Aleesha Stephenson jokes that she used to be the only “raw foodie” in Agassiz, a place that’s known better for lying somewhere between Hope and Mission than for its food activism.
Her raw vegan diet is a bit of a local anomaly, but the 47-year-old raw-food and fasting coach tells the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that she is always willing to help, at a minimal cost, those who are curious about the health benefits of such a regime.
Stephenson says her story began in 2007, when she weighed 300 pounds and decided she had to do something.
“I was so sick,” she says. “Getting off the couch to go to the bathroom was too much of an effort for me. A friend suggested that I [juice] fast for 10 days and that maybe that would help. And I felt fabulous. Then I went back to eating and felt like crap.”
It was at this point, she says, that the epiphany came: stick with raw food and ditch the Standard American Diet (SAD) for good.
“It is interesting how many people eat raw foods and then they eat a Standard American Diet meal [high in processed foods and animal fats; low in plant-based foods and fibre] and they get really depressed afterwards,” Stephenson said. “SAD food makes you sad.”
Raw food is beneficial, she explains, because its living enzymes are intact, not having been exposed to high cooking temperatures. Hence, the raw food retains its full nutritional potency, and “your food digests itself”. She says your body can then use the energy saved from digestion to heal itself. Stephenson’s current weight of 132 pounds is a physical manifestation of her success.
“Juice fasting, such as I do, is very empowering,” Stephenson adds. “Making it through Thanksgiving dinner this year—cooking for my family all day long, and serving the food and sitting at the table with them—I was water fasting. So I sat with my glass of water and watched them all eat.”
However, not everyone is thrilled with a raw-food diet. Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University, writes in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (Basic Books, 2009) that humans retain more energy in their bodies when they eat cooked food. Absorbing nutrients expends a great deal of energy—even more so when the food is raw. After humans started consuming cooked food, Wrangham argues that natural selection favoured those with small guts, which are more energy-efficient. “Humans do not eat cooked food because we have the right kind of teeth and guts; rather, we have small teeth and short guts as a result of adapting to a cooked diet,” he writes.
Meanwhile, effervescent 62-year-old yoga instructor Clive Langton told the Straight that he credits both his yoga practice and raw-food diet for his good health. Langton is a director with the Raw Food Society of B.C. The group’s website, www.rawbc.org/, contains a raft of information and advice on what to do to get involved with the raw-food movement.
Langton estimates that the amount of people in Metro Vancouver—and Agassiz—currently eating raw food numbers “in the thousands” and is increasing.
“I want to qualify that statement,” Langton says. “If you look at our [Raw B.C.] mission statement, it’s not about people swearing an oath, doomed to die if they ever have a morsel of cooked food in their mouth. It’s moving in the direction of eating more fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. There are a lot of people realizing that they want to eat more simple on the food chain, more healthily.”
This is partly why Stephenson is now a coach, as she wants others to benefit from her own discipline and willpower. The message must be resonating, as she says she has clients all across North America, and even as far away as Morocco. Langton, for his part, says that Raw B.C. is upgrading its website and is hearing from other raw-food groups worldwide that are inspired by what it is doing to get society on a raw footing.
“When you go to a restaurant, you get a pile of rice or you get noodles or you get potatoes or french fries, and it’s all just filler,” Langton says, by way of a parting shot at SAD. “You don’t want to be eating that if you had a choice, really, because it’s not nutrition. It’s sludge that’s just going to fill up those cells and make your body feel more tired and exhausted and craving more food because you’re not getting fed, really.”
Langton then adds, diplomatically: “I don’t want to put you off your lunch.”