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Everything “rots” in your colon, and it’s not a bad thing at all

August 7, 2012

The internet is full of vegetarian and vegan websites claiming meat is bad because it “rots” in your colon. This is actually a very old idea, tracing back in the United States to neo-puritan vegetarian movements obsessed with the uncleanliness of the colon. According to folks like John Harvey Kellogg, the colon, like the genitalia, was a source of uncleanliness, so it must be bombarded by as much harsh fiber as possible and regular enemas to keep it “clean.”

But his philosophy, which seems quite dysfunctional today, was a reaction to another idea that was popular during this time: that the colon was a useless vestigial remnant used to store garbage before clearance. Taken to its extreme, it led to a brief fancy by surgeons like Sir William Arbuthnot Lane to simply just remove the colons of people who suffered from constipation, believing it was nearly useless anyway. Colon removals are still performed today, but mainly in truly serious cases of damage such as severe inflammatory bowel disease.

Kellogg also believed it was a garbage dispenser, but he thought it was very important to keep it as clear and clean as possible, ideally eliminating after every single meal.

The truth is that the colon is not a garbage dispenser, it is a rich and biodiverse ecosystem in which much of the intestinal microbiota resides. And nature abhors a waste, so if a food makes it into the colon, there will probably be something eager to eat it. I suppose “rot” could be an uncharitable way to view it, as these remnants are degraded by bacteria, producing a variety of harmful, harmless, and beneficial byproducts that can play important roles in human health. If we are going to view things in such a negative light, it’s worth thinking about how when you die and your immune system flat-lines forever, this bacteria will be on the front lines for rotting you. But for now, it’s our very own internal composting system.

via Hunt.Gather.Love. | Melissa McEwen’s on food anthropology, economics, and culture.

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