Raw Deal/Oklahoma

A. CUERVO / Tulsa World

Raw Deal
World Scene Writer

Penni Shelton, who has followed a raw food diet since August, was skeptical at first. But it’s not all rabbit food, she says.

Some people are going a step beyond being a vegetarian or vegan.

If the idea of going vegetarian or vegan sounds radical, you’ve probably never heard of the raw food diet.

Foregoing cooked foods for a mostly plant-based diet is becoming increasingly popular with vegetarians looking to go a step further, and also with those looking to revamp their diets and lifestyles.

For most raw foodists, going raw means eating a diet of uncooked vegetables, fruits, nuts and sprouted beans and grains. For others, it includes raw dairy and raw meats.

Raw foodists believe eating food in its natural state preserves the food’s enzymes, giving the body the most nutritional benefit.

For those unaccustomed to the raw food diet, the entire idea sounds unfeasible and unrealistic.

“When I would tell people that I was an aspiring raw foodist, they would say ‘Why?’, ‘Isn’t that impossible?’ and ‘What in the world do you eat?'” said Penni Shelton, who has followed the raw food diet since August.

Shelton decided to give raw food a try after searching for relief from a longtime battle with irritable bowel syndrome. After reading the book “Eating in the Raw” by model Carol Alt, Shelton thought the diet might be her answer.

She was as skeptical as anyone when she first heard of raw food, assuming it involved mass quantities of rabbit food — carrots, celery and more carrots. And she was reluctant when she realized that coffee, bread and chocolate bars would be on the list of no-nos.

But rather than slowly transitioning, Shelton went all the way right away.

“I went into it whole heartedly. I bought a dehydrator and a juicer — I went 100 percent. I have since calmed down a little bit, and realized you can integrate it into your life without having a religious experience over it,” Shelton said. “Because it’s kind of radical, it can draw a more zealot type of person.”

Rene Norman, a licensed and registered dietitian with Nutrition Consultants of Tulsa, said other diets are not exempt from this same type of zealotry.

“People just flat get too extreme. They embrace something new and get too extreme,” Norman said.

Norman said there are benefits and drawbacks to any eating style. Raw can be done healthfully, though she said it is not for children, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. She said there’s no denying the tremendous benefit of vitamins and minerals in fresh fruits and vegetables, but there could be a tendency to skimp on grains and protein.

Cookbooks and Web sites on the raw food system explain how it can be done. While some meals can be as easy as eating a couple of pieces of fruit or making a smoothie, in order to get the grains and protein needed, planning and preparation are required. This is especially true of meals made with sprouted beans or ground seeds or wheat.

For those who need to see it to believe it, Patrick Harrington, who is somewhat of a raw food guru in Tulsa, teaches raw food classes at his downtown home, as well as free monthly classes at Wild Oats.

Harrington said there are all levels of interest. Some people want to add more fruits and vegetables to their diets, and want a more creative way to do it. Others want to go completely raw.

Before Harrington became a raw foodist, he was overweight and couldn’t make it up a flight of stairs without intense pain. In addition to his weight, he was concerned with what he was putting into his body. His mother died at age 57 from cancer.

When he discovered the raw food system, Harrington went cold turkey, eating a vegan diet. He lost 60 pounds in 13 weeks.

“I’ve continued to search and have altered my diet just a little. It’s almost a paleo diet now, with raw dairy, raw red meat and raw fish. Both my wife, Anna, and I felt that after about three years of being strictly raw vegans, we thought we needed something else, so we started experimenting about eight months ago,” he said.

Harrington doesn’t worry about eating raw meat and dairy because he knows the farmers and producers. However, Norman said, from a food safety position, foodborne illness remains a grave concern.

Norman said she does not currently have any patients who are on raw food diets, but she does have vegan and vegetarian patients. For them, her concerns are with their intake of protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which are found in animal-based diets.

For vegan raw foodists, Norman said she would have the same concerns.

“You could do it healthfully, but you have to know what you’re doing. It’s all about balance,” she said. “It’s basically vegan without the stove. The science is pretty clear that plant-based eating is really the healthiest — full of fiber, antioxidants and other phytochemicals that slow down aging.”

Shelton’s stove is more often used as a holding space for her nine-drawer Excalibur food dehydrator. But she hasn’t completely given it up.

“I’ve always been a cook, with all the gourmet equipment and the cookbooks, so the thought of not cooking at first freaked me out,” she said.

After three months of going raw, Shelton lost 15 pounds but was also exhausted from all the work eating raw can require.

“I was worn out, but I knew the diet was definitely worthwhile. So, I asked myself, ‘How can I make this fit into my lifestyle?’ ” she said.

She’s made it fit by allowing an occasional rare piece of meat when eating out, and by not being so hard on herself when she falls off the raw wagon.

She has also found recipes for some of her favorite cooked foods. Raw granola and uncooked chips made from ground flaxseed, corn, bell peppers and lime juice are two of her favorites.

“The reason so many people choose this diet is because our foods are so overprocessed and overcooked,” she said. “I’ve come to a point where I feel physically so much better, and I’ve found a sane way to go about it.”

Natalie Mikles 581-8486


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