When Gail Tencer first decided to eat a completely raw diet, her husband was skeptical.
"He was like, 'What are you into now?'" she remembers.
What Tencer was getting into was a raw diet — a diet composed completely of uncooked food. Some raw foodists will eat raw meat, eggs, milk, and fish, but most people on a raw diet are vegetarian and eat fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and sprouted grains. What a raw diet doesn't include is anything heated above 100 degrees: steamed vegetables, soup, most processed foods, bread, etc.
Raw-food enthusiasts believe that cooking food destroys the enzymes that are naturally present in fruit and vegetables, and most will say that eating raw gives them more energy and better health.
Tonya Zavasta is one such person. She was born with a hip deformity that required several surgeries to correct. When she realized that the medical procedures were taking a toll on her body, she started to look for ways to offset the effects of the surgeries. She was vegetarian for 13 years before switching to a vegan diet and then finally to raw food the next year.
"The biggest revelation for me was when people started telling me how good I looked," Zavasta says. "I'm 50 years old, and I get compliments that I'm beautiful almost every day."
Zavasta started a local raw-food group in 2004 and has written three books on the subject. Since Zavasta travels most of the year, lecturing and promoting her work, Tencer runs the group, which meets on the second Thursday of the month at Whole Foods. Participants — usually around 35 — can either bring a raw dish to share or $5 to come and eat.
"It's a great way for people new to raw food to try it out," Tencer says. She and her husband, Steve, found out about raw food after seeing Zavasta at Whole Foods during one of the meetings.
"I became interested in it for better energy and digestion," Tencer says. She and her husband eat 90 percent to 95 percent raw.
Eating out can be challenging, according to Tencer. "Socializing can be very difficult, especially here in Memphis, where there aren't a lot of options for raw food when dining out," she says. "In Los Angeles and New York City, there are lots of raw-food restaurants."
Tencer often finds herself answering questions from people confused about what a raw diet means. Another big challenge is the amount of time it takes to prepare raw food and shop for fresh ingredients. There are lots of tasty and interesting recipes out there, but they require preparation from scratch.
"You really have to relearn how to prepare food," Tencer admits. "It's an adjustment, but slowly, you make the transition."
Judith Dierkes, another local raw foodist, eats out occasionally and orders things like the raw slaw at P.F. Chang's.
"Most restaurants have salads, and you can order a double portion," she says. For groceries, she shops at Whole Foods and the Farmers Market over the summer. She also has her own garden and will freeze home-grown fruits and vegetables to eat during the winter.
"I also support Kroger, because they do a great job offering organic food," Dierkes says.
Tencer orders some food online, and both she and Dierkes agree that the most important thing when buying food to be eaten raw is its freshness.
For people used to the warmth and comfort of hot, cooked food, going raw can seem strange and overwhelming.
Tencer says that an important first step is to ask, "What can I add to my diet at every meal that will make that meal more nutritious?"
"Maybe eat a salad instead of a burger at lunch," she suggests. "Even 50 percent raw is better than nothing. My advice is to bring in more green, leafy vegetables and fresh fruit into your diet." Giving up one cooked thing at a time helps the transition be smoother.
Sometimes, it's not a matter of giving something up but simply finding a substitute. Matthew Kenney has some creative ideas in his raw-food "uncookbook" Everyday Raw ($13.57, available on amazon.com), including red-chile pineapple dipping sauce, sesame cashew dumplings, portobello fajitas, and even recipes for raw bread. Kenney's book is one of several available.
Aside from adjusting to obvious differences in raw food, such as taste and texture, Tencer says that people should expect to feel different after eating a meal.
"People are used to feeling full, maybe some indigestion after they eat," she says. "Once you start eating raw, you have to get used to feeling different: not lethargic, more energized."
Tencer's only regret about raw food is that she wishes she had discovered it sooner.
"When you are in your 20s, you aren't thinking so much about what you are putting in your body," she says. "Unfortunately for a lot of people, they don't think about that until your doctor says you have high blood pressure or some other problem."
The Memphis raw-food group will meet on Thursday, December 11th, at 7 p.m. at Whole Foods. For more information, visit Tonya Zavasta's website, beautifulonraw.com.