The Nutrition Desk

Where the Himalayan Moss Grows

Going on a five-day cleanse—subsisting on a diet of shots, smoothies, very few actual foods, and no caffeine—leads to visions of apocalypse. From 2013, a quest to find the seven billionth child on Earth.

The Land of Cockaigne, 1567, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

You should do that cleanse, my brother says. We’re sitting in a raw foods store, in the alcove they provide for people to eat their extraordinarily priced delicious raw vegan snacks. It’s hard for me not to see it all as vegetarianism for rich people, because, well, I am not a rich person, but my brother is now. I feel something like a class obligation lingering for me to pick up on, as I turn the mysterious packages over and read the ingredients: Irish sea moss, Himalayan sea salt, organic figs.

The world, shaken out or down, for a smoothie.

When we were kids, my brother and I would sneak off and get Philly cheese-steak subs with mushrooms and mayo on white bread rolls. Now he’s a financier with a mostly vegetarian wife and both have a penchant for raw foods, which is why we’ve stopped here. And though I was the first in my family to flirt with veganism, back in the 1980s, after Courtney Love announced “Cheese makes you fat,” I’m now one of those lapsed vegetarians, trapped in the world of meat by a love of bacon. And, well, cheese (sorry Courtney!).

I agree to the cleanse, a birthday gift from him, something of a concession—he is worried about my health. I’m not the skinny ex-yoga instructor I once was a decade ago. We first discussed it months before this visit, and I have been taking my time at signing up for it. Mostly because of how a cleanse can put you into a state of rage, as my brother warned, chuckling at some memory—and I do also know this. I also know that once you say the word “cleanse,” once you have it somewhere ahead of you in your future, not doing it seems, well, untenable, like leaving your house not just a mess but dirty. You start to feel like a sponge someone pulled out of the Gowanus Canal that grew legs. I know this because I’ve cleansed before—see under “ex-yoga instructor”—and I know too well how the food you eat most of the time is revealed to be not food at all, just hidden sugar, hidden addictions. Sometimes not so hidden. You call it breakfast but it’s really “don’t think about my job now thanks” with a side of toast. Take that away and replace it with an aloe shot, and your life comes into view.

Who am I, though, really, if I can’t look at my life?

I walk over to the counter with him and we sign me up. Yes, five days, I say to the clerk, as my brother raises an eyebrow. We’re brothers, after all. And still a little competitive, even here.


On the first day of the cleanse, I’m a little afraid. I have not gone without a cup of coffee a day since I was 16. The one time I tried, in fact, my brother called, and when I mentioned I was on a cleanse, giving up coffee, he said, “Don’t do that. Make coffee and call me back.”

Coffee is one thing I do drink organic, as much as possible. Who wants a cup of DDT every day? The pesticides they are allowed to use in other countries outside the U.S. are terrifying things. Also the ones we use inside the U.S.

I manage everything except the coffee. I go almost the full day without it. The alcohol is much easier to give up, a relief. It is easy to joke you are an alcoholic only when you are not really an alcoholic.

The plan is organized to stimulate the body’s cleansing of itself—aloe shots and green juices in the morning, an entrée at lunch, a salad at dinner, smoothies and juices alternating throughout. Taken as a whole, it’s a recipe for a cleaner you. The packages arrive every day packaged to travel in silver lamé boxes set inside safety orange bags, as if delivered from a vegan disco. The smoothies and juices are in thick glass bottles, like the old milk bottles—this vegan disco has also liberated a dairy somewhere, it seems. The entrees are in what we call plastic jewelboxes, though nothing has ever looked less like a jewelbox. These few actual foods are often delicious replicas of the rich foods we give up for this cleanse, but said to be empty of poisons and animal fats and sugars—raw lasagna is one favorite, made with slices of zucchini or squash instead of pasta. Or a “chocolate shake,” made with cacao, coconut milk, dates, and that moss—but is the moss Irish, or Himalayan, too, and am I eating moss now? These are what are delivered on my plan, which is said to be the gentle one.

The packages arrive every day packaged to travel in silver lamé boxes set inside safety orange bags, as if delivered from a vegan disco.

Dairy and wheat are entirely eliminated. These most common of foods are not common because they are so nourishing—they are common because they are easy to mass-produce.

I spend the first day feeling both pampered and abstemious. But when I enter the store to return the bottles, I feel myself to be in disguise among the rich, vibrantly healthy vegetarians. And on my way home to my Hell’s Kitchen apartment, the people in the restaurants lining the streets look monstrous, the food they eat, horrific, food I would have thought of eating just the other day. I feel like I’ve taken mushrooms.

When I find an article in a friend’s Facebook feed about in vitro meat farms being planned, because of the enormous cost to the environment of raising all this meat, it’s like discovering I live in the monstrous future I feared as a child, a childhood spent watching science fiction films about the monstrous future. And in my cleanse-induced trance, the in-vitro burger looms like the biggest monster of all. The scientists hope it is going to save us from our burger habit, which is just one of the things killing us. Global warming turns out to be a lot like leaving a burger on the stove too long, but a burger the size of Brazil, say, or North America. A burger that burns fields as it grows and then again as it cooks.

I can’t take it anymore. I feel broken, weak, insane after one day without coffee, dairy, wheat, meat. I lie down. I see the person I have always been until now, the person I thought I was, like a man in a motorboat, racing across the sea. The sea which is also me.

Who am I?

I get up and make coffee. Because that is who I am.


In the bathroom, your new favorite place during a cleanse, you feel virtuous every time you flush. Goodbye, poison, I think, as I leave. Goodbye.


On day two, I find myself thinking about the world’s population, eating, eating, eating. It’s the burger, still on my mind, the in-vitro burger to save us all.            

The seven billionth kid was born last year, wasn’t he. Weren’t we going to try to find him, by which I mean, some ridiculous television show? We should consider it. He would be like the democratic opposite of the reborn Tibetan llamas, just an ordinary kid who just happens to be number seven billion. When I do think about him, though, I can feel how Planet Earth is now seven billion people who don’t yet seem to all know they need to convince 400 people who have all of the money and power to change how we are all living so we can survive what will happen to our planet in the next 50 years, and then I want to lie down. But I can’t. Because I know those 400 people think of the seven billion of us as people auditioning to be the survivors who get to flip that burger.

Most times I can’t think about it, like many of you, no doubt. But then it comes back, in the little things. This is what I think of when I see cars on this second day, when they roar past my New York apartment window on Tenth Avenue, our communal death turning on the wheels. It is what I think of as I open the jewelbox to take out the day’s entrée—the jewelbox is recycled, but even so.

“If you can’t find American brands here it’s because they failed Canada’s testing standards.”

Every time I put on sunblock, for example, which I must do to walk over to the raw foods store seven avenue blocks away and return the bottles, I think about the hole in the Earth’s ozone layer over the Antarctic, and how this is happening in part due to the carbon emissions emitted by “human activity”—refrigeration, air conditioning, hair spray—a night out in the ’80s, basically. The hole was larger than the Antarctic but has shrunk to its smallest size in a decade, thanks to the banning of CFCs. This is good. It is a sign we might save the earth from Global Warming also.

But this reminds me of the ice caps having melted at the North Pole, which is why drilling companies now want to drill the Arctic (was it even their plan all along?) and how this melting alone could unleash an extinction-level event by releasing the giant cloud of methane gas. Which these drilling companies see as a “gold mine.” It is a gas mine, though—I wish it were gold, because then it couldn’t kill us. In my mind it is like a vast cloud made of all of the dead creatures of that era millions of years ago, trapped angrily beneath the earth, where they protected us forever by being hidden, and as we try to take them to the surface to burn them for fuel they run everywhere, suffocating all life, a vast ghostly cloud made of the burned dead that is turning into our deaths.

As I cover every bit of exposed skin I remember how as a child I used to fear being made to wear a special suit, the suit scientists then predicted we’d need to in order to protect ourselves from solar radiation. This, of course, is why I wear a “swim shirt” at the beach now, with solar protection built in—I was always burning at the spot in the middle of my back that I couldn’t quite reach and I didn’t want, years later, to be told that I’d doomed myself to skin cancer for going to the beach in my 20s and 30s by myself when I was between relationships and didn’t ask anyone to put sunblock on that one spot.

Will I wear the swim shirt when the water covers the land?

The Peasant Wedding, 1566–69, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

My longstanding commitment to sunblock was shaken recently. I was in Canada, at a Canadian Sephora looking for a favorite brand and I asked the counter person if they carried it. The counter person said, in a soft voice, “We don’t carry that one.” I said, “But you do in the U.S.” He said, “If you can’t find American brands here it’s because they failed Canada’s testing standards.” And when I didn’t react right away the counter person added, “American brands often make claims that are false, and as the FDA in the U.S. can’t afford to test them all, they fail when they come to us, as we test all of them, and then we can’t sell them.”

This was in a shopping mall in downtown Toronto, a popular one. Terrified that I’d been using a substandard sunblock regularly, and had perhaps fatally over-exposed myself, I wandered out into the mall. There I saw Dominic Cooper.

This wasn’t a dream, he was really there, looking into his phone with a rapt expression. He looked up as I approached and asked if he was Dominic Cooper. He nodded. I told him I loved his performance in History Boys.

“The film or the musical,” he asked.

“The film,” I said.

“Not many people saw that,” he said. “Thank you.”

It must be hard, I remember thinking, to be an actor. I didn’t think of the sunblock moment again until I took my purchase out of my bag later. It’s not Dominic’s fault, it’s bigger than both of us, but this is how celebrities do function too often now in our lives—they take our mind off the horror that is now just normal life. I bet he gets to take his shirt off to go swimming, but I’m sure he, like me, fears it, for all our various reasons.

I have joined a gym because it has a pool and a sunroof that opens in warm weather. I don’t go swimming, not yet. But at least, in the era of the swim shirt, wearing a shirt in the water doesn’t mean necessarily you are fat.


On the third day of the cleanse, it feels like nothing can lie to me. I feel full of righteous fury—here, the rage, it is here!—and when, on a sidewalk full of umbrellas in the rain, heads down, someone strikes me with the edge of his umbrella, carried so low he can’t see where he’s going, I shout at the culprit, who passes on, saying nothing.

Everyone turns to look at me except him.

What are you cleansing, he might ask, if he had stopped. And why? If he had asked, I would have told him I am hoping to get rid of the things that are in that sad American sunblock. I am hoping to rid myself of, say, Bisphenol-A, also called BPA, outlawed in Europe, but approved by the FDA 40 years ago, before it was tested, like many American things. Bisphenol-A is now well-studied, and shown to contribute to cancer, obesity, learning disorders, and reproductive problems, which I think is a euphemism for sterility at the least. The learning disorder part may be the reason why most Americans are always in denial about pollutants and global warming—for it does seem we have a learning disorder when it comes to environmental destruction. At my most cynical I imagine our corporate overlords deliberately feeding all of us an additive that makes us less intelligent, less able to fight back. BPAs are found in the lining of American canned goods, American plastic bottles and containers, cashier receipts, cosmetics. Its use is widespread, which is why banning it is unpopular, because it would be “expensive” to get it banned. In the meantime, then, the cost of having cancer or a learning disability or a reproductive problem or of moving all of us to a new planet is passed along to consumers, as it usually is.

There’s not really a way to get it out of me, though, or out of you, I would tell him, my new friend. To undertake a cleanse is to feel, briefly, like a sponge wrung clean. Before you are dropped back into the Gowanus Canal again. But perhaps it matters, those few minutes the cells are clean.

That Himalayan moss, if it is harvested in the Himalayas, is covered in jet fuel that falls out of the sky with the rain.

Come with me now, I might say to him. For if we’d only talked, surely we’d be friends. Come with me now and get a shake.


Yes, by day four I am insane. But it is OK, because I am unable and basically unwilling to speak to anyone but Dustin, my partner, in person, and I don’t talk about any of this.

A bag of Doritos on a subway platform newsstand is suddenly the most appealing siren. I stand in front of it, aching, until the train takes me away.

How do we survive ourselves, I want to ask the rich vegetarians in the store again, as I return my package of containers. The place I am getting the cleanse from sells a fantasy of a pristine world apart from this one, but there is no world apart. There is only the world.

A Chinese tech billionaire on Weibo—China’s version of Twitter—made an uproar when he Weibo’d to his fellow rich people, “The cancer we will all die from because the world is so polluted doesn’t care that you are rich,” or something to this effect. This caused a great uproar—a rich person had stopped bothering to pretend his wealth could protect him from the dangers we all face.

What do the rich vegans in China eat, I wonder, as I go to sleep after my last smoothie. I bet it is amazing.

China’s pollution problems have been created out of their massive industrialization, as most of us know. As the American rich have destroyed their middle class, China has created a middle class with a population the size of the entire United States.

Do they cleanse?

I went to China for the first time last year, where I saw Shanghai hotels, each seemingly richer than the last before it. Luxury in America is coach class in China. Shanghai luxury makes American luxury look like a hobo village. For the purposes of economics, America is the new Philippines now. China is the new America. This isn’t a realization born out of the cleanse, though, it was born in the lobbies of those Shanghai hotels.

What do the rich vegans in China eat, I wonder, as I go to sleep after my last smoothie. I bet it is amazing. I forgot to check while in Shanghai, because the pork was too delicious.


Day five. I tell myself about “fed, not full,” the sort of calm contented feeling you get when you have eaten well but not too much. I have not managed to stay off coffee. It was too much. This is my only cheat and perhaps it has ruined everything, but there it is.

It is almost time to return to normal—to everything else besides the coffee. I have fantasies of continuing. I examine the packages with glee as I consume them, even as the ordinary version of myself scoffs.

You’re ridiculous, Ordinary Alex tells Cleanse Alex. You know what’s next.

At some point in stores like Whole Foods and the stores like Whole Foods, the packages of organic meats and vegetables began to be fewer in number, and were replaced with meat covered in stickers that read “No Antibiotics” or “Vegetarian Feed” or “No Pesticides.” You could buy “local” which means “not shipped by burning so much jet fuel it would get even into that awesome Himalayan moss,” but which also usually means “covered in pesticide somewhere in New Jersey, most likely a pesticide banned in Europe.”

So many bargains.

I want to find that seven billionth child and tell him to run for his life, but where should he go? Where do we all go?

I will never be a thin rich vegan, I have accepted this. Have they? If you think petroleum products are vegan, are you thinking back far enough? The counter clerk who takes back my last containers is optimistic and kind as I make bland claims about how great it was and how I want to continue. I cast a last look at the cost of the smoothies and the raw lasagna and the dried kale and the Himalayan salt—is there anything left in the Himalayas?—and then return to my life.

I have lost five pounds.