9th April 2020

Food / Karen O'Donoghue

Fight for Fibre: Part One by Karen O’Donoghue

19 9 mins 0

TThis is part one of a series by Karen O’Donoghue, “an activist for fibre” and founder of Happy Tummy Co.

Karen’s mission is to heal the world of poor digestion through whole foods. Good foods.

Her medicine is bread, homemade bread, created with love, not the ready-sliced, white, may-as-well-eat-cotton-wool-for-the-nutrients-it-will-give-you kind. Collectively we are eating more cereal crops than ever before yet the nutritional intake these plants should provide are lacking. The health of the soil and the health of our guts are suffering as a consequence.

As I sit down to write this piece…

WhatsApp message: The Green Onion Society “Anyone need a lift to Seedy Sunday this weekend?”

For your interest, Seedy Sunday is the UK’s biggest and longest-running community seed swap event to help protect local biodiversity and I’ve been invited to join the one in Hove, East Sussex this Sunday.

As a new member of The Green Onion Society, it has lifted my spirit to realise the number of real community activists living in my area damned to make a difference to our soil.

Growing up the daughter of a horticulturist I’ve always had a strong relationship with the soil. Aware of the fact that our food is simply reconstituted soil and what we put in it somehow weaves its way into our food. The colour of the soil from one country to the next deeply fascinates me. The redness of Southern India’s, the dark dirty grey black of Southern Ethiopia’s, the volcanic blend of golden brown and auburn of Sicily, the varying shades of brown and texture found along the Californian coast, New Zealand, Brazil, well-watered Ireland all draw me in in equal measure.

You don’t plant thousands of saplings each year alongside your brother and sister without a remarkable respect for the land seeping into your every bone, your every memory.

And so, with the health of our home soil established in me, I went off into the world with new friends who looked at the world through a different lens. When we drank wine together, I would always think of the labour and weather each viticulturist endured to produce such a bottle. My friend might think about the price and then the taste. Visiting markets all over the world ready to pay the cheesemaker’s price for a well-made raw cheese but the fun of it all crippled by the inevitable “that’s too expensive!” from a friend never to have dug a hole in their lives in Baltic conditions at eight in the morning. Travelling far from our staycation in Sicily to reach the bakery on Mount Etna who make their sourdough with the ancient Italian wheat variety timilia filled me with the excitement and endorphin rush most people get from a rollercoaster ride. Chewing my first bite is as memorable today as it was five years ago. Sweet and slightly nutty; I ate it every morning with a plunger of coffee until it was gone.

I have never been able to sit down to a plate of food or a glass of wine without imagining the journey.

I have never been able to sit down to a plate of food or a glass of wine without imagining the journey. People talk about not being able to eat an animal. My gosh, it took me a long time to get comfortable with eating a plant! Perhaps like me, you have one life-changing experience that shadows all others? The death of my mother so young has fundamentally changed how I look at the world and how I eat.

Aged ten, digging a hole for another beech sapling one Easter, my mum unable to join us due to all the chemo she was on, I had this grandiose feeling that one day I would build a brand that promoted the premise of food as medicine. Strongly aware of my own health challenges being regularly constipated up to a couple of weeks at a time, my mum used to share her laxative with me. (The laxative needed to counteract all the cancer medication she was on.) That image of me and my mum slugging liquid laxative at the kitchen counter together still irks me today. A cancer patient and her daughter both struggling with an action that could be so normal – one simple bowel movement.

During that time in Ireland, we were very grateful for the pharmaceutical drugs keeping my mum alive but also to all the healers who gave us hope. We ate healthy food, we always ate organic meat, my mum or I baked every day but deep in my gut, I knew something wasn’t right.

In 2014 I used the word “poo” a countless number of times when talking to Shoreditch House members about their gut health. It felt liberating to hold the attention of a room on a subject that had made me feel so vulnerable and lonely over the years. Etched out within this two-and-a-half-hour period became the rest of my adult life. A life where I called bullshit on the feeders and became an activist for fibre and gut health.

Perhaps my Catholic upbringing had infiltrated my subconscious more than I knew. Bread had been a pillar in my life since I first learnt to bake aged four. “This is the body of Christ.” Technically it wasn’t but it could well be the body of our great grandparents buried close to that farm down the road growing excellent organic wheat. What goes into our soil goes into our food remember? Funny how so many of us are ok with pesticide and herbicide spray on our food but the idea of the dead in our food fully creeps us out. We all decompose in the end after all.

Anyway, death and decomposition aside, it always felt as though life was pushing me in the direction of bread as medicine and so building mathematical equations based on how our gut bacteria like to eat and layering those equations with recipes that would relieve me of my life-long battle with IBS back in 2013 became an unforgettable eighteen months of elevating work.

Not only was I now able to poo once a day but sometimes twice a day! I was jubilant! And I no longer needed to carry reading material with me to the bathroom. Thankfully, I could now also run without the movement of running bringing on a week’s worth of bowels desperate to evacuate my body at the most criminal of times – twenty minutes run away from any sort of a loo (I would have taken private shelter under a bush if it had been available to me to be quite frank). Two slices of my 48-hour-soaked wholegrain chia teff loaf had become my daily medicine and boy was it delicious. Effective too with bowel movement number one of the day out of me about fifteen minutes after breakfast.

How much better life felt, with so much knowledge in my pants!

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Karen O'Donoghue

Karen O’Donoghue, “an activist for fibre” and founder of Happy Tummy Co.

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