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Getting to Raw : toward better eating habits

A work in progress

Like each of us, this article is a work in progress ... and if you think you have a milestone we left out, let us know!

Self-examination and conversations with friends who have received a "health wake-up call" that has jarred them into seeking to reform unconscious food habits reveals that we were raised, and live, in a culture of bad food-like products. Generations of healthy food advocates have been declaring loudly and unequivocally that much of what ails us, makes us obese, and ultimately kills us is in our favorite foods. The additives, fats, sugars, and salt that makes fast food speedy and addictive have crept into our packaged food in surprisingly large, one might even say horrifying, amounts. In our haste to build careers and pursue fulfilled lives, many of us have lost touch with healthy food.

Most of us learned our eating habits from parents who were guided by a "Food Pyramid" that we have since learned was devised by agricultural lobbyists more concerned with disposing of farm surpluses than fostering human nutrition. Growing up, there were fewer choices, and food often came from cans and the freezer. By the time we were on our own, many of us were living stress-filled lives that had us moving too fast to pay much attention to our health ... after all, we were going to live forever, right?

EarthSave Hamburger Poster, available at, shows the true cost of an hamburger.
EarthSave's Hamburger Poster

A few lucky souls can eat mindlessly into their nineties, but many more of us find ourselves developing food allergies and nutritional deficits. Some of us -- the lucky ones -- get the dire wake-up call in time to eat ourselves healthy.

For those of us who want to reform bad eating habits developed over a lifetime, there are a number of stumbling blocks -- we have acquired a stubborn taste for salty, oily french fries, whip-cream filled pastries, that our palates have been conditioned to crave. I've been thinking a lot about this and how it relates to our quest for a more healthy lifestyle. I didn't start out as a raw foodist and I'm not 100% raw all the time, but I did begin with a fairly standard American diet, and slowly journeyed to where I am today. Some days are better than others, but my overall consumption is light-years healthier than where I started. I want to explore some of the ideas that have helped me over the years.

My partners in this quest, Michael and Sienna, the father and daughter team who help me communicate with you, are foodies, not very "raw," who remind me of an important truth: even if we're not headed toward raw, we all need some sensible guidelines to help us navigate the transition to healthier eating.

goal setting: the foundation of change

1 : Start with 'low hanging fruit' -- easy goals you can achieve

Consistency is everything -- start with one small, easily accomplished new habit. Master that, and then attempt the next step. The most successful people in the world all say the same thing. "It's consistency over time that reaps the greatest rewards." And we know that diets in particular are problematic: bingeing is worse than staying with the bad habits.

Adding is easier than subtracting, so try adding colors to your diet, beginning with green -- a green smoothie or juice each day, a big salad with at least one meal, and a tasty helping of greens or colored vegetables with another. Oranges, yellows, reds, and purples are bursting with trace minerals and essential nutrients wholly missing from the standard fast food diet. By adding new wonderful healthy things to your day you'll be well on your way to all around good vibrations.

Ingredients for Green Goodness! (photo by Katie Reed)
Ingredients for Good (photo by Katie Reed)

Sugar is a worthy opponent; many of us are flat out addicted and go through withdrawal, so this isn't a good place to start. For my strategies on reducing sugar in your diet, my article on Low Hanging Fruit may help.

A beginning point might be to choose one meal a day you can tweak a little moving towards your goals. I started with breakfast. I remember loving yogurt, granola, and fruit to begin my day. One of my first steps was to move up the continuum from dairy milk for my granola to almond milk in a box, then to making my own nut milk (which is how I started the More Than A Nut Milk Bag project). Then I began buying the components of raw granola -- much more widely available now than five years ago when I began -- and when I could afford my first dehydrator (I recommend the Excalibur), I began making my own granola -- Yum! With myself and my students, whatever the goal, I look for the Low Hanging Fruit and start there.

Green Goodness! (photos by Katie Reed)
Green Goodness! (photos by Katie Reed)

2 : A Little at a Time -- Stepwise Refinement

As soon as you begin the transition to healthy food, temptation begins to drag us back into bad old habits. Family and friends will pressure us, but the biggest pressure comes from the corporate-dominated economy that clamors from every angle for us to buy "products." After all, that's where their profit is!

Resist with every healthy fiber in your being. But don't over-reach. That's why the low-hanging fruit (Guideline #1) is so important. Start by taking baby steps ... but don't stop walking ... and strive to lengthen your stride a little bit every day.

No guilt! As all of us who have dieted know, consistency is the hardest, yet most important, challenge. Back-sliding and bingeing are so common that they are the rule, rather than the exception. The great majority of dieters see success at first, but within a year are back to, or above, their initial weight. Guilt is counter-productive, but taking this, or any, massive challenge one baby step at a time at first generates momentum that will carry us past the barriers where most dieters stumble. My own improving sense of well-being as I transitioned to "the raw lifestyle," provided powerful motivation to tackle harder challenges.

For most of us, the changing eating habits involves others ... and of course we want our families to be healthy, too. Sermonizing about the evils of sugar-free sodas and the food-like product cartel will likely fall on the deaf ears of carnivorous partners and offspring. Listen sensitively to their objections, and negotiate small but steady gains.

3 : Eat slowly and only until you're 80% full

We live in a Land of Plenty, and one way we manifest that for ourselves is with a "super-size me", all-you-can-eat approach to portion control. Every body is different, but generally we eat about a quarter more than we need to maintain our body weight and health. Try thinking of hunger as a healthy condition that moves us to seek food, not as an evil to be feared. Cherish a little hunger. Remember feeling "stuffed" after Thanksgiving dinner? THAT is the true evil, our body telling us we have poisoned it with too much. Moderation in all things ...including moderation.

Many of the healthiest elders in our culture have learned that strict caloric restriction is at the root of their health. Google it if you're interested. But think of it this way: carrying more than a few pounds of fat around with you is a constant drain on your energy.

When you eat slowly you masticate your food thoroughly, extract all the good tastes, and allow the digestive process to kick into high gear to begin converting what you put in your mouth into fuel for your cells. It takes about 20 minutes for the "I'm full" message gets to your brain, so use your quicker wits to decide when enough is enough. Take time to appreciate the flavor, texture, and appearance of each morsel -- to get your money's worth! -- supports you entirely, so slow down and smell the garlic.


4 : Don't shop on an empty stomach

Raw on the Road Supplies - Tokyo, August 2011
Raw on the Road Supplies

The more nourished we are, the more rational we tend to be. Similarly, irrationality increases the longer we go without food. This helps us explain our grocery store tendencies better: a hungry brain has a hard time focusing on the healthiest and cheapest options because doing so requires mental energy it doesn't have. The opposite happens when we shop on a full stomach; a glucose-enriched brain has a much easier time doing the math, and making the decisions about what is best. If we're hungry, we are easily distracted by the bright colors and outrageously false claims made by producers of food-like goods. (See the next suggestion about avoiding the clamor altogether.)

What I like about this idea is its meta-message: if you aren't well-fed, how can you be expected to make smart food choices? If that isn't an as-above-so-below question that we can all examine and refine, I never saw one.

5 : Shop around the edges

We have all seen articles about 'how to shop for groceries.' One of the most effective hints is to 'shop around the edges' of your megamart. That's where the real, fresh foods are; the center of the store is devoted to packaged, processed foods clamoring for your vote with all the TV advertising, colorful consumer-tested packaging, and incentives their makers can devise. Retailers are beginning to notice that we're onto this pattern and have begun stacking the edges of their stores with all those packaged things you want to avoid. Bottom line: use common sense and remember what we always say -- raw and living foods don't come in packages, bottles, cans, or cartons. You find them freshest at your farmers market, and the next likeliest source is your grocer's produce section.

if you must buy packaged products...

6 : Never, ever believe anything on the front of any product. . . ever

Same reason that the old Food Pyramid was corrupt. Corporations don't really care if you're healthy; they're looking for a healthy bottom line. The inattentive buyer is their favorite victim.

7 : Always read the Nutrition Facts and scan the ingredient list

What you're looking for: Whole grains, No bad fats, Limited added sugars. What you're looking to avoid: fat content higher than 20% of the total calorie content, and milligrams of sodium higher than the calories.

For more about this simple but powerful guideline, read my article, Label Reading 101.

in the kitchen: food prep:

8 : Less is Better

With few exceptions, the less you do to good ingredients, the healthier they are for you. This is the basis for the Raw Food movement. Before submitting your food to the torch, ask yourself, ingredient by ingredient, "Why does this food need to be heated?"

Cooking things got its start back in the day before refrigeration and food stores, when, more often than not, the food had to be cooked to kill the spoiling organisms that had already infested it. (Doesn't that make you hungry for the good old days?) Spices became popular because they mask the flavors that are the inevitable result of cooking spoiled food. According to some experts, many of the most important nutrients in food start to break down when the temperature goes above 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

For folks trying to make the transition to healthy eating, and particularly for those whose families are dragging their feet, slow, steady progress -- see Guideline #2 -- gives the benefits of what I call "authentic eating." Don't try to go to far or too fast, but give time for the inevitable improvement in health and vigor to impress itself on you and yours, providing motivation to tackle the next step.

A good place for carnivores to start is by reducing the amount while upgrading the quality of meat. We who live in the land of the 16-ounce T-bone and the Double Quarter Pounder are not doing our hearts (or the world's hungry or the Amazonian rainforest) any favors by gobbling up big hunks of roast beast. Here's a good goal to work toward: no more than two ounces of animal protein at a meal ...and that includes all the bacon, butter, sour cream, and eggs.

9 : Go Vegan

Sushi rolls (photo by Kang Lim)
Sushi rolls (photo by Kang Lim)

The longest-lived people on the planet either avoid meat entirely, or use it as a flavoring to make their vegetable-rich diet more savory.

We often hear objections that a vegan diet doesn't provide enough protein, particularly for "growing boys" (and we don't mean the boys whose growth is mostly measured by their increasing waist measurement.) For teenagers, especially athletes, meat is possibly the most efficient protein source, but for the rest of us, it is of questionable benefit, especially when it is laden with gobs of fat -- hamburgers are typically one quarter fat (and you don't want to know where fast food fat comes from) -- and hormones, endocrine disruptors, and traces of genetically modified feed. In a balanced vegan diet, abundant protein comes from green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains.

10 : Know who grew your food

GE seed companies proliferate across the country.
GE seed companies proliferate
across the country.

Shortening the distance your food travels is a great way to improve its quality. Clearly the tastiest food is grown in your own garden ...and the effect of cultivating what feeds you promotes health in many ways beside nutrition. Support farmer's markets, because knowing your greens came from Farmer John and your carrots from Neighbor Sally, doesn't just supporting a robust and secure local food system while reducing the petroleum consumed to ship products around; you know who to talk to if the quality isn't scrumptious. (It will be.)

Europeans take pride in food from "kilometer zero," meaning the kitchen garden, the neighbor's field, or the greenhouse on the edge of town. Bartering -- taking money out of the food equation -- is particularly sweet: grow a bumper crop and trade with your neighbors for their surplus. Everyone turns out to have a gift for growing some crops, and a black thumb when it comes to others.

11 : Make friends with your inner biota

While on the subject of getting to know the neighbors: Eat something fermented every day!

Initially, the "eeew" factor may be pretty intense, especially for people who don't know this, but our personal health absolutely depends on the 20 trillion or so organisms that live on and in each one of our bodies -- what ecologists call the "human microbiome." The healthy human gut, starting with the mouth and ending -- well, you know -- hosts 500 to 1,000 separate species of bacteria, fungi, and archaea. Our largest organ, our skin, hosts roughly the same diversity of a whole separate microscopic population. This micro-biota helps us resist disease, digest food, and maintain our health. (Here's more on the microbiome.)

So Walt Whitman wasn't joking when he wrote, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

Nothing tunes our micro-biota better than fermented foods, including yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchee, unpasteurized vinegar and beer, kombucha, miso ... the list goes on and on. There is also good evidence that our obsessive anti-bacterial cleaning and hyper-pasteurization undermines our health and our ability to handle inevitable exposures to sickness.

12 : What's Oil got to do with it?

Oils are the bearers of important non-water-soluble nutrients. Even the most meticulous raw foodists use oils. But most Americans only know one kind of oil -- cheap "cooking oil," most likely a product derived from genetically modified crops, massively refined and treated to have infinite shelf life while costing the producer as little as possible to make.

There are oils that make us healthier, that counteract exposures to disease and radiation, that taste delicious, and oils that contain or carry valuable nutrients. For those who cook, different oils have different qualities when heated, and "cooking oil" is usually the poorest choice. So educate yourself about oils, and diversify your oil intake. Here's a chart we love.

Beyond food...

Friends, foodies, and experts, insist that there are some other habits that augment healthy eating.

13 : Exercise

Brenda running on the beach
Running on the beach

In my own recovery, I discovered that exercise is inseparable from a sense of well-being. Like all the rest of these rules, consistency is more important than rigor. Not everyone should be training for a marathon, but aiming for at least twenty minutes of serious exercise -- that makes your muscles burn, your heart beat fast, and your breathing deepen -- starts a whole cascade of improvements in well-being. Do something nice and easy to get yourself moving each and every day. If you have a dog, take him/her on a brisk walk daily. My golden retrievers, Bogie, and his predecessor, Tyler, have been my exercise partners for several years. We walk twice a day, one or two miles each time. Granted, as we've all gotten older we've slowed down, so our walks aren't as brisk, but they're happy, we're getting out into the day and the neighborhood (see #10 for building our sense of community), we get caught up on the neighborhood happenings AND we get some chi moving. And that's what it's all about.

14: Sense of Purpose

In Japan, I encountered the notion of Ikigai. Ikigai is a Japanese word that describes your sense of purpose in life, or what gets you out of bed in the morning. Examine yours. Is it consistent with your life? Or are you just singing that sad refrain, "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go"?

In my busy life, I'm constantly at risk of losing sight of my goals and sense of purpose. They just get run over by my high-speed life. And so I devised a mnemonic -- PEEETS -- to remind myself of the essential features I should never let get too far out of focus. Quick summary:

Here's an article that explains more about what these letters mean to me.

The China Study

I remember the day this journey towards eating myself healthy all began. Sitting in my gazebo reading a book, The China Study, given to me by a friend, I was half-way through it and suddenly realized I was engaged, mesmerized, interested, and reading as fast as my mind could absorb. Observing myself I knew, there's something here for me, something in the words ringing true. This led me to pick up another book, then another. Talking to one person led me to another. Each step along the way took me to my next adventure. I call this "following the energy." I follow the energy as it's flowing and it has taken me on the wildest of journeys. As long as I can remember I have had a strong sense of flow, and an appreciation for the slight course corrections and fine tunings that got me closer to my goals. When I picked up The China Study, I had no idea where I was going. I am forever grateful to the friend who helped me choose this path. At each bend in the road, I stand in awe and wonder. Contemplating the whole journey, it is daunting, but it's not impossible when taken one step at a time, looking for the low hanging fruit, incorporating what feels right, constantly evaluating how I'm feeling, and courageously making the changes needed to achieve my goals.

Today I'm healthier than ever, and always learning. Like this article, I am always a work in progress.

-- Brenda      

My mnemonic PEEETS reminds me to Prioritize, Educate, Eat, Exercise, Take action, seek Self-mastery....

I got to meet Bob himself, red vest and all....

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updated 26 June 2017