Two years ago, my wife and I ate a strict raw vegan diet for six months.
I actually didn't mind the tasty vegan food, the easy prep methods, and of course, the fact that I finally fit in as one of the “cool people” at Whole Foods.
But, although I had no trouble being a complete yoga champ, I had a hard time maintaining muscle and red-hot athletic performance levels, particularly for weight training and high intensity intervals (maybe it's because I didn't customize my diet well enough).
An ex-raw vegan herself, my guest today, Hilary Bromberg, has a very interesting take on raw veganism and where it fits into a healthy eating protocol – particularly with respect to veganism's relevance to the Paleo diet.
I met Hilary at the recent PaleoFX conference in Austin, where she was working at the tastiest expo booth there: the Barefoot Provisions table. Barefoot Provision curates the tastiest raw, soaked, sprouted, digestible snacks and foods on the face of the planet, then delivers them direct to your door via online ordering (and we're talking orgasmically tasty snacks like exploding coconuts raw organic super chocolate, black cherry pork BBQ jerky, and jazzy sweet mustard kale chips).
So while I sit back and bite into a wildcrafted organic pili nut, I'll let Hilary take it away…
Confession time: I used to be one of those self-righteous vegans.
Not only that, I was the most radical type: a raw vegan.
It started innocently enough, with vegetarianism. I was convinced that avoiding meat was the healthiest way to eat. Then I started learning about factory farms and vegan nutrition theory, and phased out animal products completely. Always drawn to the fringes, and searching for peak health, I pushed further into raw veganism.
I lived in NYC at the time, back in 2002 when Organic Avenue was a tiny raw food coop that Denise Mari ran out of her gritty Chinatown apartment. (It’s now a behemoth, with locations popping up like Starbucks.)
I’d visit several times a week, lingering over a bowl of avocado cacao pudding, waiting for the dude with dreadlocks who brought mason jars of homemade nut milk in an enormous backpack. I’d leave with crates of green Costa Rican coconuts that I’d hack open on the floor of my loft with a cleaver. I took cooking classes there, met all sorts of fringy seeker-types, and began to understand nutrition, food systems, and sustainability in a whole new way.
I’ve expanded into paleo/primal over the past ten years, but I still have enormous respect for raw veganism, and I integrate many raw vegan principles into my life every day. There are so many convergences between raw veganism and paleo — both represent bleeding-edge perspectives on health and wellness. Here are some of the most important lessons that paleo/primal folks can learn from raw vegans.
1. Forget calories. Remember hunger. And embrace healthy fat.
In order to reach a place of balance, we need to forget about counting calories, and obsessing over fat grams. If we eat according to instinct, and make sure to eat lots of healthy fats, we’ll be able to reconnect with our signals of satiety, eating only to fullness and never beyond. Raw vegans generally eat a lot of fats, but only the healthy ones. They avoid the same fats that paleo people do — canola oil, soy, margarine — and opt for coconut oil, olive oil, and plenty of fat-rich whole foods like avocados, nuts and coconut. When I first went raw vegan 12 years ago, it was hard for me to fathom that eating an avocado whole, or spoonfuls of coconut oil in a smoothie, was anything but destructive to my health and appearance. Of course, I was completely mistaken. Healthy fats are essential, and they will not make you fat.
2. Fermentation is your friend.
After decades of being relegated to fringy hippie corners, the topic of gut health has finally surfaced as something that everyone needs to pay attention to. Raw vegans have always been hugely into fermented foods, using Sandor Ellis Katz’s first book, Wild Fermentation, as a bible. Krauts, nut cheeses, rejuvelac, kombucha — these were all raw vegan favorites well before hipster bars started selling kombucha on tap. And for good reason. The microorganisms in our gut have a major impact on every system of the body, from mood to memory to motor control. You probably don’t get enough fermented foods in your diet, so check out Katz’s latest book, The Art of Fermentation, and take your health to a new level. In the meantime, try to eat as many probiotic foods as possible.
3. Superfoods are supergood.
Notice how in the past few years, there were a few foods that seemed to pop up out of nowhere, touted widely as superfoods? Goji berries, chia seeds, hemp, acai, raw cacao nibs, maca. These foods did not come out of nowhere. They were embraced by raw vegans long before anyone else had heard of them. Say what you will about raw vegans, they were ahead of their time nutritionally. These superfoods, and many others, are an incredible way to add diversity to your diet while adding all sorts of micronutrients you might otherwise never encounter. So the next time you make chia pudding or an acai smoothie, thank a raw vegan. And don’t be afraid of exotic new foods — especially if they’re unhybridized and wildharvested. They’re some of the best things you can put in your body.
4. Welcome back, coconut.
Bring on the coconut revival! Raw vegans were huge advocates of eating coconut in all its guises, long before paleo was even a thing. Flouting standard dietary wisdom that coconuts are deadly because of all the artery-hardening saturated fat, raw vegans would eat tablespoons of coconut oil a day, chow down on coconut meat, drink coconut water fresh from the source. Turns out that coconuts, far from being dangerous, are one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Full of medium-chain triglycerides and lauric acid, coconut oil is perhaps the ultimate superfood — its benefits range from weight loss to increased energy to healthier skin, better memory and cognitive function, heart health, joint health, and the list goes on and on. Embrace the coconut, and it will embrace you.
5. A good blender is vital
Before I became a raw vegan, I thought that all blenders were pretty much the same, and that smoothies were ultra-sugary milkshake-like concoctions that should probably be avoided. But then I woke up. Turns out that smoothies, if packed with nutrient-dense foods, are some of the healthiest (and easiest) concoctions a person could eat. And a high-powered blender, like a Omniblender, is essential to making smoothies that are actually smooth. They pulverize everything — from nuts and seeds to carrots and kale — into a gorgeous silken aerated puree that is not only a joy to drink, but is extremely nutritious because the cell walls of the ingredients are broken down on a microscopic level. This means better absorption. And better health.
6. Dehydration will round you out.
Walk into the kitchen of any raw vegan worth their mineralized salt, and you’ll spot an Excalibur dehydrator, most likely humming away. Raw vegans believe that heating foods beyond 118 degrees destroys vital enzymes, so they use dehydrators to preserve food, warm it, and just make it flat-out tastier. I’ve expanded beyond raw veganism, but I still use my dehydrator constantly. It’s invaluable for making dried fruit, macaroons, yogurt, kale chips, and for the final crisping of soaked and sprouted nuts (roasting nuts can create toxic compounds). And on that note….
7. Soak and sprout nuts and seeds.
Soaking and sprouting are ancient techniques, developed by our ancestors to make certain foods, like nuts, seeds and grains, more nutritious and easier to digest. These foods evolved chemical defense mechanisms to protect themselves until the proper growing conditions came about — enough moisture to help them burgeon into sprouts. Most nuts, seeds, and grains simply aren’t easily digested unless they’re soaked, to awaken the mechanisms that say, “Hey, time to sprout!” and unleash an amazing series of biochemical transformations. The soaking and sprouting process brings natural resting enzymes to life, increasing bioavailable nutrients. The soaking and sprouting process also minimizes or eliminates nutritional inhibitors and toxic substances such as enzyme inhibitors, phytates (phytic acid), polyphenols (tannins), and goitrogens. The process takes a bit of planning ahead (and a dehydrator for the final crisping step), but it’s well worth it for the health benefits it confers. How to do it? Get pure water, soak raw organic nuts/seeds in a bowl overnight (add a bit of good salt if you wish), and dehydrate till buttery-crisp. Simple, healthy and delicious.
8. Dairy-free never tasted so good.
Raw vegans and paleo people definitely share an avoidance of dairy. Fortunately, raw vegans have developed some amazing ways to turn nuts and seeds into milks and cheeses that will satisfy any craving for cool and creamy. Want an amazing almond milk? Soak a bunch of raw organic almonds overnight, blend in a high-speed blender (see above), pour into a nut milk bag, and squeeze! You can do the same thing with any nut or seed your heart desires. Pro tip: make a big batch, and freeze in ice cube trays for an easy smoothie base. You can even speed up the process further by blending a spoonful of stone-ground nut butter with water — instant nut milk! These milks can be made more or less concentrated, depending on your tastes. Add salt, a date, a bit of vanilla, cinnamon. It’s all good. You really won’t miss the cow.
9. Beware proteins cooked at high heat, especially on the grill.
Raw vegans and paleo people definitely part ways when it comes to eating animals. But they can both agree on some good ways not to eat meat. Specifically, high heat is bad, high heat on a grill is even worse. There are some very nasty compounds that are created when proteins are exposed to high heat, and others that are formed when fat drips down into a heat source and turns to smoke. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, advanced glycation end-products, heterocyclic amines — these have all been linked to cancer. Yeah, grilled food tastes great, but try to limit your consumption, and opt for low and slow when it comes to cooking meat. Braised short ribs, brisket, pork shoulder? Bring it on. Find an awesome dutch oven (Staub is my favorite brand), and learn the joys of braising. You’ll be healthier for it.
10. Eat as close to nature as possible: organic, pastured, foraged, seasonal, unprocessed.
Before I went raw vegan, I didn’t really think that hard about where my food was from, or how it was grown. I assumed that if it was from Whole Foods, it was good for me. As I went deep into raw veganism, my perspective began to change. Raw veganism is about purity and simplicity. It’s about avoiding man-made toxins in every way possible. It’s about being in sync with nature, not at odds with it. It’s about embracing the wild. This is a powerful approach that’s just as relevant to paleo people as it is to raw vegans. It takes time to expand one’s consciousness beyond the “supermarket” mentality into a place of alignment with nature, but it’s critical to keep pushing. So pay attention to the source. Eat clean. Go to farmers markets. Join a CSA. Learn to forage. Plant a permaculture forest. Eat according to the seasons. It’s how we were meant to be.
11. Don’t put anything on your body that you wouldn’t eat.
I used to have a bathroom full of toxic products in shiny containers, all promising the illusion of health: clearer skin, silkier hair, fuller redder lips. I bought into the convention wisdom: if it’s from a department store or a drugstore, it must be safe. Anyhow, I wasn’t eating these products, so what harm could it do? Turns out, quite a lot. Get thee to ewg.org right now, and start learning about body burden, and all the toxic chemicals in products that people use every day without even thinking about everything they’re absorbing through their skin. Fortunately, you have a choice. There are plenty of companies out there creating products that are fine for you. Raw vegans and paleo people agree: toxic chemicals have no place in your body, or on it.
12. It’s about much more than food. It’s about a healthy lifestyle. And a healthy planet.
The most important thing that I learned from raw veganism isn’t a thing at all. It’s not a quick tip, a food to eat, a gadget to buy. It’s an approach to life. Raw vegans have a deep respect for the planet, for animal welfare, for human health. They consider the impact of their actions at every level — their body, their family, their community, and the planet. It’s a systems thinking approach, a deep ecological one. It’s where we all need to be, if we hope to survive as a species. Paleo is, at heart, about being in sync with our deep genetics, honed over hundreds of thousands of years. By embracing a systems thinking approach to life, we’ll be able to get back in sync once again. Where to start? Google “deep ecology,” and you’ll never look back. It will take us a long time — as individuals and as a species — to unlearn all the unhealthy habits we’ve acquired since the birth of agriculture, but we need to start now.
Our lives depend on it.
About The Author
Hilary Bromberg — a thought leader in the field of sustainability — is Strategy Director / Principal at egg, a boutique Seattle-based brand communications firm that works exclusively with sustainable brands. She is also a founder of Barefoot Provisions — a consciously curated online store for the primal foodie.
Hilary spent most of her life in the Northeast, where she was educated by Quakers, who literally taught her how to hug trees, and then at MIT and Harvard, where she was trained as a cognitive neuroscientist, and also picked up a degree in literature along the way. fter working as a strategic consultant and searching for peak health and nutrition — eventually becoming a raw vegan and Ashtanga yoga devotee — she became disillusioned with modern civilization and moved out to a high-desert yurt in New Mexico, where she got deep into all facets of primal living.
Hilary’s obsessions include media ecology, transpersonal psychology, rewilding and primal foods. She seeks out cultural trends and deeper patterns, new models for sustainable living, the numinous and unseen, the fringy and extreme. She is happiest with dirt between her toes and (primal) bread dough beneath her fingernails.
Questions, comments or feedback about veganism, Paleo, raw foods, or Barefoot Provisions? Leave your thoughts below!