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The draw of eating raw — at least for a week

I am not restrictive about my diet in any way. I love all kinds of cheese, including the processed kind in jars. I eat Oreos. For breakfast. In the shower.

So embarking on a raw food cleanse where I subsisted on fruits, veggies, nuts and legumes for seven days was not a typical life choice for me.

But I recognize that my mental and nutritional health are linked, and now more than ever that connection is important to me.

My life is in flux. The week before I started the cleanse, I celebrated my 26th birthday. A week before that, I ended a nearly three-year relationship. I was in the process of moving to the first place I've ever rented on my own. My outlook on life, what I expect from it and what I prioritize have shifted greatly.

As I sat on a precipice of change, the idea of a reboot seemed appealing. Why not purge the crud from my body that has built up over years of not considering what I put into it? Wipe the slate clean, scrub off the gunk and start fresh.

Day 0: Saturday

Eating raw requires a lot of preparation. The concept seemed oxymoronic to me. I wasn't cooking anything. How much time could it take?

I hit up a nearby produce stand to stock up on what I thought would be enough food to get me through the week: kale, romaine lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, carrots, green onion, red onion, avocado, bananas, strawberries, lemons, limes, kiwi, apples, tomatoes, oranges, fresh squeezed orange juice and raw honey. (It all cost me a little over $30.)

It wasn't enough for the week. I went back two other times, specifically for avocados and tomatoes, which would be lifesavers in low moments.

In addition to the ingredients, a raw diet requires a lot of kitchen hardware, none of which I had. Thankfully, I have food-savvy friends from whom I borrowed a blender, juicer and vegetable spiralizer. Being able to turn my food into a variety of textures and forms was essential to keep me going.

I spent about two hours each day prepping food, one in the morning and one at night, which included juicing, blending, assembling and cleaning the equipment.

With all the kitchen appliances and food acquired, I planned out my last nonraw meal: unlimited soup, salad and bread sticks at Olive Garden. I gorged myself on cheesy, carby deliciousness and tried not to think of what awaited me the next seven days.

Day 1: Sunday

Confession: I have never used a juicer.

I've only been cleansing for about 30 minutes and already I'm cranky. I assemble the various parts, plug it in, turn it to "on," and … nothing. How is a girl supposed to cleanse if she can't even work a juicer?

My hunger beats out my stubbornness and I switch to the blender.

I make a "green" smoothie. After throwing kale, orange, banana and apple in the blender, I look skeptically at my breakfast. The resemblance to a very sick animal's waste was too eerie to be appetizing. Considering how chunky the mix was, I probably should have blended the kale longer. It doesn't taste too bad, but the thought of a week of these is not motivating.

I learn that as unappetizing as the green smoothie was to start with, the leftovers are even worse. I pass on the extra jar I saved for lunch and have a small salad instead.

For dinner, I turn to two friends who are doing the cleanse with me for inspiration. One lives in Colorado and the other in Maryland, so sharing the experience with them via text messages provides much-needed support, recipes and survival tips.

My Colorado friend passes along a bruschetta recipe, the highlight of my day. Even without bread to put it on, the garlic, basil and cilantro give me so many flavors I was missing earlier in the day. I actually feel full and satisfied.

It's almost enough to erase the memories of that chunky green smoothie.

Day 2: Monday

Supposedly, I've already lost 4 pounds. It feels like a lie.

I wake up early to drink hot lemon water and prep breakfast and lunch. As I sit down on the couch to drink it, I catch the sight of a blue bag out of the corner of my eye. The Double Stuf Oreos, sent by friends to comfort me through my breakup, are mocking me.

Being at the office is equally difficult, as I am surrounded by people eating a variety of tempting foods. I was excited about the veggies and guacamole I had brought for lunch until I had to move a box of barbecue out of the way to get it from the fridge. Thanks, universe.

The temptations just keep coming. Tootsie Rolls on a co-worker's desk. Covering an assignment at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, where half a dozen food trucks beckon.

And then there is the absolute kicker: making a cheesy chicken Italian bake for a friend who recently had a baby. Cooking while on a cleanse is a level of torture in line with one of Dante's circles of hell. I want to grab a fork and demolish it. Instead, I angrily chomp on unsalted almonds.

Despite the cravings, I'm not really hungry, and I haven't had any major headaches yet. As a daily coffee drinker who had to give it up, that was a big concern. So far, the cleanse is mostly a test of willpower.

Day 3: Tuesday

Zucchini pasta is a gift from the heavens.

While spiralizers are kind of terrifying contraptions, I am so thankful I borrowed one. The different texture and mix of flavors provide sweet relief.

I feel like I am eating a full meal for the first time this week, a much-needed experience after sitting through a lunch meeting where I tried not to drool over everyone's Cuban sandwiches as I drank my kale and cucumber juice after finally figuring out how to work the juicer.

Overall, I'm feeling pretty good today. There's an occasional dull headache sometimes, but it never lasts for long.

My energy levels are higher, my skin is clearer and I'm more alert. I'm full and satisfied after that delicious zucchini pasta, and the first time I yawned all day was at 11:37 p.m. before I went to bed. No afternoon slump? That's unheard of for me. Maybe there is something to this.

Day 4: Wednesday

I'm so exhausted I'm not even excited about the 7 pounds I lost.

All that energy I had yesterday? Gone. I blame playing tennis for a couple of hours. Maybe that was too much for my body to handle on produce alone.

A stressful day of work only contributes to the negative energy. I don't think I realized how much I snack at work, or how essential coffee breaks are for getting out of the office and clearing my head.

The worst part, though, is definitely the drive home, 35 minutes of craving everything: barbecue, cheese, hamburgers, bread. The list cycles through my head as I sit in traffic on the Courtney Campbell bridge, making the commute one of my lowest points of the week.

Thankfully, guacamole has supreme healing powers. When I get home, I fuel up on the fatty acids and vitamins of avocado.

Day 5: Thursday

Rookie mistake: I totally forget to take the label off the fruit before blending it. Come across a few chunks while drinking my smoothie. Not pleasant.

I did, finally, perfect the green smoothie. A friend recommended blitzing the greens first with water. Total game changer.

As I count down the final minutes of work, I torture myself by looking at images of desserts and recipes online. Black-and-white cookie ice cream sandwich? Yes, please. Barbecue from Holy Hog? Sign me up. Now I'm reading a Washington, D.C., food guide. Why?

Other than that, today has been a fairly easy day with few struggles. Still really digging the zucchini pasta, but, man, I'm ready for this to be over.

Day 6: Friday

The trend of feeling good during the day and then hating my life on the drive home continues.

I consider keeping the raw cleanse going for a few days over the next week or two. I'm enjoying the benefits — more energy, clearer skin, better sleep — and it would be nice to keep off some of the weight I lost.

Socializing while on the cleanse is actually pretty easy, like when I meet up with a group of friends to watch a soccer game at a bar. Sure, it's hard not partaking in the nachos and pitchers of beer circulating, but it's also not impossible, despite heckling from friends, such as "You smell like veggies."

Even at a sports bar, it's possible to find some options to order off the menu. I go for a side salad, sans cheese and dressing, and order a side of avocado to put on top.

Just one more day left.

Day 7: Saturday

By now, I have a pretty good routine going: Drink tea, work out, make a smoothie, prep lunch and dinner, carry on with my life.

I stop by the produce stand to pick up more tomatoes for bruschetta and a few fresh things to keep this up during the coming week.

After hanging out at a friend's house, I go to Panera Bread for an early dinner before heading to a work assignment. Again, like at the sports bar, it is possible to order raw, but it's not very fun. I get a Greek salad, no cheese or dressing, and opt for an apple instead of bread.

Breaking the cleanse

When midnight rolls around, marking seven full days of being on a raw food cleanse, I am ready for it to be over.

Blue Moon in hand, I say cheers with a friend before enjoying a mini Cuban sandwich and some pasta.

I had intended to keep the raw diet going on some days the following week, but without the focused goal, my dedication waned. The preparation needed for every meal is taxing, and I miss beer.

I would recommend the cleanse, but not for weight loss. After losing 7 pounds, I gained it all back, unsurprisingly.

Other benefits, while not as measurable, are more rewarding. I really did have more energy, my hair and skin were healthier and I felt good about my body.

As for my ultimate goal of a mini-life reboot, I did feel like I cleared some of the mess from my life. Things felt more in order. My energy was renewed. And I realized that even as I embark down a new path, it's okay to not eliminate everything. Like cheese.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

What does it mean to eat raw?

A raw food diet consists of plant-based foods like uncooked fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans. No added sugar, dairy, eggs, cheese, caffeine or alcohol, and food should not be heated above 116 degrees. Some grains such as raw oats and raw quinoa are allowed, but most are toasted and thus not raw.

"Eating raw is a plant-based approach," nutritionist Nan Jensen said. "The foods you consume are very high in vitamins and minerals. You're getting lots of great fiber and you're avoiding salt."

If someone is looking to shed a few pounds, eating raw can help with starting that weight loss, since most of the foods consumed are low in calories and fat.

"The problem if you're doing a cleanse is it could be a very temporary fix," Jensen said. "You can lose a few pounds, but the question is how quickly they will return."

Eating raw helps people consume higher levels of necessary nutrients, including potassium and fiber, while limiting salt and other potentially bad habits like alcohol. But getting enough calcium, vitamin D and B-12 while eating strictly raw can be difficult.

"Any time you exclude that variety of food from your diet, you've got to be very, very disciplined to try to find sources that will help you get what nutrients you are missing," Jensen said.

Why do people cleanse?

The whole premise behind any kind of cleanse is to get rid of toxins in your body. Cleanses range from the extreme, such as only drinking water mixed with lemon, cayenne pepper and maple syrup, to drinking juice or eating a restricted diet, such as raw foods.

While there are some benefits, like weight loss and increased energy, cleansing isn't necessary to purge toxins, Jensen said.

"The premise is that it detoxifies, but our bodies have the ability to do that all by ourselves," Jensen said. "In terms of physiology, I don't think there's anything we've seen that's beneficial in doing a cleanse. … Psychologically, it can make people feel better and provide a boost of energy."

Most cleanses call for people to drink a laxative tea daily to eliminate more gunk from their systems. While this certainly aids the purging process, Jensen said people should be mindful of eliminating the good bacteria that line gastrointestinal tracts.

And Jensen doesn't recommend ever cleansing for more than a few days at a time.

"I would not suggest it long term, if at all," Jensen said. "Over the course of a couple days, a couple times a year, certainly that's fine if people think they feel better."

Caitlin Johnston

Zucchini Pasta

2 zucchini

1/3 cup fresh tomato, chopped

1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes

1/2 tablespoon oil from sun-dried tomatoes

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/4 teaspoons garlic, minced

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar

Handful of fresh basil

Spiralize the zucchini using a spiralizer tool, or use a peeler to create long, thin strands, or "noodles." Place in a bowl and set aside.

Combine all other ingredients, except the basil, in a separate bowl and blend until well combined. This is your sauce. If it's too thick, add more oil.

Add sauce to the noodles, making sure to mix well until the sauce evenly coats the noodles.

Garnish with fresh basil.

Homemade Salad Dressing

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

3/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon raw honey

1 clove garlic

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl until combined. Use on spinach, lettuce, etc.

The draw of eating raw — at least for a week 11/25/15 [Last modified: Monday, November 30, 2015 12:58pm]
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