to Calgary's climate. In places like California where the growing seasons are longer it is easy to come by fresh raw food year round, but in Calgary with a shorter growing season it is nearly impossible to maintain a raw diet.

My initial attempt to be raw was a failure. I was en route to San Francisco and refused the complementary bag of mixed-nuts on the plane. I was quite proud of myself. Only a few blocks from where we were staying there was a Whole Foods, a chain store catering to natural and organic foods. With the exception of a few raw items in their deli, their options were sparse. Unless I wanted to live off of raw chocolate and kale chips for a week, I needed to purchase ingredients to prepare meals every day, which at Whole Foods would have cost an outrageous amount of money. At first I was determined to make my raw venture a success. After spending two days living off almonds and greens, I decided to return to my regular vegan diet and try being raw once I returned home.

It was exponentially easier to follow an all raw diet back in Calgary. For someone who had never been raw and had never had to think with a raw mindset, traveling and transitioning was a terrible idea. These meals required forethought and planning. I was not able to just toss together a stir-fry in the morning or grab a container of crackers with hummus. My blender soon became a saviour for the week. Smoothies and cold soups where the quickest and most efficient way to get all my nutrients. The majority of the cookbooks I had pulled from the library catered to a student lifestyle, filled with quick, easy and affordable recipes. I had to make the extra effort to compile my meals in the evening or wake up 15 minutes earlier. Despite these difficulties, eating raw opened my world to using new ingredients and using familiar ingredients in new ways. Coconut, hemp and almonds became a staple for my proteins. Going to 100 Tops Supermarket and other ethnic food outlets had a variety of raw foods not normally found at the regular western chain store, which helped keep variety in my meals. Volunteering at the university's community garden made this diet cost-effective, as most of my vegetables were free. I had to make the time to get to the garden, harvest and return to my house to cook. It may have taken time but I was able to eat actual meals, not just kale chips.

One thing that stood out to me was the amount of raw desserts some of the recipe books had. Being raw does not necessarily mean being healthy. If I had wanted to I could have eaten pans of Ani Phyo's coconut cream pie with carob fudge on brownie crust. I was reminded of the conversation I had with Tonya Coleman about switching to a raw diet. "If you had troubles with overeating, when you become raw you will still overeat." The raw diet is not a cure-all diet. Healthy eating to most of the raw foodists is about balanced eating with whole, living foods.

Mainstream diets do not cater to a raw lifestyle. Occasionally I would make a bowl of popcorn or grab a saltine and then realize neither of those things were raw. Before going out to lunch I found myself checking menus online to make sure there was at least a salad I could eat. It was easier to shop at Sunnyside Natural Market or farmers' markets than Safeway or Superstore, but it costs more. If you are not concerned with purchasing all local foods, however, one can easily purchase raw foods in bulk at Superstore to save.

I wasn't on a raw diet long enough for my body to register recognizable changes with my health, although within a week I had lost weight. Becoming more conscious of the amount of fresh produce I consumed was another result of my journey into the living diet. I received warnings from friends that I would be starving myself and that all raw foodists were crazy, but the people I met and shared information with were far from crazy. They were individuals who were concerned about the pesticides and chemicals being put into our bodies through processed food. They were concerned for our environment and local economy and believed being advocates for the raw diet would help create a healthier lifestyle. In the end, I felt more aware of what I was putting into my body. Balance is a huge focus for the majority of raw foodists and, in university where balance tends to fall to the wayside as stress reigns supreme, taking a page from the living food lifestyle might be beneficial.

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