For those who haven’t caught on yet from previous posts, I live and work at a raw vegan community and retreat center in Arizona. At the center, I work on the website and help research and edit for the center’s founder and chief physician. It’s a great job and I love the community and lifestyle here, and for the most part I am quite happy. Yet there’s been something on my mind I’ve been eager to share with the world (or at least my few and wonderful devoted readers!) relating to my job and lifestyle, and that’s how I’ve found living and working in rawfood vegan bubble to be a very complicated scenario! It can be fun, bizarre, inspiring, and sometimes very challenging. In this post, I’ll highlight some of the challenges I’ve found related to balancing an extreme lifestyle workplace with what’s necessary for me to feel balanced. (Note: The opinions and ideas I share in this post are not necessarily in accordance with those of my workplace, and they are by no means representative of others who live and work for the center. While many friends of mine have mentioned similar feelings to those I express, I would never wish to speak for anyone but myself.)
One of the biggest issues I’ve found living in a raw vegan community has been figuring out what percentage of raw food feels best for my body, and learning how not to cave in to social pressures that include obsessive cleansing mentalities that seem to be present among some (though certainly not all!) staff at our holistic health workplace.
As a healing center for those with diabetes and other chronic health conditions, our center outlines a very strict set of permissible foods (100% raw, no soy, no corn, no sugar, no gluten, no garlic or onions, no mushrooms, and on and on…) that has been shown to be highly effective in helping guests heal their chronic conditions and can improve health during even short stays. There is nothing wrong with cleansing per se, and I imagine that there are some individuals out there who really do feel amazing on eating totally, 100% raw, however as my experience and as some of my friends’ experiences have shown, beyond a few months, eating 100% raw, especially 100% raw and low-glycemic (the center where I work serves only low sugar raw vegan fare, meaning no refined sweeteners including agave and yacon syrup, etc.) can feel very restrictive. For those of us younger folks who are already at healthy weights, the pressure to further purify, continue to lose weight or otherwise cleanse can be frustrating. Where does the pressure come from? I suspect it’s the culture we all perpetuate based on the fact that most of us have studied these holistic healing modalities and have watched hundreds of guests undergo serious healing transformations on this diet and lifestyle on a frequent basis. For others, it may stem from much deeper patterns that probably aren’t worth speculating about here.
I’ve witnessed guests come here long-term and jettison unwanted pounds and heal chronic health conditions. Staff and volunteers often also undergo similar healing transformations in their work tenure here. Yet for staff who have been here for many years, beyond when desired weight is achieved and overall physical health has been vastly improved (or, if they were already healthy and/or at their natural or desired weight), I’ve noticed we still experience a tendency to want to further “purify”. Additionally, it’s inevitable that guests will watch our behavior and look to us as guides for living this lifestyle. It’s both a joy and a burden to feel like your actions have the potential to inspire or discourage those who may be just starting out on the path to plant-based nutrition.
I always like to remind myself and others that I eat vegan primarily for moral and ethical reasons. I eat a high raw diet because my body loves it and I find that reducing stimulants and sugars helps me stay balanced physically, emotionally and spiritually. Living in an environment where it feels like every other person is doing a cleanse or flushing their liver or doing a coffee enema can feel really intense. It can definitely bring back or cause ED patterns, and can push people to feel like they have to constantly upgrade themselves. Just as the SAD lifestyle is deleterious to our health, I think trying to stay 100% raw when it’s not what we’re ready for or what feels right to our bodies can also be damaging to our welfare.
The center’s founder and primary physician suggests that all staff and volunteers be vegan, but does not mandate that we are all 100% raw. I appreciate that he doesn’t try to suggest that we can eat our way to purity or the Divine (he’s said this numerous times), but the social pressures to eat all of our meals at the cafe (which means staying all raw) and constantly undergo a cleanse, juice feast or liver flush can often feel overwhelming nonetheless. A few of us have started making cooked (all vegan and organic) dinners some nights, and have found that through incorporating more whole, cooked vegan foods at night, we’ve achieved a balance that many of us lost along the way.
Enthusiasm for a high raw diet is great, but we need to each find what works best for our bodies. Although we are “allowed” to have the cooked dinners some of us enjoy, the house where we often share cooked meals has been nicknamed (by friends, some of whom join us for cooked meals) the “sin house” and the “contraband house.” We’re eating cooked soups and veggies, and still using highly unprocessed ingredients most of the time (with the occasional batch of baked vegan cookies tossed in for good measure!), yet some who follow raw food dogma here may believe we’ve somehow “fallen off the wagon”. While these folks’ judgments are sometimes difficult, we try to remember that if our bodies are feeling great, if we’re eating mostly raw, and if we’re totally staying true to our ethics and morals by being vegan, that’s all that matters. As nutritionists Gena Hamshaw and Ginny Messina suggest, expanding our diets to include more whole, cooked vegan foods can be very helpful and can help us find balance while still maintaining high raw diets.
One of the most important things for those of us with disordered eating pasts is to recognize how we are emotionally reacting to our nutrition regimen. In order for me to feel awesome living and working at an all-raw center, I acknowledge that while some days I will eat all raw, other days I will not. Although the threat of diabetes tends to loom large over this place–we all know how sugar affects our bodies and how high glycemic foods can set us up for serious problems if indulged in regularly–I have to let myself eat my sweet potatoes and occasional vegan cookies in peace. Really. Instead of choosing to feel guilty like many of my peers, I choose to nourish in a more expansive way with joy. Because this bubble is so wonderful in other ways, I feel like the pressures to adhere to extreme raw, low-glycemic eating plans are worth negotiating in order to experience the other benefits I feel from working here. Still, challenges do arise, and I’m excited to explore them more in-depth on this blog in the future.
I look forward to receiving feedback on this post, and hope that in sharing my journey it may help shed light on what the experience is like for anyone who’s ever wondered about what living and working at a raw vegan retreat center or living in an all-vegan bubble looks like.
sending love, and looking forward to comments! Sarah