Cooking, Unplugged

Food and Dining
January 14, 2004

Cooking, unplugged
Raw-food enthusiasts credit their diets with improving
their energy and even their looks
By Christine Arpe Gang

To Tonya Zavasta, eating a diet of uncooked foods isn’t as much radical as it is rawsome. That’s a term she and like-minded people use to describe how they feel about consuming raw food exclusively or almost exclusively.

A small but enthusiastic band of Memphians is adopting the raw food diet espoused by celebrities such as Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson and Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, one of the country’s most creative restaurateurs.

Restaurants offering appealing assemblages of raw fruits, vegetables and nuts are open in New York and California.

“Most people start with vegetarianism and then become vegans before going raw,” said Beth Ann Miller, a member of the Memphis Living Foods Support Group. It meets for a potluck dinner on the first Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at Wild Oats.

At one recent potluck, about 40 people noshed on a colorful array of salads, nori (seaweed) rolls and raw dishes that mimic cooked favorites such as the “mashed potatoes and gravy” made with pureed cauliflower and raw mushroom sauce.

Miller’s diet is now 100 percent raw.

For Thanksgiving, Miller and Zavasta and their spouses shared a menu of sunflower seed burgers, a raw pad Thai”that blows everyone away,” and “cheesecakes” made with a cheese-like substance derived from pureed and fermented macadamia nuts and coconut.

Herb and Alice Depenau, who aim for a diet about 50 percent raw, credit the regime for increasing their energy. That’s especially important for Alice, who is undergoing chemotherapy. They found it tough to maintain the raw diet during the holidays but are now back on track. Eventually they would like to consume 80 percent raw foods and 20 percent cooked.

“We can definitely tell a difference in our energy levels,” he said. It drops noticeably when they eat traditional cooked foods.

Going raw can be challenging, Depenau said, especially in the winter when hot soups and beverages provide comfort on cold days.

“I know you can add cayenne and ginger to make it seem hotter,” Depenau said. “But it’s still not the same as hot food.”

Zavasta, 45, credits her 100 percent raw diet with altering not only how she feels, but also how she looks. She chronicles her transformation from plain to pretty in her new book, “Your Right to Be Beautiful: How to Halt the Train of Aging & Meet the Most Beautiful You.” It’s a self-published book available for $19.95 at Wild Oats, Davis-Kidd Booksellers and her Web site,

“I have a special appreciation for health and appearance because I had neither,” said Zavasta, who came from Moldova in the former Soviet Union to Memphis with her son and husband in 1991. She has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from a Russian university and a master’s degree in theoretical mathematics from University of Memphis.

She adopted the diet after researching it.

“I’m an analytical mathematician so something has to be proven to me,” she said.

She first read about the attributes of a raw food diet when she was in her early 20s.

“But in Russia, all we had was musty potatoes and mildewed beets,” she said. “So I put the raw food diet in the back of my mind and then retrieved it when I came to America.”

Six years ago, she went from a vegan (vegetarian with no dairy or eggs) diet to 100 percent raw. She lost 5 pounds and said she seemed to blossom in appearance.

“I am called beautiful often enough to believe it,” she writes in her book. “If there has ever been such a thing as a self-made beauty, I am it.”

For most of her life, she felt plagued by her plain looks and a limp caused by uncorrected dislocated hips, a congenital condition that eventually led to one leg being longer than the other.

Although doctors in Russia and in Memphis told her there was nothing they could do for her, she found an orthopedic surgeon in Salt Lake City who was willing to operate in 1999.

But for healing purposes, he wanted her to eat foods high in protein and calcium – most of them not on the raw diet she was committed to.

“He asked my husband what I ate and he said, ‘She only eats grass.’ ”

After much consideration she decided to stick to her diet before, during and after four surgeries. “I worried because there was so much at stake,” she said. “If my hip did not heal, I would be a invalid.”

During her convalescence, her husband brought bags of organic produce and a machine to make juices to her hospital room. She turned down the multivitamin pills offered by a nurse.

Her bones healed quickly. Two months after the first surgery she noticed her appearance had changed as well.

“I had never looked better,” she said.

She doesn’t find it difficult to maintain the diet.

“I cannot eat cooked food now,” she said. “My body rejects it.”

When a person first adopts the diet, they may feel hungry often, she said.

“At first you want to eat a lot but after awhile, your stomach can be empty and you will feel exuberant, almost euphoric, because of the lightness,” she said.

She starts her day by drinking a large glass of juice made with zucchini, celery, broccoli, beet root and an apple. Then she eats fruits and soaked raw nuts.

Her other meals may be salads made with seaweed and tahini-based dressings. A favorite of hers is a nutritious kale and avocado guacamole.

“My New Year’s resolution is to try every vegetable available to me,” she said.

Raw food advocates say their diets are superior because enzymes and other nutrients are not destroyed by cooking.

But other experts disagree with those assertions.

Robert Wolke, author of “What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained,” said the notion that enzymes are destroyed at 118 degrees was “bizarre.”

“There are thousands of enzymes consisting of thousands of different proteins that denature under different conditions,” he wrote in an essay appearing at “Fixating on a single denaturation temperature is nonsense.”

He also said the enzymes in fruits and vegetables helped them grow, ripen, mature and ultimately decay.

“But apple enzymes are useless for human digestive purposes,” writes Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at University of Pittsburgh.

While it is true that cooking destroys some nutrients, notably vitamin C and B as well as some phytochemicals, it also enhances bioavailability of others.

Lycopene in tomatoes and beta carotene in carrots are more accessible after being cooked, said Carolyn Nasca, registered dietitian and health improvement specialist at Internal Revenue Service Center.

“We all need a balance of cooked and raw foods,” said Nasca, a fish-eating vegetarian.

But Zavasta, who has even seen her vision improve on her diet, is sticking to raw.

“Whatever words I could say about how I feel pale in comparison to the results.”

Christine Arpe Gang: 529-2368

Tonya Zavasta — showing how to make truffles — delayed her switch to a raw diet until she moved to Memphis from Moldova, where a variety of fresh produce was scarce. “My New Year’s resolution is to try every vegetable available to me.”

Red Cabbage with Veggie Paté is on Tonya Zavasta’s menu for raw food diets. Zavasta is a raw diet enthusiast. Her new, self-published book is “Your Right to Be Beautiful.”

A small group in Memphis swears by raw diets. These folks try a variation of uncooked dishes prepared by Tonya Zavasta for a demonstration at Wild Oats.

Raw foods chef and author Paul Nison demonstrates the preparation of raw dishes at Wild Oats.

Only a few blender-minutes separate cauliflower and raw mushrooms from being transformed into “mashed potatoes and gravy” the raw diet way.

Pureed and fermented macadamia nuts and coconut go into the raw dieter’s “cheesecake” by Tonya Zavasta.

(Above pictures not available)


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