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Fruit and VegIn an article in the Mail, the Dirziute family from Sheffield says no bread, no pasta and cheese made of cashews helped them beat everything from asthma to acne.

From The Mail:

For any parent struggling to get a child to sit straight at the dinner table, it may seem like advice that is, well, divorced from reality.

In her new recipe book, serialised in The Mail on Sunday, Gwyneth Paltrow admits that not only does she avoid eating pasta, dairy, sugar, bread and rice, but her children Apple, eight, and Moses, six, often follow a similar diet.

Internet chat rooms were filled with mothers, agog – where would they be without failsafes such as toast, pizza and risotto?  As well as being met with derision from parents, Gwyneth’s comments attracted criticism from many health experts who labelled her ‘foolish’. But is her approach as bonkers as it sounds? Perhaps not.

In fact, there is an increasing minority of Britons going to even greater extremes in an effort to improve their family’s health – and have found that it really does work. Now, far beyond the bohemian enclaves of London and New York, restaurants are popping up to tap into a growing desire for a raw vegan diet – a philosophy similar to that behind the meals in Paltrow’s book.

Even Virgin Active, the gym chain that specifically courts families, has signed a deal with Saf, a high-end chain of vegan restaurants.

One family from Sheffield seeking ways to combat their various ailments were so compelled by the almost instant health improvements they experienced after switching to a raw vegan diet that they’ve opened a cafe catering for those like them.

Inga Dirziute, 26, had been plagued by acne, mood swings and lethargy since having her daughter Kameja, now five.

Partner Robert, 29, a carpenter, suffered from asthma and recurrent laryngitis; son David, seven, was troubled by regular chest infections; and he and his sister were constantly fractious.

Inga began to scrutinise the family’s diet and now, two-and-a-half years after swapping meat, fish, dairy and anything cooked for a strict raw vegan menu, they claim to suffer none of these health problems.

Robert says: ‘I haven’t been to the GP, used my inhaler or taken a single tablet in two years, not even a paracetamol.’

And while food experts have been reacting to Gwyneth’s book with warnings about putting children on ‘exclusion diets’, others say that when executed correctly, a vegan diet can be highly nutritious and even beneficial to health.

But that doesn’t say much about taste. In my view, vegan food means a sea of beige (tofu? Yuk! Quorn? Erm .  .  .) with the occasional bean or roasted vegetable thrown in. Not so, says Inga, who kindly invited The Mail on Sunday to lunch with her family to prove just how varied and delicious this kind of fare can be.

When I arrive at their four-bedroom home, little David and Kameja are  sitting at the dining table tucking into a feast of chilled soup, salad, stuffed tomatoes and ‘burgers’ made from walnuts and mushrooms. Weirdly, they actually look like burgers.

‘My grandma used to say that anything can be treated naturally through food,’ says Inga, who is the picture of health, her eyes shining and with not a trace of acne on her glowing skin.

Inga explains that a vegan diet excludes all meat, fish and animal products such as dairy, and to also qualify as raw, food can be heated in a food dehydrator – used to make crisp snacks from fruit and veg – but to no more than 40C. So while a chip butty with margarine counts as vegan, it’s out of bounds on a raw diet.

That’s right: no bread, no potatoes (which need to be cooked), no pasta, no rice. On Inga’s kitchen shelves are countless gleaming glass jars filled with everything from pecans, walnuts and almonds to things I don’t recognise such as carob, raw cacao, psyllium husks, cilantro, buckwheat and a strange-smelling maca powder, made from a plant that grows in the Andes. A jar of coffee granules stands out. Inga explains it’s ‘just for guests’ and that the family now devour smoothies instead, made with the likes of spinach, fresh pineapple, lemon and avocado.

Blue eyes twinkling, Kameja tells me that her mummy’s ‘bunny smoothie’ – which contains carrots as well as almond milk, banana and cinnamon – is her favourite. David likes the chocolate version, which contains carob or raw cacao. They love to drop fruit and veg into the juicer to create their own concoctions.

‘The best one I made had loads of apples and some lime juice,’ says David, offering me some little tomatoes that look as if they’re stuffed with sunshine. The bright yellow mixture is a combination of celery, cashews and spices. They are absolutely delicious. I also try crisps made from dehydrated kale, and chilled soup containing tomatoes and basil that smells of summer and tastes so divine I beg Inga for the recipe.

A dessert made from raw cashew paste, mangos and cacao with a date and macadamia nut base not only looks like a decadent cheesecake, it tastes like one too.

I’m starting to see why Madonna, Demi Moore and Sting are advocates of raw food. And why Hollywood actress  Michelle Pfeiffer gushed recently that she’s gone vegan in an attempt to ‘live as long as possible’.

But what of the nutritional values? Raw fans claim that cooking food kills  vitamins and minerals, but various studies have found the opposite. And while cooking may destroy some (but not all) Vitamin C, the process boosts the uptake of vital disease-fighting antioxidants.

A study published in The British Journal Of Nutrition in 2008 found that people who followed a strict raw-food diet had relatively high levels of beta-carotene, an antioxidant found in dark green, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables. But they had low levels of lycopene – a red pigment, found predominantly in tomatoes, thought to lower the risk of cancer and heart attacks.

Meanwhile, a 2008 report in the Journal Of Agriculture And Food Chemistry said that carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage and peppers all supply more antioxidants when boiled or steamed than they do eaten raw. So perhaps the answer would be a bit of both – raw and cooked.

Inga initially decided her family would try being vegetarian for a month. ‘We loved roast dinners and barbecued twice a week,’ she recalls. ‘But the children ate the vegetables, rice or pasta and just picked at the meat.

‘So when I told them and Robert that I wanted us to give up meat, they were happy to try, and we continued to eat fish so it didn’t feel too drastic.’

Robert says he felt an almost instant improvement in his health, while David was noticeably less chesty after a month. In 2010, Inga paid £4,500 from savings for a month-long residential course at the Living Foods Institute in Atlanta, USA, an educational centre devoted to teaching the health benefits of organic, vegan and raw foods.

‘There, I ate a raw-food diet for the first time and within weeks my mood swings eased and my skin improved,’ she recalls.

Back home, the family immediately went raw. Inga invested in a commercial-grade juicer as well as the food dehydrator, a kitchen gadget that slowly heats food to remove moisture. At school, David and Kameja eat a packed lunch of raw carrots, tomatoes, peppers, dehydrated spinach crackers and houmous made with sunflower seeds and pepper.

Robert takes a similar lunchbox to work, plus sandwiches made with soya bread and ‘cheeses’ created from cashew and macadamia nuts.

‘I used to weigh more than 15st but lost 2st in two months when we went raw,’ he says. ‘My mind’s clearer and I no longer get that energy slump after lunch. For the first year I often craved steak or chips, but Inga has found ways to recreate flavours and textures that remind me of things like burgers.’

Dietician Azmina Govindji is a spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association (BDA) and says that raw vegan food can be a good source of nutrients, but she urges caution.

‘There’s evidence that plant-based diets are effective in reducing the risk of certain cancers and heart disease, and because you may consume fewer calories there’s less chance of obesity,’ she says.

‘The vegan diet is rich in fruit and veg, which provide antioxidants like beta-carotene that can contribute to immunity, while the nuts and seeds that form a large part of this diet are also very beneficial to general health. But it might be difficult for young children to get the range of nutrients and levels of protein, fat and calories they need for growth, plus bone and muscle development.

‘Raw and vegan diets also tend to be high in fibre, which is not recommended for young children as too much fibre can limit the absorption of iron and calcium.

‘But we could all benefit from swapping a few processed or meat-based meals a week for raw or vegan dishes.’

Tasty though the food I’m eating is, it’s hard to imagine that raw vegan makes for an easy social life.

‘Friends still invite us for dinner and make us salads, but we take our own food too,’ says Inga, who opened her cafe, Pure On Raw, last September.

‘If the kids go to birthday parties, we do let them eat cake and sandwiches if they really want them, but they don’t go mad. Recently I let them have some chocolate. Within minutes they were fighting in a way that they hadn’t since we went raw – the concentrated sugar sent them wild.’

I’m struggling to believe that there’s nothing the Dirziutes don’t crave. A toasted sandwich oozing with melted cheese, or steamed treacle sponge and custard, perhaps?

‘The children say they miss McDonald’s, mainly for the free toys!’ Inga laughs, before confessing that as a ‘special treat’ they ate mashed potato on Christmas Day last year with some steamed vegetables. 

2013 Miles in 2013

I am doing my 2013 miles in 2013 challenge in aid of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust as I have been surprised since I started fundraising for the CF Trust just how many people are unaware of this disease and so I hope my efforts will not just raise money, but also awareness of the UK’s most most common life-threatening inherited disease.

The first person to commit to sponsoring my 2013 mile challenge has committed to 1p per mile (£20.13 in total) and this got me thinking. I am hoping that as many as possible of those reading this will commit to do the same and the best thing is, if each person does this on a “pay as you go” type approach all you will need to part with is approx £2 just after each pay day. In January I completed 205.9 miles and in February I completed a further 200.9 miles. If you can please spare £4.07 to help the Cystic Fibrosis Trust it will be greatly appreciated.

The easiest way to give your sponsorship is to visit my Just Giving page:

2013 Miles in 2013 – The rules

The rules for my 2013 miles in 2013 challenge are quite simple:

  1. All miles must be completely self powered (no motors, sails, etc)
  2. I must be able to evidence all miles, either via GPS or with a picture of any static gym equipment

To complete my 2013 miles I will be running, cycling, rowing and who knows, I might even try a few other self powered methods along the way.