Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller

PSA: You are not dying. You have eaten beetroot

Many of us have suffered the terror of a beetroot poo, but few of us ever talk about our experience. Hayden Donnell says it’s time to bring this important issue into the light.

Maybe it hasn’t happened to you yet. But it will. One day, after using the toilet, you’ll glance down and experience a moment of unutterable horror. Instead of your usual output, the bowl will be alive with hues of dark red and deep purple. You will grip the sides of the bathroom basin, heaving in panic. In your mind, life will divide into two epochs: pre-poo and post-poo. Pre-poo, you had hopes; a future. Post-poo, those are replaced with what you expect to be a short period of decay and decline.

For a while you’ll sit in that terror. It will only be later – maybe minutes, maybe days – when in a moment of unbridled, pure relief, you will discover the true reason for your suffering: beetroot.

Beeturia is a medical condition where your faeces or urine turn red as a result of eating beets. It’s exceptionally common among both beetroot lovers and reluctant eaters of beetroot. Apart from being a possible indication of low iron levels, it’s essentially harmless.

But its psychological toll is a different story. Though Healthline and the New Zealand Medical Association said they didn’t have enough data to comment on this story, anecdotal evidence is that beeturia reduces thousands of New Zealanders to quaking remnants of their former selves every year.

The problem is that most of its victims aren’t ready. They’re not expecting to develop what appears to be late-stage bowel cancer overnight. Because it visits us in our most private space (the toilet), at our most vulnerable moment (weeping and frantically scrolling through webMD.com), most sufferers keep silent about their encounters with the condition. Its symptoms become a sort of secret knowledge, only obtained through direct experience, and even then often forgotten.

That needs to change. We need to have a national conversation about beetroot poo, and indeed, beetroot wee. I put out a call earlier this week for people who’ve dealt with beeturia’s twin waves of terror and embarrassment to share their stories, so others don’t have to suffer like they did.

Maxine Gay was one of the first to come forward. She had her run-in with the condition after eating an asparagus and roast baby beetroot salad with a little rocket, feta and “divine dressing” at a work Christmas party. “Two hours later, no doubt fuelled by the paranoia-inducing wine, led me to seriously believe I had bladder cancer, the smell and the pink! Scary post-menopause,” she said.

“I ate a beetroot salad the day before going into labour,” wrote communications professional MaryRose Painter. “Let me tell you that ‘pooping blood’ is an excellent way to cause panic in the maternity ward.” She only remembered eating the salad after nurses and several obstetricians were called in to inspect the contents of her post-birth bowel movement.

Mark O’Connor went through a full gamut of emotions during his encounter with the condition. “I’d always known there was something wrong with me,” he wrote. “Once the terror had passed there was almost peace. It wasn’t a surprise. Nevertheless when the penny dropped … I was so relieved I felt like I could fly.”

Many others experienced only terror. “Doesn’t everyone’s life include the semi-annual event of beetroot-induced-bowel-panic like mine?” wrote Suz Burgess.

Avery Deacon-Harrie referred me to this tweet.

Kane Stanford was less reflective in his assessment. “Like a Norwegian whale slaughter. Gets me every time,” he said.

Even being a medical professional doesn’t make you immune. Arthur Collins, a GP in Christchurch, became concerned after his wife, who is also a doctor, cooked him beetroot. “I thought I had bowel cancer,” he said. “I turned up at my GP’s surgery ready for him to stick his proverbial up my bum. So I explained to him what’s going on and as I said it, I realised it was to do with the beetroot.”

Collins said he has had several patients coming to him with similar concerns. “I make sure always to ask whether they’ve been eating beetroot.”

Hayley Fisher’s uncle had a more serious version of the same experience after a day digging beets. “He may or may not have eaten 10-plus raw beets,” she said. “Went to the toilet, thought he was pissing blood, called an ambulance, was really pissing beet juice. Everybody in ambulance thought he was an imbecile. He is,” she wrote.

Not everyone blamed their symptoms on bowel cancer. Kacey Cummane had beetroot salad the night before running a half-marathon. “Thought I had chafed myself so bad that I was peeing blood. Had to check the people I ate dinner and ran with weren’t dying as well.”

Some people didn’t know what I was talking about.

While for others, beeturia was not the true cause of their problems.

But for Bonjela Lawson, an encounter with beeturia turned her life around. It was 2012, and her boyfriend had just told her he wasn’t “quite sure” about the relationship and needed time to figure things out for the third time in 15 months. She cooked a dinner of beetroot salad and they sat awkwardly in front of the TV.

The next afternoon, she went to the bathroom, and a quick inspection of the bowl convinced her she was dying. “Suddenly all of that boyfriend bullshit seemed so insignificant. I realised I’m wasting my life waiting for him and hanging on to someone who doesn’t love or want me. Life is too short for that shit. I was 28 and we’d just been through the [Christchurch] earthquakes and life is precious and there’s shit I wanted to do! Not be stuck out in the beige suburbs with a guy who ‘isn’t really sure’,” she wrote. “So I immediately messaged my best friend and told her about the beetroot and that enough is enough. Then I messaged him WE NEED TO TALK. And I ended it all that night. Three weeks later the dog and I moved out into our own cool little place and the reinventing of myself into the creative and flamboyant Bonjela began!”

Maybe for some, it was worth it coming face-to-face with their mortality after downing some roast beetroot. For most others, though, the experience was an unwelcome dose of terror far exceeding the pleasure of eating beets.

So consider this story a public service announcement. One day death will grasp you in its icy hands and lead you into the endless shadowlands. But it won’t do you any good to be frantically rewriting your will every time you eat a beetroot crumble.

So the next time you see a weird reddy-purple hue filling your toilet bowl, remember to think back and assess whether you spent the previous evening eating rocket and roast beets while watching Terrace House. If you did, look that disgusting, scary mass straight in the eye, say “not today, Satan”, and flush your troubles away.


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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