The story of the month for October 2009 comes from Gena Hamshaw of Choosing Raw.

Gena is a raw foods lifestyle coach, counselor and med student. Over the years she has written about plant-based lifestyle for VegNews, O Magazine, Whole Living Daily, and Food52, among other online and print publications. Her personal site is such a rich source of valuable information where she features yummy raw and vegan recipes. She provides all the tools one would need to begin their own raw lifestyle journey.

I resonate so much with Gena myself, as we both share the same passion for a natural, plant-based and optimally healthy way of life. After getting to know Gena and her site a little, I quickly learned that we have a common interest in almost all of the same books and authors when it comes to health. I knew she had an amazing and very inspirational health journey, and thus I was very excited to introduce her and her journey to others.

Hence, here is Gena sharing with us all, her very inspirational story of an evolving journey into health:

Area(s) of My Health and Wellness that Needed Change

Like most people, my desire to help others with the raw lifestyle was born of my own struggles – psychological, lifestyle, and health. I grew up in a Greek family (I’m half Greek) where lamb and cheese were the order of the day. I can’t remember a time, though, when the mainstream diet – especially meat – felt right to me. I believe that many girls who become susceptible to eating disorders feel disconnected from the prescribed way of eating in their lives; this was definitely true of me. And needless to say, when I tried to eat more healthily without an informed perspective, I quickly became obsessive and overly restrictive. (This is when I was about twelve.) For several years to come, I would struggle with restrictive eating and body dysmorphia.

I recovered in my late teens (I’m 27 now), but I was left with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and a very sensitive digestive system. I routinely had to miss class during college because I was doubled over with cramping and bloating – and tired, headachey, and unhappy as a result. Even as I managed to eat better, I didn’t really feel better.

This was true until two years ago, when I found a great GI. He was the first doctor to take an interest in the psychological issues underpinning my IBS. He also was the first doctor to suggest that I eliminate cow’s milk dairy from my diet. I’d been an informal vegan for a while, but I started following a vegan diet consciously, and I immediately felt improvement in my digestion.

Still, the IBS lingered on. It was better – it was nothing compared to the monster in my life it had been before – but I still suffered. And the experience of going vegan suggested to me that even more focus on simple, plant-based foods could heal my digestive health for good. It was at this point that I began researching raw foods and cleansing. In spite of some misgivings, I was inspired to try it. I figured I would see if I felt any better, and stop if I didn’t.

And boy, did I ever. Within two weeks of eating raw, I had twice as much energy, limitless stamina at the gym, more even – keeled moods, and rosy, glowing skin. I was shocked. I had never imagined that all the hype could be true. And it’s only gotten better. Since I started eating raw, I’ve seen my IBS disappear. I’ve stopped having seasonal allergies. I no longer have menstrual cramps. I respond to stress less acutely than before; I’ll always be a workaholic, but the ups and downs of working life and city living just don’t bother me as much as they used to. I’ve deepened my yoga practice. Best of all, my outlook on food and nutrition has never been clearer, more enthusiastic, or more passionate.

Strategies I Implemented & Their Results

Change was relatively easy for me. This is for two main reasons. The first is that the dietary change, in and of itself, wasn’t too much of a sacrifice. Truth be told, I never much liked animal proteins. And while I’d gotten used to dairy and fish, I never really relished them, either. It was peculiar to give them up at first, but it wasn’t hard. I simply had to adjust to the novelty and to the opinions of others. The latter could be hard at times, but I remained really confident and tried my best not to let any raised eyebrows interrupt my focus on good health.

The second reason it was easy was that I never saw the process of going raw as a challenge I was holding myself to. It was curiosity, plain and simple, that motivated me. Each day, I told myself (and it was truthful) that I could always eat cooked foods if I wanted to. And each day I found myself feeling so good that I didn’t really want to.

Since I never held myself to an impossible standard, and since I never took an all or nothing approach to raw foods, I was able to enjoy my journey and the slow transformation. And this attitude persists till this day. I’m high-raw, not all raw; I do end up eating almost all raw most of the time, but I absolutely never espouse the label. If I want some oatmeal or warm grains, I eat them. If I want a baked potato, I have it. If it’s cold out and I crave warm soup, I heat it. The degree of how often this happens varies, but I don’t get freaked out or frustrated with myself when it does. And since I never feel as though I’m living a life of longing, I never have a hard time remaining consistent.

How My Changes Benefitted Me

As I mentioned above, my IBS is really a thing of the past. It plagued me in ways small and large, and it’s really liberating to leave it behind. I won’t pretend that I don’t still have what I believe is a particularly sensitive digestive system – I do – but it’s also a manageable and healthy one, as opposed to what it was before. I don’t miss work because of sharp cramps; I don’t sit at home feeling miserable after a rich or indulgent meal because of bloating and pain.

Psychologically, I believe that I’m more relaxed and enthusiastic about foods than ever before in my life. I enjoy them the most now, and fixate on them the least. Some may look at what I eat and find it limited, but within what I eat, I have a truly stress-free (yet pleasurable) approach.

Next Steps on My Health and Wellness Journey

I’d like to reach the day when I can say honestly that my IBS never flares up – rather than the present truth, which is that it flares up a few times a year when I’m particularly stressed. I’d also like to reach a place where I can say that I feel I’ve truly made strides in detoxification, but I’m also patient and educated enough to understand that detox and cleansing take a lifetime – not a few months or years!

Wisdom & Inspiration for Others

Quite simply, take it easy. It’s very tempting to read about raw foods or veganism and envision a dramatic, overnight transformation. And most newcomers (including many of my clients) will say that they’re not trying to go raw, whilst all the while they’re harboring secret ambitions of a 180 degree change.

This doesn’t work. For one thing, it can be dangerous: going from a mainstream diet to a cleansing one overnight is taxing on the body’s cleansing capacities, and it can make you feel worse before you feel better. For another, it’s psychologically precarious. It can often reinforce the same guilt or cycles of restriction and indulgence that so many women are trying to get away from in eating raw. Finally, it’s a lifestyle challenge: adjusting to new habits overnight isn’t easy.

I had an advantage in my raw journey because I was a vegan first; for those who are starting as omnivores, I recommend taking it very slow. Eating mostly raw till dinner is a great way to experiment: this can mean a fruit based breakfast (like a green smoothie) or some sprouted grain bread with banana, a big salad with lots of raw vegetables and avocado or nuts for lunch, and a cooked dinner of choice. If that dinner’s vegan, too, awesome. If it’s fish or organic poultry or meat, you’re still well on your way to healthy habits. The important thing is to check in with your own body and take stock of where you are and what’s working. Better to progress slowly than to deprive yourself of things you still need (physically or psychologically) and regress back to old habits with a true vengeance.

And most of all, see the journey as fun. Raw foods tend to freak people out because they sound challenging, expensive, or inconvenient. My blog, Choosing Raw.com, is devoted to showing people that raw foods can be welcoming, simple (most of my recipes take fifteen minutes or less!), and enjoyable. You should focus on the delicious food being added to your life, rather than anything you’ve chosen to stop eating. And most of all, you should be honest with yourself about what your goals are.

I hope everyone can get to their cutting boards and kitchens with a sense of relaxed, anxiety-free curiosity. Happy raw eating!