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Today we have the pleasure of featuring an interview with Gena Hamshaw, a raw foodist, detox coach, and blogger extraordinaire.  A vegan raw foodist, Gena talks about her food philosophy and chronicles the delicious recipes she makes on her blog, Choosing Raw.  She’s agreed to answer a few of our questions about food combining, eating healthfully on a recessionista’s budget, and how to eat raw throughout the cold winter months.


Choosing Raw

Spark!: What inspired your journey to seek out more healthy ways of nourishing yourself?

Gena: I, like most people who are drawn to raw foods, had a history of digestive distress and emotional difficulty with food. I had suffered disordered eating in my early teens—partly, I believe, because my tastes were naturally herbivorous, and I didn’t have a healthy model of plant-based nutrition available to me at the time. I also suffered from very acute IBS, which began around the age of eleven and persisted viciously until I was about twenty-four.

Switching from vegetarianism to veganism helped me immensely in combating my IBS (dairy is, as I’m sure I don’t need to point out, a major IBS exacerbator), and discovering raw foods, food combining, colon hydrotherapy, and other basics of the kind of digestive model I help teach now changed my life forever. With the rare exceptions of my most stressful weeks, I’m now IBS-symptom free.

Spark!: Your family is Greek and loves traditional Greek food. How did they react to your changes in diet?

Gena: Not happily! It was a struggle. Greek mothers – much like Jewish mothers, and Italian mothers, and Indian mothers (notice a pattern here? Maybe it’s moms of all cultures!) show their love through food. It was difficult for my mother to accept that I was naturally drawn to an entirely different sort of dietary model than the one that’s valued in her culture, and on which she herself had been raised. It was hard for her to accept that I didn’t want to eat meat as a child, and hard for her to accept (later, in my late teens and college years) that I was forgoing dairy, fish, and eggs, too. Most of all, my way of eating filled my loving Greek Yaya with outrage! My mother was often caught in between the two of us—in between generations, as it were.

What’s allowed us to reach an understanding, I think, is the fact that my Mom and I have a very mature rapport about all things, food included. I let her ask questions; she poses them in a kind and non threatening way. I share my cooking with her at home, but I’m also willing to make compromises for her (say, cooked foods that I’m not accustomed to eating) at restaurants when we dine out together.

Most of all, seeing the great health and happiness I’ve experienced with raw foods has made my mother accept their place in my life. She can’t argue with freedom from IBS, abundant energy, and, most of all, finally having found a peaceful and joyous relationship with food.

Spark!: On your blog, you recommend to those who are short on time to hold back on inventing new recipes and to stick to basics instead. What further advice do you have for eating on a limited budget?

Gena: Love this topic! I really do believe that simplicity (ingredients and preparation) is key to saving money. But there are other practical steps that help:

· Shop organic for the dirty dozen, and conventional for other produce. If your budget opens to accommodate more organic produce, great – it’s one of the best investments you can make. But if it doesn’t, pick and choose your battles: shopping organic is always worth it for the produce most susceptible to pesticide residue, but it can be relatively unimportant for fruits and vegetables that tend to be more resistant to sprays and pesticides.

· Use bulk bins at your health food store for nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes. It’s usually the best way to get value on nuts and dried fruits, which can add up on a raw diet.

· Shop on sale! Take advantage of sales to stock up on pantry items you know you’ll ultimately need (oils, vinegars, grains, etc.). You’ll be grateful later.

· Get to know your local food sourcers. Prices can vary dramatically from grocery store to grocery store, and it’s worth figuring out where the best values are.

· Use Debbie Meyer’s green bags to keep produce fresh and to avoid losing money on spoiled produce.

· You said it above, but it’s worth repeating: keep it simple. Nothing is more likely to eat up your money than spending endless dollars on fancy raw ingredients, supplements, and recipes. The less you stress, the more you’ll save.

Spark!: You’re a big proponent of food combining. Tell us what that’s all about and how it has benefited you.

Gena: The idea behind food combining is this: it takes different food groups different amounts of time to digest. If we eat foods that digest quickly with those that digest slowly, the body prioritizes breaking down the slow-digesting food, and gets to work on it first. This leaves the lighter food fermenting behind the heavier food. Translation? It leaves you with an expanding abdomen, gas, and cramping.

You’ve probably experienced this if you’ve chosen to eat fruit for dessert. You follow a rich meal with an apple thinking, “hey, it’s an apple! Healthy dessert, right?” Wrong. That apple will ferment behind your beef wellington, leaving you with a rock hard and rapidly expanding belly.

There are some raw foodists who get overly complex with their food combining habits, and I’m not one of them. I believe that we should eat major food groups (such as proteins and starches) separately as often as we can. You can find a good primer on my blog, Choosing Raw. Do we have to be religious about it? No. Should we do our best? Yes.

It’s amazing to me that food combining is still considered a “fringe” practice. It’s intuitively sensible, and moreover, I’ve seen it heal countless IBS sufferers—it alone, and not the pharmaceuticals and laxatives typically prescribed to those in pain. It’s miraculous. I saw eight gastroenterologists when I suffered from IBS, and not one thought to ask me detailed questions about my diet, let alone what kinds of food combinations I ate. As soon as I started combining, I noticed a world of relief. And so do most who suffer from IBS and constipation.

Spark!: How do you go seasonal with your diet? Is it difficult to be all and mostly raw in the winter?

Gena: Not for me! I’m at a point in life wherein I rarely crave hot, cooked foods. But with that said, I do sometimes crave baked roots or warm soups like everyone else. And when I do, I eat them! As long as they’re vegan and well combined, they’re fine with me. Keeping this kind of relaxed attitude is precisely why I’m able to enjoy and maintain a lifestyle that many others see (from the outside) as restrictive or doctrinaire.

If you do struggle, then, the first thing to do is to eat some cooked foods when you wish to. The second is to eat and season with warming foods that are nevertheless raw, like ginger, pepper, and various spices. The third is to bring cool food to room temperature. You can do this by warming raw soups gently, till they’re room temperature, in pots; and putting raw entrees in an oven heated to 150 degrees for a few moments, or until hot.

Most of all, don’t get too hung up on how raw you are. There’s a good chance that, if you let yourself have some cooked food, you’ll begin to crave raw naturally once again!

Thanks, Gena, for sharing your wisdom with us!

Spark! Wellness

Spark! is a NYC-based consortium of practitioners providing holistic services in nutritional counseling, yoga, fitness, and acupuncture to health-conscious New Yorkers (and beyond!) who want to look and feel their best.

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