If you came here searching for some sexy gossip, I’ve gotta be up front with you. Imma be talking shit.
You know what I’m talkin’ bout, y’all. You had those big Christmas dinners last night, you had a big cup of coffee this morning… Okay I promise that I won’t spend this entire blog post talking about shit. I mean it is the Christmas season after all, but technically Christmas is over so let’s get down and dirty.
Like shit, this story begins with food. And like both food and shit, this story is deeply personal.
We are omnivores, which means we have a huuuuuge range of food to choose from. If you live in the USA, you live in one of the most prosperous countries in the world. This gives you, theoretically, even more choice when it comes to how you feed yourself to stay alive. But the weird thing about the USA is this:
- 2/3 of adults in America are overweight or obese.
- 1 in 8 adults live in a home that is food insecure. (Meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.)
In other words, America suffers simultaneously from both hunger and obesity. On a large scale. Now, I’m citing research compiled by the Food Research and Action Center, but this fact jumped off the page at me from Michael Pollan’s book almost 7 years ago because it just seemed so weird. How can so many Americans be so unhealthy? And why are people suffering at both extremes? What does that mean? How is that possible?
I am an average American, and a 90’s kid. I grew up with Cinnamon Toast Crunch for breakfast, milk and cookies after school, and the food pyramid to guide me. This food pyramid:
Check out all those grains at the bottom. Those will come back to haunt me later. This whole thing will, actually. This is the USDA food Pyramid from 1992, when I was 3 years old. About ten years later, in beautiful, stark, sparsely populated, highly Republican Idaho, the concept of global warming will enter my young consciousness. A concept which I discover is related to food in ways I never considered. Al Gore came to speak at the Boise Pavilion, and I discovered that the American meat industry is responsible for more of our greenhouse gas emissions than all of the cars and trucks on the road combined.
That was when I decided to become a vegetarian.
But for a dumbass teenager living in a land where vegetarianism is a totally foreign concept in the early 2000’s, this became the “Doritos and Coke” diet, and was both socially isolating and unhealthy. I was the weird kid at Shari’s who wouldn’t order bacon, but I was eating soy products 3 meals a day. I gave that up; broke down and got a bacon cheeseburger and wild fries at Good Times by the mall. But on my way to college, The University of Portland Honors Program handed me Michael Pollan’s book and told me to move to Portland a week early to study food sustainability. Something inside me was set on fire again, and I guzzled down information about government food subsidies, big business lobbyists, and all of the stuff that goes into making your food before you even walk through the doors of the grocery store.
I began to reprogram by brain. Food is incredibly personal, and way more emotional than food activists and fitness enthusiasts like to admit. I am passionate about the evils of industrial food, but where do I put that memory of my Grandmom emptying her pockets to buy us a big bag of cheeseburgers from McDonald’s? What do I do with the sense memory of the bacon cheeseburger my best friend bought me when I was sobbing from my first breakup? Chocolate milk that your Mom used to mix for you. Baking a Betty Crocker birthday cake from a box and then eating the leftover frosting with graham crackers. I felt like Monsanto had been bribing me with emotional currency and poisoning me with corn syrup.
By Junior year of college I had become a vegetarian again, and most of my diet consisted of home-cooked meals that my roommate and I concocted out of our CSA box, also known as Community Supported Agriculture. My friend had started a small organic farm after graduating from college, and he delivered huge boxes of beautiful organic veggies to our home once a week. My fond memories of Cap’n Crunch and Mac n’ Cheese became nothing more than fond memories, and I was the healthiest I have ever been. I still drank beer, ate grilled cheese sandwiches (Tillamook Cheddar on Dave’s Killer Bread, obviously), and ate cake when I felt like it, but I was more at peace with the way I was living on this planet.
Fast forward to Monterey, California. July 2012.
CSU Summer Arts: One month of Chicago Style Comedy and Solo Performance. Arts camp for people who are of drinking age.
Or as I like to think of it, the month that I stopped shitting. I’ll never forget the friendships I formed, the mentorship I received, or all of the stuff I learned about improv and art. But mostly, I’ll never forget the gastrointestinal trauma that began that month and that has not stopped since.
I moved to LA and began grad school.
I forged artistic bonds and deep friendships with sweat and blood.
I stopped dating. I am a 20-something blond actress living in LA–you’d think there would be a little bit of romance in that, but it is hard to feel like putting on a dress and going to a bar when you are thinking about your own shit. Literally.
Yeah, y’all. I told you this shit was personal.
Fast forward again to India, summer of 2013.
A life-changing two months of spiritual growth and self-discovery. I rode a camel, a horse, and an elephant. I played with children in the Himilayas. I did yoga in the middle of a flash flood. And I got super, super sick. Repeatedly. My GI problems were exacerbated by the stress of traveling, eating unfamiliar foods, the vengeance of an angry god, whatever. When you don’t poop, your body starts to fill with bacteria and viruses.
I got the flu three times while I was there, and the third time ended with my host family driving me from doctor to doctor in the extremely under-served region of Ladakh, trying to get me some medical treatment. Despite being sick so much, I had an incredible trip, and I had actually canceled my return flight and bought a new one for three weeks later in order to extend my trip and see more of the country. But with a violent fever racking my body, deep circles under my eyes, and no color left in my skin, crammed in the backseat of my family’s car as we crept along the base of the Himalayas, I decided it was time to go home. I changed my flight back and returned home, my head and stomach swimming after two months of extreme paradise.
After I got back to the United States, I felt defeated. For over a year I had been trying every possible modification to my diet I could think of. I stopped eating wheat, I cut out dairy, I cut out alcohol, I tried eating meat again, and nothing seemed to help. The doctor that I saw when I got back shrugged his shoulders and referred me to a specialist, who could see me in about a month. I walked out of the doctor’s office with a referral sheet, an appointment for a month later, and a feeling of helplessness.
In India, Ayurvedic medicine is very popular. In Ayurveda, you eat foods which specifically help balance out your body, and the treatments are things like massages and colonics. The idea is to detox your body of things that you’ve had to make you sicker, and food is the medicine which keeps you healthy. It is a long term health regimen. Naturopathic medicine, which is much more common in the United States, draws from both Western Medicine and more holistic medical approaches like Ayurveda. Western medicine had shrugged its shoulders at me, so I called a Naturopath.
After a million questions and a thorough examination, the Naturopathic Doctor told me that I had a leaky gut. Ummm… gross. That sounds gross. What else is new? Basically, my intestines couldn’t absorb certain food molecules. So the rejected molecules were taking revenge on my picky intestines by slamming through the walls of my intestines and breaking into my bloodstream without permission and without being properly broken down. Then my immune system had to create antibodies to attack and break down the rogue molecules. Then the antibodies got super paranoid and just started attacking a ton of stuff in my body that didn’t actually need to be attacked. It’s called an autoimmune response. On my blood test, it shows that my body has autoimmune-levels of antibodies for Gluten, Corn, Dairy, Coffee, Hemp, Sesame, and basically all forms of joy and happiness. My gluten test looks like what it would look like if I had full-blown Celiac Disease.
At last, I knew the truth. I knew what the problem was. …And the problem? Where do I begin?
Food intolerance like the one I have develops over time. Our genetically-modified and industrially-bred wheat crops have an unnaturally high amount of gluten. This is because if the wheat you grow has a freaky amount of gluten in it, you can grow more calories per acre, and you can make more money per acre. Ultimately, this benefits not the farmers but the seed companies and the food manufacturers. The problem is that the human body has not evolved to break down gluten in that quantity. Now scroll back up to that food pyramid. Eat your wheat, 90’s kids.
And corn!! Oh my God I’m allergic to corn! Apparently, while I was watching Supersize Me and King Corn and reading Michael Pollan’s books, MY INTESTINES WERE LISTENING!! How freaky is that? Every time I ate wheat or corn my intestines were like, “No we don’t want any of that industrial bullshit” and then the wheat was all, “Fuck you, intestines, I’m gonna get into that bloodstream anyway” and then my body was like, “GTFO” and then there was an epic immune battle waged in my bloodstream.
It’s kind of amazing when I think about it. Activist intestines go on a poop strike to end industrial agriculture! Angry bowels stop pooping in protest to irresponsible farming!
…Or something like that. To cut a long story short, this journey as been a huge part of my 2013. I ended up going on an intense detox diet of ONLY VEGETABLES in the middle of my hardest semester of grad school yet. No alcohol, no caffeine, no sugar, no grains and 16-hour days of lose-your-mind acting training. I confronted a whole heap of memories and emotions tied in with food. And actually, what I discovered is that I’m a lot stronger than I think I am. I didn’t need coffee to get through the day, I just wanted it because it reminded me of a million beautiful moments and made me happy. I didn’t need a million things that I thought I needed, and in their absence I didn’t experience despair. The million beautiful memories I have tied to food didn’t just disappear when I became gluten intolerant. They are still just as visceral and beautiful and important to who I am, and now I have the opportunity to form new memories. Memories that aren’t tied to a food system that my intestines can’t handle and my heart and mind can’t get behind.
I made a large portion of the Christmas dinner last night for my family, and beside the turkey and the gravy, it was all vegan and gluten free. I told them all at the end of the meal, after belts were loosened, the stuffing was praised, and the kale was lauded. It was a beautiful meal that created lots of beautiful memories, and my family was happy to feast with me in a way that I could enjoy it with them. No one missed the butter or the wheat or the corn, and the quinoa stuffing was the first thing to get gobbled up off the plates.
Needless to say, Britt and I were active in a group text all Christmas day with our besties, and I feel the need to round out this post with a photograph that Britt was foolish enough to send to all of us. I don’t have any pictures of myself on the toilet, but I do have a picture of my twin of the toilet, and I believe it encapsulates all I’m trying to say about memories, food, touchy-feely stuff, and of course, shit.
Britt Harris, in pottytraining.