Nwenna Kai advocates a diet made up of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains "and what we call superfoods" — which include kale, spinach, beets, pomegranates, oatmeal, avocados and quinoa. As you might expect, the self-proclaimed Goddess of Raw Foods, the title of her book — eats most of these "in the raw."
In other words, in their naked state.
You can, Kai says, find foods that you can eat raw in every type of ethnic cuisine or culture. "It just means that you have not cooked the food or put fire to it."
As calling it "raw" can be intimidating for some folks, "I also call it sunfood, earth food or a plant-based diet."
"Some raw foodists," she says, "include raw dairy and meat (for example sashimi or steak tartare) in their diets. I do not."
"Traditional African-American cuisine "sans the meat" can be very healthy, but not all of it lends itself to raw," Kai notes. "Black-eyed peas, lima beans and sweet potatoes, for example. They're African-American staples. They're whole foods and they're healthy."
But right now we're talking raw.
"And you wouldn't eat them raw. Although there's lots of room for adapting other staples. I make kale salads, for example, with African spices and fresh herbs."
Los Angeles in the Raw
Prior to discovering the delightful Nwenna — author, wellness entrepreneur, food activist, coach, health advocate and an adjunct professor at Lincoln University — my long-time raw food guru was Leslie Kenton.
I don't do the totally raw thing. But going back years, I have done as much of it as feasible. Because it makes me feel good. And every so often I've done a raw food cleanse, which Kenton has long advocated in different forms. Check out her apple magic cleanse if you're looking to kick-start the New Year. It seems Los Angeles must have something that inspires life in the raw lane.
California-born Kenton spent time in L.A. before she moved, many years ago, to promote good health and eating a natural, largely raw diet from London.
Philly-born Kai was living in L.A .when she founded her erstwhile Taste of the Goddess Cafe — "one of the city's pioneering organic raw vegan restaurants." The creator of the detox-focused 7 Day Raw Food Cleanse returned to her Philly roots in 2009.
"It was a spiritual journey to come back home," Kai says.
Part of her Philly homecoming was learning to appreciate the importance of family. Her name, Nwenna, means "moonlover" in Ibgo, one of the languages of Nigeria. "My parents are very proud black people and my sister Zakia and most of my cousins on both sides of my family have African names."
It Was Great How It All Began
Kai got into the raw food lifestyle pretty much organically, by following the call of her body.
"I was very sick in my early twenties," she says.
"I had a thyroid disorder, vertigo, a face full of acne, migraines, sciatica, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and constipation. Because the constipation was so debilitating, I intuitively thought that if I ate only salads, fresh fruits, and smoothies and juices all day, something would move. So I did that for seven days."
Which inspired her to create her 7 Day Raw Foods Cleanse. "I want people to see how their health can improve in seven days," she says.
She had started eating raw, although at the time she says, "I didn't know it was called raw!"
Kai came upon Karyn's Fresh Corner restaurant in Chicago where she was living at the time "and was exposed to a world of raw and a new way of eating and preparing food."
Intrigued, she enrolled in classes, bought books and equipment. "I turned my kitchen into a laboratory to experiment with food."
She then went off to L.A. to pursue her dream of becoming a TV producer.
"After producing for nine months, I opened up what was the second raw foods restaurant at the time in West Hollywood (Taste of the Goddess Cafe) with $30,000 of my own money."
"We were also a home delivery business, a catering company, and we had a product line in more than thirty Whole Foods stores in Southern California.
"But I got burned out after four years and so I closed my business down. That's when I wrote and published my book, 'The Goddess of Raw Foods.'"
Rules for Eating Raw
"I don't think everyone should eat everything raw or that a 100 percent raw foods diet is ideal for everyone's body type," Kai says.
"I like balance."
For years she ate 90 percent to 100 percent raw. "But now, depending on the seasons, I will do 90 percent raw switching, when it gets colder, to 60 percent raw."
"There were also social considerations in switching from 100 percent raw. I didn't want to go out to eat and only be able to eat a salad. Also my acupuncturist has been saying for years that my body needs cooked food, so again 100 percent raw isn't for everyone."
"I love what I call a hybrid raw foods diet — or simply, a plant-based diet. I definitely encourage everyone, including meat eaters, to keep their diets at least 50 percent raw."
"That is because of the benefits of having an alkaline diet and a diet rich in enzymes, alkalinity — enzymes being key in preventing disease, among other factors."
For example, she says, "For lunch today, I'm having black beans with salsa and guacamole in a red cabbage leaf (as my burrito) and tomorrow I'm going to do an all-day juice fast."
"So I like to create a hybrid raw foods diet where I eat raw in its abundance — but without being restricted."
What about Gourmet Raw?
"Gourmet raw food can take a lot of time to prepare, but eating raw doesn't have to." When she wants something quick, "I whip up some nori rolls made with parsnips or a zucchini pasta with pesto or an olive tapenade that takes about 15 minutes."
"But yes, if you want more elaborate raw foods like sundried tomato enchiladas or yellow pepper tostado, it has to be dehydrated for hours and those are meals that you make for special occasions."
So Eating Raw is Not Just Fresh Fruit and Salads?
"Oh my god, it's so much more. But I always tell people to start with salad, fresh fruit, smoothies, a raw muesli or trail mix — so that people know raw can be easy."
One of the things she stresses is that a raw food diet is not a "diet" in the conventional sense.
"It is a philosophy, a way of life and of being. It's a lifestyle."
"It's not about 'I'm going to eat like this for 30 days and then go back to eating fried chicken."
You can do that if you want."
"But really, this is about shifting food paradigms and embracing real, whole food. Food is something that sustains and nourishes you. And losing weight is a combination of things. It's not always as much about eating less as it is about eating the right foods for your body type."
"Because, for example, even if you need to lose weight, you still need good fats to keep your energy going."
She advocates going for diversity when it comes to what we eat.
"Pull from all the food groups — fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, vegetables, superfoods, etc. And eat four to six times a day."
"This way you are not starving yourself — and you are not stuffing yourself either."
The Exercise Alternative
The combination of a raw foods diet and an active lifestyle — whether it includes yoga, walking, hiking, swimming, weight lifting or something else — is going to add zing to your life.
"When it comes to fitness I suggest that people choose an activity they enjoy. I have never actually worked out in a gym. I don't like gyms, but I love walking, hiking, hot yoga, swimming and belly dancing."
"Any form of movement of the body — just like eating the right food — is medicine."
What Impact Does She Want to Have?
Kai is aware that most people — and most African-Americans who are a large part of her client base — "want to eat healthier and live longer lives and we are just looking for the right information."
Her dream is to live in Africa and restore Africa. "I would do that through food, diet, and nutrition."
Mostly she'd like to be known as someone who is creating a world where people are disease free, where food systems have integrity and provide health, sustainability and wellness "for our bodies, minds, and spirits as well as our environments."
"I want to be known as someone who sees to it that everyone on the planet has access to healthy, fresh, organic, food at affordable prices."
It is, she says, about time.
Find Nwenna Kai online here. www.nwennakai.com
Oh, and happy eating — in the raw.