By Kim Bussing
Three years ago, I would have never expected chicken liver to be a freezer staple, but after nearly two years of baffling health concerns and trying extreme diets, a meal at a small-town restaurant changed my health — and how I thought about my body.
I was 22 and had recently moved to Australia with two suitcases, a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, not a single friend in Melbourne, and no thoughts spared for what I was eating. I had grown up in a pretty healthy household — organic, very few things in packages — and thought that health was something that, once you had, you didn’t need to worry about again. For weeks, while handing out resumes, I lived off of instant oatmeal, falafel, and cookies I stole from my roommates — if everyone else could get away with this kind of diet, why couldn’t I?
Then, symptoms without apparent cause emerged, and continued emerging over the course of two months. Hair loss, acne, bloating, a lost period, crippling stomach cramps, and a battery of unpleasant gastrointestinal issues, brain fog that blurred hours, fingers so inflamed I couldn’t bend them, fatigue that chained me to bed. It’s hard to imagine now that my first instinct wasn’t considering what was on my plate, but I was shocked and alone in a strange country. The body not doing what you expect the body to do can feel like a personal fault.
Doctors I saw pointed at a hazily-defined gut issue: some said candida, some stress, some genetics. What they could agree on was elimination: they prescribed cutting out gluten, dairy, soy, sugar, corn, vinegars, legumes, caffeine, alcohol, fruit, nightshades. A year was a probable end goal for all this, but some of the doctors cautioned against adding anything back in too soon and reverting the efforts I’d made.
Restricting so much food is almost like restricting your interactions with the world, the sense of self you’ve defined; suddenly, you have to doubt reaching for a pear; you can’t pour yourself a glass of wine or wake up to the ritual of coffee brewing in the morning.
Still I listened, because rules offered stability — if I could eat the right foods, and only the right foods and never cheat, then this would end. I’d be better. So, I cut everything out. The list of “good” foods was so short it would fit on my palm, and I stuck to it obsessively. It made a difference, but not a huge one, and a lack of progress just made me more rigorous. I believed it was a matter of time or perseverance.
In retrospect, I’m surprised that it took me so long to realize there would be no silver bullet diet, but it’s dangerously easy to believe that a diet’s promise is a guarantee if you follow it perfectly. Food became a weapon to fix my misbehaving body; I didn’t consider nourishment or pleasure.
I lived primarily off of bowls of veggies topped with sardines (something I still love, but sardines, all the time, weren’t going to fix me: I now know that eating a diverse diet is critical for a healthy microbiome), until my then-partner and I went on a three-week trip. Instead of excitement, I felt panic.
We had no choice but to eat out, and I agonized over menus, anxious over ingredients not mentioned. What if I made everything worse? What if I tipped some invisible scales and could never go back to healthy? The stress I felt I doubt did my body any favors, but back then, I didn’t know I was supposed to work with my body. I saw us at odds: I wanted to be better, and it didn’t.
During a snow storm in a small town, our only option was a mostly deserted restaurant, where the only “safe” option on the menu was a platter of plain, grilled meat. Standard fare, except for something strange and unidentified. Maybe it was because I was somewhere new, maybe I was tired of my list on vacation, but I ate it without checking with the waiter what it was.
And it was amazing. It was savory and rich and answered almost every craving I’d been ignoring for months. I ordered a second platter just so I could smuggle my mystery meat into our hotel’s dining room the next morning for breakfast. More importantly, it was the first time my body and I had agreed on something in recent months.
I hadn’t imagined what we’d agree on was liver.
Liver was certainly not on my list — I’d thought of it as a bargain bin protein, a dreaded dinner for kids in the 70s — but I enjoyed it (think the richness of dark meat chicken, with the volume cranked up) and I felt good. More energetic, no angry stomach after dinner, no fatigue wiping me out. It was like a wake-up call, and the more I researched it, I realized why: packed with vitamins and minerals, liver was giving my body the tools it needed to take care of itself.
When we got back home, the thought of returning to the list of approved foods felt claustrophobic. I didn’t want my food options so whittled down for six more months — not after eating liver while abroad and having no issues helped me understand that maybe my hyper-restrictive diet wasn’t the answer. Maybe I could enjoy food and explore new things while I was healing. Maybe joy in what I ate could actually be part of healing.
I put the list away. Instead, over the course of several months, I learned more about different foods, experimented, found what my body liked and what it didn’t, documented it, did what an elimination diet is supposed to be like. As I added foods back to my diet the symptoms began to abate — no more spontaneously puffy fingers or fatigue and my stomach found less occasion to bloat and cramp. I began to ignore other people’s commandments for health, all the while sauteed chicken liver with onion and cumin simmered on the stove.
I had thought restriction was the pinnacle of health, but the less I restricted and the more foods I tried while paying attention to how they made me feel — did this make my fingers inflamed? Was I comatose after eating it? Did I like it? — the better I felt.
Chicken liver isn’t a miracle food, because nothing is a miracle food. My diet is still restricted because I know my stomach has strong opinions — especially about gluten — but my relationship with “restriction” has changed. It’s about avoiding things that I know will make me feel bad most of the time, but being flexible, not worrying so much if I eat something I normally wouldn’t, and finding a variety of foods that I genuinely enjoy. Now, I have lots of energy, rarely get sick, and I have a lot more compassion for my body. Instead of using everyone else’s experiences and rules as a blueprint, I’ve started trusting my body and my ability to listen to what it needs and what it likes, rather than what other people say it shouldn’t be given.
After all, if I’ve learned anything from eating chicken liver, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.