Ask registered dietitian Vesanto Melina what some of her favourite dishes are right now and she’ll say coconut macaroons, pesto and sun-dried tomato pizza, and garden-vegetable soup. What makes them so appealing to the Vancouver resident isn’t just that they’re wholesome, but also that they fit right in with a raw-food diet.
The idea of consuming nothing but uncooked meals could be enough to perplex even the most open-minded meat eater. Is such a diet nutritionally sound? Doesn’t cooking contribute to food safety? And what about flavour: just how much can you get from flaxseed and crudités?
“When it comes to raw foods, there are all these big issues, beliefs, questions, and conflicts in understanding,” Melina says in a phone interview. “There are very hard questions.”
To clear up the culinary confusion, she cowrote Becoming Raw: The Essential Guide to Raw Vegan Diets (Book Publishing Company, $29.95) with Brenda Davis and Rynn Berry.
“If you’re going to be raw, here’s how to do it in good health,” says Melina, who herself follows a vegan diet that’s high in (but doesn’t consist exclusively of) raw foods. The former UBC nutrition professor has been vegetarian for more than 30 years and vegan for the last 17, having been introduced to different ways of preparing—and perceiving—food while travelling throughout India. She learned more about raw foods while writing and researching some of her previous books, including Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet and The New Becoming Vegetarian: The Essential Guide to a Healthy Vegetarian Diet (also cowritten by Davis).
One of the reasons she was intrigued by a raw-food diet, Melina admits, was weight loss.
“It is extremely effective for weight management. If you want something sweet, you eat a mango, which has a lot less calories than a cream puff,” she says with a laugh. (Melina will be giving a talk on raw foods on June 6 at 12:30 p.m. at Gorilla Food [101–436 Richards Street].)
Other reasons people are turning to raw foods are environmental (livestock are responsible for more greenhouse-gas emissions than transport, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization), ethical (consider the plight of animals in the factory-farming system), and philosophical (take the popularity of the 100-mile diet and the focus on sustainable, local agriculture). Then there’s the desire to eat more purely: raw food is real food, unlike so many refined and processed items that are stripped of nutrients and loaded with preservatives, colourings, and additives. Some see eating raw foods as a return to humanity’s roots, a kind of modern-day Garden of Eden menu.
Becoming Raw presents the existing evidence surrounding the safety of raw vegan diets, though Melina and her coauthors note that research is limited: most of the studies done to date have only looked at small groups of people and for short periods of time. And while a well-planned raw-food diet can be nutritionally adequate, those who follow the regimen must ensure they get enough nutrients, especially vitamin B12 (through supplements or nutritional yeast) and protein (which can be found in sunflower seeds, snow peas, and kale, among other foods).
The book isn’t exactly light reading; the nutritional analysis of every aspect of a raw vegan diet is complex stuff. (Take Table 11.2, which lists the “estimated reduction in trypsin activity with the consumption of sprouted legumes”, or the entry on heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.)
Being a raw foodie takes commitment: making sprouted grains, for instance, involves soaking them for 24 hours and then rinsing them frequently for a day or two. Sprouting lentils is a similar but lengthier process. “Blooming” wild rice requires a dehydrator. At the very least you need a high-powered blender on hand, if not a sturdy juicer.
But, as Melina explains, once people get accustomed to the logistics of living in the raw, they reap the benefits of high-quality food that’s abundant in antioxidants, phytochemicals, and other disease-fighting substances.
It’s flavourful too, as Becoming Raw proves with recipes for Pumpkin Seed Paté (lively with tahini, lemon juice, and walnuts), Sprouted Quinoa Tabouli (topped with fresh mint and lemon dressing), and Celeriac Linguine With Bolognese Sauce (the sauce is made with sun-dried tomatoes and dates) and Hemp Parmesan (which consists of hemp seeds, salt, and nutritional yeast flakes).
According to the book’s authors, the Creamy Zucchini Soup always gets rave reviews. The simple recipe can be found here.