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Story Publication logo November 10, 2014

Going Against the Grain: A Raw Vegan Restaurant in London

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Half the population of the United Kingdom may be obese by 2050. What are the causes and what is...

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Nestled in a cozy neighborhood in Notting Hill, a small but quaint raw, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free bistro known as Nama draws a daily crowd for lunch. Whether ordering take-away or sitting down for a meal, most of the patrons know exactly what they want.

"We have loads of regulars, especially the people that work around here. They already know what they are going to order," says restaurant owner and Spanish native Irene Arango. "We get lots of new people too. We get messages from people that say, 'I stumbled on your place by mistake, and I really like it. I'm a meat-eater, but I love the food.'"

We are sitting at a table for two, adorned with succulent plants and carafes of fresh water with lemon and herbs. The sun shines in on the large hanging chalk board menu and, as the lunch crowd fills the small space, Arango has to talk louder.

"I always tell this famous story that a very big guy that worked down the road used to come to the place next door who made non-vegan cakes and coffees. For the first month we were open we were like 'You have to try our food!' and he would say 'No, I am a big guy—this vegan food is not enough for me.' And one day like three months down the line, we managed to get him to try the lasagna. He was so impressed that every Wednesday for the rest of the year he came for the lasagna," she says.

Arango has been vegan for years, but it was only after her mother was diagnosed with Celiac disease that providing grain-free options became important to her. "People don't know if they remove gluten for even a week they would see how much better they feel. They don't recognize that it's why they don't feel good. They think being bloated and tired after they eat is normal. When you eat you're supposed to feel better, be more energized."

If the number of people inside this small space is any indication, then the community of Notting Hill has responded. "You know we were expecting it to be very slow but it's been growing and growing. None of us really had a lot of experience in the restaurant business. We were told that restaurants usually do well for the first three months and then slow down a little bit when the novelty has worn off, but that hasn't happened."

Perhaps it is because this community is no stranger to food-related problems. In the UK, obesity is a rapidly growing issue. Leigh Brody, an obesity researcher from Imperial University, tells me that although London is paying attention, the rest of the country is a different story. "You're seeing a very isolated part of the UK. You're seeing London, specifically Notting Hill. These are people who are very conscious of health and weight gain, more so than other parts of the country. If you go outside London you will see England as a whole has a really big obesity problem."

The Foresight Report, conducted by the UK Government in 2007, predicted that half the population could be obese by 2050. The National Obesity Forum, founded in 2000 to raise awareness of obesity, has since determined that upward trends in obesity levels suggest these conclusions could be exceeded.

According to Harry Rutter, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and advisor to Public Health England, the reasons for the rise are a result of a modern lifestyle.

"Obesity is a normal response by normal people to an abnormal environment. So people have not become lazier, or greedier or their genetics haven't changed over the last 30 or 40 years, but the world around us has changed completely," he says, "Obesity is just a side effect really. It's collateral damage to contemporary lifestyle and the kinds of things we all want: abundance, convenience, choice. These are the things that we want and it's a brave politician that votes to constrain that."

But politicians are trying. The government has taken several measures, through expert counsel and studies, in an attempt to tackle its obesity problem.

In 1996, Dr. Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, began a program called Consensus Action on Salt & Health, or CASH, aimed at lowering salt intake. Today, this program has, along with the government and the food industry, reduced the salt in foods by a targeted percentage each year.

MacGregor has now turned his focus on sugar, and his new program "Action Sugar" aims to do the same. "Added sugar in our diet is a very recent phenomenon and only occurred when sugar, obtained from sugar cane, beet and corn, became very cheap to produce. It's a completely unnecessary part of our calorie intake: It has no nutritional value, gives no feeling of fullness and is acknowledged to be a major factor in causing obesity and diabetes both in the UK and worldwide," he notes.

Despite being more health conscious, finding the type of food free of sugar and other additives such as that which Nama creates isn't easy. In London, only about a dozen restaurants offer raw or vegan cuisine options.

Arango hopes to change that. "I would like to open another place but I want to continue to make this one work first because we have to be able to replicate exactly what we are doing. We are self-funded, so it takes time, but it allows us to create a philosophy the brand will abide to. I don't have to appease anyone else."

She also welcomes others to do the same. "You know, the more the merrier. The more restaurants there are the more people will understand what we do. There would be more knowledge about the dishes and that is good for everyone," she says. "Then I would have a place to go out to eat as well!"

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