By Emily Balser, Point Park News Service:
Fifteen years ago Janet McKee, a high-powered executive in Pittsburgh, was working her way up the corporate ladder, but she was also facing serious health problems. It was a life-altering dilemma – take a potentially cancer-causing drug the rest of her life or remove part of her large intestine.
Neither sounded good to her.
“I got myself out of the hospital, and I just said no, I’m not going to do that,” McKee said.
The illness was ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory condition that affects the large intestine, which McKee, 49, was diagnosed with in her early 20s. She managed it with the guidance of a doctor until her mid-30s when she decided to try something different – eating raw foods.
Raw eating is a diet and lifestyle in which people consume at least 80 percent of their food as organic and uncooked fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Some people also choose to drink raw, unpasteurized dairy products.
In Pittsburgh, the raw food community is called the Raw Food Meetup Group and has more than 600 members in an online forum. The group has monthly meet-ups around the city that members can attend.
McKee, who now works as a certified holistic health counselor, runs this group, traveling the country to speak about raw foods to people interested in the lifestyle. There are also online personalities, such as Kristina Carrillo-Bucaram, who devotes a YouTube channel to teaching others about raw eating and has a following of more than 200,000 people.
Certified nutritionist Leslie Bonci, who works for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and is a sports nutritionist, said that sometimes going raw can be dangerous, especially if the person has an underlying health problem or vitamin deficiency they don’t know about.
“If anybody’s going to make changes to what they are doing to their eating, they have to make sure everything is in order,” she said.
This includes having a blood test to rule out any deficiencies.
The growing popularity and success of this raw foods led local chef and restaurant owner Hilary Zozula, 28, to open Eden, a Shadyside restaurant where raw foodists can enjoy a night out to dinner. Opened in 2012, the restaurant features both a fully raw menu and a cooked vegan menu.
“We’ve seen so many people coming just for the raw food, and they do tell us they can’t go out to eat anywhere else,” she said. “We’ve actually had people come from Ohio and other states just to try us out because they only have a few places to choose from around them.”
Zozula said she has a passion for this kind of food and enjoys the challenge of coming up with ways to keep raw dishes interesting for her customers. Without formal chef training, Zozula learned most of her raw food expertise from her mother. Rather than just serving a plate of vegetables or fruit, she comes up with other ways to present the meals.
“We like to play off of dishes that are already in restaurants,” she said. “Right now we have a burrito that has a tortilla made of flax and vegetables, and we do a cashew sour cream.”
The restaurant also serves a raw take on a flatbread pizza using a dehydrated vegetable crust, sun-dried tomato sauce and cheese made from nuts.
Like McKee, Zozula is a proponent of the health benefits of living a mostly raw lifestyle including having more energy. She said going raw has given her a better quality of life and left her feeling brighter.
“It’s like you turn the volume up a little bit,” she said.
Kelly Orzechowski, 27, of Lawrenceville, said she has considered going raw, but hasn’t quite made the switch. A vegetarian since her late teens, Orzechowski has learned to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into her diet over the years.
“I have considered going raw because I know the many benefits of consuming unprocessed and natural foods,” she said.
Orzechowski learned these benefits as a graduate student at University of Pittsburgh where she is studying nutrition and dietetics.
“I have learned that eating whole, unprocessed foods can be better in terms of sodium content and fat content, but there can be cases where eating raw food is not recommended or can be dangerous,” she said.
Bonci, the nutritionist, doesn’t deny the benefits of adding more raw fruits and vegetables to your diet, but said that the idea that they have to be raw to get the most nutrients is a misconception.
“The reality is sometimes when you cook them you extract more nutritional value,” she said. “Vegetables can be more appealing than just having them in the raw form.”
The idea is that cooking vegetables diminishes the enzymes that aid in digestion, but Bonci said that the enzymes are within the body already, not just the food. As far as the health benefits regarding illnesses go, Bonci cautions against the idea that a raw food diet can cure them.
“It’s not curative, but it may help in alleviating symptoms,” she said.
That’s especially true for inflammatory conditions such as arthritis because fruits and vegetables are natural anti-inflammatory foods, she said.
There’s no one food plan that works best for everyone, Bonci said. She encouraged anyone interested in raw foods to start by incorporating one raw meal a day to see if it is something they can achieve.
“I think people could definitely incorporate aspects of it into their eating plan,” she said. “I really like the approach of thinking about eating in a plant-centric way.”
Whether or not it works for everyone, McKee said she believes eating a raw diet is what has helped her medical condition improve and said she has been pain-free for 15 years. She has started her own farm and business called Sana View. At the farm, she has planted fruits and vegetables. It will be open to the public in the spring to visit and learn about raw living.
“We want it to be a place where people can come and experience the fresh produce, learn about health and wellness, even learn how to grow their own organic foods,” she said.
When asked whether or not she misses pasta or other processed and cooked foods, she said she will sometimes indulge in a small portion if she’s really craving it. But that’s rare because she knows how bad eating those kinds of foods make her feel.
“I know what it feels like to feel fabulous,” she said. “So why would I not want to feel fabulous?”
A raw foodist’s daily menu
Water to hydrate
Fresh juice made with fruits and vegetables
Protein smoothie or fruit with raw almond butter
Wrap made of greens
Vegetable sushi made with cauliflower instead of rice
Salad with vegetables
Alfredo sauce made with nuts