Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Nursing Book Club

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

The author takes on taboo subjects

By Mary Roach (Norton & Co., 2013)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

If you’re like me, when the summer months roll around, you look for something fun to read — fun, but also educational. It sounds like a stretch, but that’s what you’ll find if you reach for Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach.

The title alone should give you pause and once you’ve read the list of chapter headings, you will know you’re in for a treat. If you have read Roach’s previous book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2004), you’re probably looking forward to more of her totally irreverent facts.

Chewing Through Debt
Roach travels the digestive canal from start to finish and makes it come alive in a way my biology teacher never could. Chapter One is “Nose Job: Tasting Has Little to Do with Taste,” which is something you may have already known if you’ve worked with stroke or otherwise brain-damaged patients. (One of my favorites was one who always told me that ice cream tasted cold.) We’re introduced to people like Sue Langstaff, who can “read stink” and has the all-important job of practicing “sensory analysis” as it pertains to wine, beer and olive oil going bad.

Although Roach herself travels the canal from end to end, the book works just as well if you sample the chapters at random. For example, Chapter 10 is “The Longest Meal: Can Thorough Chewing Lower the National Debt?” For a moment, I thought I was reading the title of a “Saturday Night Live” script, but the author goes on to explain that Harvard University holds the papers of one Horace Fletcher, a self-described “economic nutritionist” of the early 1900s who proposed “extremely thorough chewing” as the way to prosperity.

Fletcher — passing the point where, as Roach puts it, “efficiency crosses over to lunacy” — claimed that the midsection of an onion could be chewed 722 times before it became liquefied and that this amount of chewing could double the amount of vitamins and other nutrients available from the food. By doing this, he asserted, we would need less food and our national debt could be banished. Astonishingly, people took him seriously, although a single bite could take 10 minutes to properly “Fletcherize.” Who has that kind of time?

No Nose Unturned
This book might be ideal summer reading for middle school boys because several chapters concern human gas. Chapter 12 is entitled “Inflammable You: Fun with Hydrogen and Methane,” while Chapter 13 is “Dead Man’s Bloat and Other Diverting Tales from the History of Flatulence Research” and Chapter 14 is “Smelling a Rat: Does Noxious Flatus Do More than Clear a Room?” Wait … is there really flatulence research?

Of course, no story of the alimentary canal would be complete without some commentary on constipation or Elvis Presley’s megacolon. Honestly, there’s nothing sacred and no taboos here, just a lot of eye-opening material that my professors somehow left out of class. You will laugh out loud and when you try to share what you’ve read with your family, you’re likely to get that “Oh gross, too much information” look that they love to give you. You won’t care — you’ll be enjoying yourself too much.  


Did You Know?

• The alimentary canal is the tubular passage that extends from mouth to anus. The canal functions in digestion and absorption of food and elimination of residual waste, and includes the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine.
• The surface area of the digestive tract is the size of a football field.
• It takes less than an hour after a meal for half the stomach contents to empty into the intestines; a total emptying of the stomach takes around two hours.
• The colon contains bacteria that produce beneficial vitamins like vitamin K.

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.

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