From Nose to Tail, In More Ways Than One – A Review of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

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I have said it often enough that I love to eat, and I do. There’s very few things that give me greater pleasure than eating – especially if the food is something I enjoy, and I am always willing to give almost anything a try once. I do draw the line at Limburger cheese and hakarl, though, mostly because I couldn’t stand the smell long enough to get a bite in my mouth – and durian, though I’ve tried durian and it’s simply not my thing, both smell-wise and texture-wise.

But for all that I’ve read books about food, the history of food, and even the technology of food (Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson), I haven’t read anything that looks into the human body’s handling of food. What goes on before, during, and after one puts food into one’s mouth? Food is essential to life, after all – one can die if one does not eat – so understanding what happens in the body when it comes to food seems not only interesting, but essential. The bare-bones basics are taught in school, of course, but I’ve not yet read a popular science book that really delves into the subject. And when so much of contemporary health awareness is focused on diet (“You are what you eat” has never rung truer than in the 21st century health-conscious mind), it seems logical that one would want to understand the inner workings of one’s digestive system in better detail than the admittedly sketchy coverage done in grade school or high school.

This is where Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach comes in. Roach is known for writing some rather intriguing books about the human body: Stiff, which is about human cadavers; Spook which grew out of Roach’s work on Stiff and is a scientific look at the concept of the afterlife, and Bonk, which is about sex. Though I hadn’t read any of her books, I was interested in finding out what her writing style was like, and after hearing about Gulp on some podcasts I listen to, I decided to start there. As a result, I’m very glad to have discovered Mary Roach’s writing, because I think only a very few other popular science writers could have been able to tackle the topics she does with the same forthrightness and humor – and this is quite something, because despite how essential it is, the digestive system is not exactly what one would call “pretty.”

Some readers might find Gulp a bit hard to swallow, for lack of a better word. Although the book starts with the sense of smell, especially where it relates to our sense of taste, Roach quickly diverts it to what most readers would consider “gross”: after that rather pleasant first chapter, Chapter 2 takes a detour into animal territory by looking into pet food and the creation and consumption thereof. From there it just (potentially) gets worse: it goes from a discussion of the consumption of animal organs to stomach distention to spit to dead man’s bloat (which also forms part of the title for Chapter 13, dealing with gases in the digestive system) and finally to feces and impacted colons. Depending on the reader, this may not be a book to read at the dining table – or anywhere else, if one is of a particularly delicate constitution.

And yet it is the very bits that might be considered gross or disgusting that are, in my opinion, the most vital, especially if one is concerned about how diet can improve or ruin one’s health (and the health of one’s pets). It also helps that many of these chapters aid in busting a few myths that some people might continue to hold onto, despite such ideas being nothing more than hogwash (such as: can an animal that is still alive eat its way out of a person’s stomach? The answer is: likely no). There can be no niceties here, and Roach does not mince words unless for the sake of humor. Her point is clear: talking about spit and vomit and feces is indeed gross, but it is also necessary to discuss them, because they are the keys to understanding some of our body’s most crucial functions.

In fact, it is this reluctance to discuss the digestive system that led Roach to write about it in the first place. Beyond the work of a few scientists and medical practitioners whom Roach has interviewed and interacted with in the course of researching and writing Gulp, there is little work being done researching and investigating the digestive tract. Indeed, research is only now beginning to take off, especially with more and more scientists realizing how vital bacteria is to a healthy human body, but it is slow going. The bias against the “ick factor” is strong, but it is necessary to overcome it. In understanding our digestive system it may become possible to understand things like some of the root causes for obesity, for instance, as well as finding ways of reducing the impact antibiotics have on gut flora (it is heavy reliance on antibiotics for practically every ailment that has led to the spread of drug-resistant Clostridium difficile, a bacteria that can cause chronic, and in some cases fatal, diarrhea). There is also the issue of cancers of the digestive tract, such as colon cancer, which can and do kill. If old biases can be put away, and more open discussion fostered, perhaps there will be more researchers studying the digestive system more thoroughly – along with more monetary support for such efforts.

Overall, Gulp is as entertaining as it is informative: Roach certainly discusses the many medical concerns and advancements related to the study of the digestive system (fecal transplants, in particular, might be the next wonder treatment for those with intestinal diseases, especially those infected with C. difficile), but she is also the first to see the potential for humor in what she is talking about. It’s clear, after all, that she takes a certain glee in explaining why the stinkiest farts always feel hot when they exit, or telling the story of William Beaumont and his (un?)fortunate guinea pig, Alexis St. Martin, whose claim to fame lay in the fact that he had a hole in his abdomen that allowed direct access to his stomach for experimental purposes. There is a lot to laugh about, and a lot not to laugh about, in this book, all held together by Roach’s eminently readable style. If one does not mind various references, medical or otherwise, to sundry bodily functions that are not meant for polite conversation, then this book will most certainly enlighten and entertain. All others, though, may be wise to approach with some caution – or at least, leave the dining table before they do so.

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