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Raw food diet followers claim range of health benefits; challenge is planning

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LONDON, Ont. - For those accustomed to eating cooked food (in other words, most people), the move to a raw food diet is a major commitment.

But it's well worth it, says Rose Vasile, a former Kitchener, Ont., resident who discovered raw food in 2001 after moving to British Columbia.

Vasile is a certified raw foods chef, instructor and educator and the author of "Uncooking with RawRose." She self-published 500 copies in 2006 and recently released the fifth edition, with total sales of 9,000.

A raw food diet is similar to a vegan diet — no dairy, meat, fish, eggs or honey. But raw foodists also believe cooking food above a maximum temperature of 40.6 C to 47.7 C (105 F to 118 F) — the cut-off point varies in the community — destroys beneficial enzymes in it. That means grains, unless they're sprouted, all soy products and any foods processed at a higher temperature are unacceptable.

Vasile, whose cut-off is 40.6 C (105 F), started her transition to raw food gradually, initially attracted by a desire to lose weight. As she increased her intake of raw food, she says, she noticed other changes besides the weight loss, including more energy, the disappearance of food allergies, improved mental clarity and digestion and fewer mood swings.

Raw foodists generally claim an extensive range of health benefits from the diet.

"I'm not a medical practitioner and I'm not a nutritionist," she says. "I just feel better when I eat raw."

She says she eats about 90 to 95 per cent raw and her experience is that most raw foodists follow a similar regimen. Exceptions to her diet include some steamed vegetables and tea, although she doesn't bring the water to a boil. She also occasionally indulges in vegetarian sushi (with cooked rice) or dark chocolate.

But most of her diet consists of fruits, leafy greens and other vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and some fermented foods, including red wine, all eaten cold or at close to room temperature. She makes her own crackers in a dehydrator and is a big proponent of green smoothies (about 60 per cent fruit and 40 per cent leafy greens blended together).

The recipes in her book, all of which she developed, are surprisingly varied. Her lasagna is made with layers of mushrooms, zucchini and spinach, almond cheese (made with fermented almonds) and marinara sauce (made with a base of sun-dried tomatoes and dates), and her "pasta" dishes are made with beet, squash, carrot, celery root, turnip, yam or zucchini noodles.

She has a large section on soups, salad dressings, sauces and dips and another on desserts, often using nuts and seeds as the base for cakes or pies.

For those who miss the comfort of hot foods, she suggests warming spices such as cinnamon, cayenne or ginger.

One of the challenges of eating raw is to know just what is raw, she says.

For example, many almonds are pasteurized, so they don't qualify. Dates that have the pits steamed out of them aren't raw, but dates with pits are. Most dried fruits sold in stores are dried at high temperatures, she says, and therefore aren't raw. But sun-dried fruits are OK. "Refined" oils are not approved, but unrefined, cold-pressed or stone-pressed oils are fine. There are many more exceptions.

Once you become familiar with "real" raw foods, the actual food preparation is no more time-consuming than cooked foods, Vasile says. And the clean-up is a breeze.

But it does require planning.

She dehydrates and sprouts a lot of her food, processes that take many hours and have to be done ahead so the ingredients are available when she's ready to make a meal.

Chelsea Clark, owner of Rawlicious, a raw food restaurant with two outlets in Toronto, says one thing that surprises her is the number of older people interested in eating raw, an observation Vasile also makes. When the first Rawlicious opened in 2008, Clark says, "diehard raw foodies" would travel considerable distances to eat there. Now the clientele is a total mixture of carnivores, vegetarians, vegans and raw foodists. "We're very mainstream."

The restaurants are strictly vegan but slightly less stringent than Vasile in their definition of raw food and the temperature at which dishes can be served.

"It's hard to get them on the scale that we need them," says Clark of ingredients such as non-pasteurized almonds, for example. The restaurants also use balsamic vinegar and maple syrup, which are "bordering on the raw," but are not acceptable to strict raw foodists.

Foods served warm — to a maximum of 48.8 C (120 F) or warmer than room temperature — at the restaurants include pizza and meat loaf (both nut-based), mashed "potatoes" (which are really cauliflower) and a warm soup.

But one of the biggest menu hits is ice cream made with cashews and coconut.

"I don't think anyone would know that it's raw ice cream," Clark says.

"Uncooking with RawRose" is available at some health food stores across the country or in e-book or hard-copy versions from www.rawrose.com. The price is $29.95.

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To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.

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