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Get to Know Gena Hamshaw of Choosing Raw

We are so excited to share an interview with one our FAVORITE bloggers, Gena Hamshaw (pronounced like “Jenna”) of Choosing Raw. Her work has been published in O Magazine, VegNews Magazine, Food52 and Whole Living Daily. Not only does Gena create amazing vegan recipes, she’s also a certified clinical nutritionist and just completed a pre-medical post-baccalaureate degree and is in the process of applying to medical school. AND to top it off, she is one of the nicest people we know! Recently, Gena worked with us to create the meal plans and recipes for the 22 Days Vegan Challenge. People around the world have been raving about the delicious (and easy to prepare) recipes and we wanted you to get to know more about the woman behind it. Here’s a peek into Gena’s life ?

1. What compelled you to become a vegan?

At first, it was a health decision. I had digestive illness, and had struggled for years to get it under control. A gastroenterologist suggested I give up dairy. I'd stopped eating red meat for the most part as a kid, and I ate only limited poultry and fish. Since I didn't care much for eggs, I realized that, in the absence of dairy, I was eating a mostly vegan diet. I decided to give it a try in earnest, and see how I felt -- and I soon felt much better than I ever had. Years later, I began volunteering with more animal rescue or shelter organizations, and animal rights became the defining feature of my veganism. Today, I say that I went vegan for my health, but I remain vegan for the animals.

2. Did you like creating recipes before you became a vegan or did following a plant-based diet awaken an interest in cooking?

Actually, I cooked very little before I became vegan! I usually ordered takeout or made really bland stuff, often very "diet-y": chicken breasts, cottage cheese, very plain salads, that kind of stuff. When I became vegan, I started experimenting with all sorts of new dishes, including those from a number of global cuisines. I discovered great new ingredients (seaweed, tempeh, quinoa), and I also grew more comfortable eating healthy fats, which I'd shunned for many years because of an eating disorder history. Veganism expanded my culinary outlook considerably, and it opened up space for me to take joy in my food.

3. What changes did you notice in yourself after adopting a vegan lifestyle?

More energy, better digestion, and better sleep came immediately. In the long term, though, the most meaningful changes were spiritual. I developed a commitment to making a positive impact on the world around me with my food choices, and this allowed me to break free of the obsessiveness and isolation that had defined my relationship with food for a long time.

4. Do you find that more people are open to a vegan diet now than they were 5 years ago?

Absolutely! So much has changed, even just in the last few years. There are better products available, more awareness, more public figures espousing the diet, and so many fantastic eateries popping up around the country. I think that people are finally realizing that veganism isn't a fringe lifestyle of deprivation ascetic food; it's fun, abundant, tasty, and (most important) a powerful way to protest a food system that destroys the environment and subjects animals to tremendous, senseless cruelty. Most people care a lot about the planet and about animal welfare, but they don't realize how empowered they are to make a difference through what they eat. With each year that goes by, more folks are making the connection. It's an exciting process to watch.

5. What's the most frequently asked question you get from non-vegans and what is your answer?

Ha! Well, naturally, "where do you get your protein?" To which I say, legumes, whole grains, whole soy foods, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. I also get "is it hard dining out?" a fair bit. The answer is that it can be, depending on where you are and what sort of restaurant you're at, but it's becoming increasingly easy, and in fact many restaurants are offering up stellar meatless entrees.

6. What are your favorite ingredients to use?

That's easy! Hemp, avocado, sweet potatoes, quinoa, chickpeas, bananas, coconut, and kale.

7. What suggestions do you have for someone who is interested in exploring a plant-based diet?

I'd say to explore the lifestyle slowly, first of all. So many folks approach veganism as a crash diet, a cleanse, or a challenge, when in fact they may have an easier time transitioning if they simply started to explore meatless recipes one at a time. I also say that it's best to add first, subtract later; don't focus on what you're giving up or sacrificing, but rather on what you're gaining by choosing vegan foods. What new dishes or new ingredients are you exploring? What health benefits are creeping into your life? I'd also caution folks who are new to veganism to be sure they're eating enough. Because plant foods are largely less calorie dense than animal foods, you sometimes need more volume to feel full. And finally, I'd say that, while veganism is likely to bring about health benefits, it's not a magical panacea. A lot of people go vegan and expect to feel invincible overnight. Veganism can be a tremendously energizing and health way to eat, but like any other type of diet, it isn't magic. It may take some time to adjust the diet to work for you, and that's OK. It's part of the transition process. With patience and the ability to listen to your body, you'll find an iteration of veganism that works for you! Thanks Gena for sharing your insight on a plant-based diet! Learn more about Gena on her blog, Choosing Raw and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest