Gulp by Mary Roach

13615414Nonfiction — print. W.W. Norton, 2013. 348 pgs. Library copy. 

Subtitled “Adventures on the Alimentary Canal”, Roach’s book guides readers on the journey of their food — from the saliva generated at the smell of food to the stomach and then onto the colon and the way out. The path isn’t without a few side trips to answer questions like can one survive being swallowed alive, can the gas you pass be set on fire, and can you really eat yourself to death?

Bizarre-sounding? Maybe, but I enjoy learning random pieces of information that I can then share as “fun facts of the day”. And Roach makes the alimentary canal a far more fascinating place than I ever thought possible. Some of the more interesting facts I gleamed from reading this book (or, at least ones I can publicly share without attracting the spambots):

  • Like us, dogs are attracted to food based on smell, but what smells good to us is not actually what attracts them to food. (Nearly rotten meat is a pet favorite!) Same situation with cats, although they ultimately decide what to eat based on taste. An entire facility — complete with taste-testing dogs and cats — is decided to cracking the code.
  • Food preferences are largely set by the age of ten and are decided by the people around you. Namely, by the “gatekeeper” who (is presumed) to do all the shopping and cooking — mom.
  • In 1901, a man named Horace Fletcher tried to get the general public to adopt an intense regime of chewing — 722 bites for a shallot — because he believed chewing each mouthful of food until it liquefies could help the eater absorb double the nutrients. And, if people received more nutrients per meal, they wouldn’t need to spend as much on food.
  • Your brain calibrates its understanding of “full” based on how much food you regularly eat. If you feel full more quickly after eating less, it is because your tolerance for food has diminished overtime. This “tolerance” affects the feedback loops stimulated for hormone and enzyme production.

Roach’s conversational tone makes it easy to understand some of the more difficult chemistry and biology concepts discussed in this book. (It only took me so long to read the book because the topic made it a distinctly bad choice for my lunch break.) Yet some of levity is a bit unnecessary. I don’t need to know how sexy or dull the scientists she’s conversing with, and there were certain chapters — the one about William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin, especially — when I wished there was more of a serious, technical bent to her writing.

That said, I enjoyed learning more about the part of the body that’s often derided and ignored, and I’d gladly pick up another one of Roach’s books. Probably as an audiobook since that seems like a better fit for her writing style.

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