Tanya Zavasta and her family moved here from Russia for two reasons: to fulfill their American dream and to have Zavasta's leg surgically repaired. Due to a severe hip problem, one leg was shorter than the other. After she learned she would need extensive surgery to correct the problem, she began eating a diet of raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds in hopes that it would help her recover faster.
Little did she know her diet would not only improve her health, it would dramatically modify her appearance. In a "before" picture at age 35, Zavasta has puffy cheeks, no visible cheekbones, and the beginnings of a double chin. Now, at age 47, she looks like she's gone back in time with defined cheekbones and a clear, wrinkle-free complexion. She says she feels like she's in her 20s.
Eventually, Zavasta put her experiences on the benefits of raw eating into a book called Your Right to Be Beautiful. Another book, Beautiful on Raw: Uncooked Creations, is due out in April.
A raw-food diet has been shown to reduce the risk of some cancers and degenerative diseases such as arthritis. Proponents of the diet also claim they have increased energy, and -- due to the fact that they eat a minuscule amount of fat and carbs -- substantial weight loss.
"The severe migraines that I suffered at a young age are gone completely, my sinus problems cleared up, and I stopped having colds," says Zavasta. "I lost weight and I gained energy, but the change in my appearance was the most startling [aspect]."
Zavasta claims a bulging varicose vein on her left calf has vanished, and all pimples and blackheads have disappeared. Her waist is three inches smaller than it was on her wedding day 25 years ago. Actors Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson and supermodel Carol Alt also swear by the diet. Raw-food restaurants are popping up on both coasts.
Proponents claim that all of the vitamins and minerals found naturally in foods are retained in raw foods. Zavasta says that up to 90 percent of the vitamins in broccoli are lost through microwaving, and up to 50 percent are lost when the vegetable is boiled. Most of her protein comes from nuts and seeds, and Zavasta maintains that the diet provides all the nutrients a person needs without taking supplements.
"If we have an apple pie and an apple, where would you get the most nutrients?" Zavasta asks rhetorically. "When other people eat something cooked, like a stir-fry, I eat a raw vegetable salad. As a result, I get a hundred times more vitamins and nutrients."
Raw-food advocates are generally vegans, meaning they don't eat meat, dairy, or eggs, although some do eat sushi. Beans and nuts are often soaked until soft and then used in pâtés or spreads. Many commonly cooked dishes have raw counterparts. For example, raw-foodists often make spaghetti noodles from zucchini or spaghetti squash.
The diet is slowly gaining popularity in Memphis. The Memphis Living Foods Support Group meets on the second Thursday of each month at Wild Oats for a potluck supper and discussion or guest speaker. Zavasta says there are 400 people who have signed onto the group's e-mail newsletter.
"Even with the spectacular results of my diet, I felt alone, so I decided to found a support group," she says. "The goal of the group is to help its members and interested visitors develop good, healthy eating habits and ease the lure of bad food choices."
Zavasta says she's on a mission to turn Memphis -- which has been named among the fattest cities in the country on more than one list -- on to her "rawsome diet" one person at a time.
Besides her local support group, she's also targeting the Christian community.
"My heart aches when I think that at every Bible class, they have coffee and donuts. I dream of a day when they will have a juicer," says Zavasta.
She also hosts lectures, gives raw-foods preparation classes, and does a little motivational speaking on the side.
"The raw-foods diet is not too popular in Memphis, and that's where I come in," she says. "I'm trying to change how we eat in the South."