It started with a tingling, burning sensation all over my face.
“My skin feels like it’s too tight for my body,” I told my husband.
He asked if I was high. (No.) Did a bee sting me? (No.) Fortunately, everything went back to normal within a half hour. But I was still confused by the episode: I’d woken up, gotten dressed, and mixed myself a protein shake for breakfast — nothing more.
A couple days later, after drinking another shake, I felt the same sensation spread across my cheeks. A quick internet search on food allergies helped me formulate a hypothesis, which I tested by drinking the first diet cola I’d had in years. And, with that, I identified the likely culprit: artificial sweetener.
That day, I emptied my beloved, fake-sugar-laden protein powder into the trash. By the evening, I already missed having the option of drinking a meal. I liked the whole process of it: scooping powder into what I call my “shaky cup,” pouring in two cups of soy milk, dropping in that little wire whisk ball and then rattling the whole thing like I’m mixing a martini. This ritual provided a sense of discipline that I lack in other realms of my life. Think of all the time I saved not having to, say, assemble sandwiches or chew solids.
I wasn’t ready to abandon the shake life entirely. So, after hitting the health blogs, I ordered a tub of grass-based “protein superfood.” It was the only powder I could find that was free of both sugar and sugar-free sweeteners. It was also packed with dried fruits, vegetables, and grasses. Yes, grasses. Jackpot.
When the little tub of “superfood” arrived in the mail, I brought the box in from the front porch, lifted it high in the air, and announced to my husband, “This is going to make me wonderful!” I was joking, mostly. But the label did boast of fiber, vitamins, organic hemp protein, the aforementioned grasses (barley and alfalfa), and “alkalizing greens.” My only reference for “alkalizing” as a verb came from high school chemistry; still, I imagined the jiggle on my arms melting away. I imagined my face glowing naturally — like it might if I knew how to apply highlighter properly or got pregnant.
The next morning, I opened the tub and admired the olive green powder. It felt slippery, like cornstarch. I combined the powder with water — instead of soy milk because I didn’t want to mask its true taste — and mixed the concoction vigorously in my shaky cup.
Then I took a swig. I felt nauseated right away, and broke out into sweats.
I gagged, stumbled backwards, and spit up some green foam. I took another sip and gagged again. This time the foam dribbled down my chin and onto my shirt. The shake tasted the way lawn clippings smell. It had the texture of chalk — plus something earthier, too, like a mollusk shell, or maybe dirt. Worst of all, it had a sweet aftertaste, presumably courtesy of the “organic Madagascar vanilla.” The vanilla only added a tinge of rot, not dissimilar to the sweetness lurking in spoiled milk.
My putrid powder, however, hadn’t come cheap. Remembering what I’d spent on the 12-serving tub of “food,” I plugged my nose and choked down a few more gulps. Then I held up my glass and saw, through watery eyes, that one small sip remained. I conquered that sip, like only a green-powder-fueled warrior could.
I could have called it a win and dumped the rest of the tub. Instead, I incorporated the whole, nauseating experience into my day-to-day life. Over the past few months, I’ve come to enjoy the pain and wretchedness of drinking what is essentially powdered cow food. I could just fry myself an egg, or toast an English muffin, but no — this grassy slop is my Everest. Forcing it down my throat has become a small way of showing myself what I’m made of.
And I’ve made some progress: I now know that it’s better to chug than sip. And, sure, sometimes I still gag and throw up in my mouth a little. But first, I psych myself up by taking three deep breaths and throwing my head back for maximum entry speed. I think it helps. When I’m done, I suck in air to soothe the impending nausea.
Sometimes my husband and dogs stop to watch.
At its best, this act of vitamin-fortified masochism is similar to a weightlifter priming for and coming down from a super heavy set. The comparison is noteworthy: Once my shake is done, I feel the way I do after I finish a painful last set of squats and lunges. I’m awake. My mind is clear. I feel different for the rest of the day, as though my outlook is colored by leftover endorphins.
My powder regimen also affects what and how I eat. I appreciate actual food in a new, more pronounced way: Potatoes browned in olive oil feel well-earned; broccoli, squash, and cauliflower that have been seasoned and roasted — not dried — taste wonderful. Homemade kimchi-jjigae, spicy fish curry, or a red pepper-packed marinara sauce are savored, bite by bite. And I’m more conscious of portion control, since I don’t want to destroy my energetic buzz by overeating.
Of course, I don’t rely on this “superfood” for my main source of calories and nutrients, as plenty of health bloggers claim to do. (Maybe if I did, I’d be the glowy, sinewy, overall wonderful being I imagined.) And I don’t want to — I’m content chugging powdery goo instead of lunch or breakfast a few days a week, getting the sweats, spitting up foam, and walking away knowing I have one more (admittedly strange) resource to help me stay (somewhat) happy and (somewhat) healthy.
I do miss starting my day with a chocolate soy milk shake — you know, something that actually tastes good. But now that I regularly ingest grasses with notes of sweet rot, I don’t take anything that tastes good for granted. When I eat a sandwich, I close my eyes and whisper, “Ahh, food.”