A few years ago, as a young, single doctor, Will Bulsiewicz ate like a bachelor. Bacon, eggs and cheese for breakfast. An Italian sub for lunch. A burger for dinner.
"That was normal for me," the Mount Pleasant gastroenterologist said.
But his patients, who largely suffer from digestive problems, regularly asked him what they should eat. And Bulsiewicz, 36, who studied at Georgetown University, Northwestern University and the University of North Carolina, didn't always know what to tell them. "I hadn't been trained with good answers to those questions."
His diet started evolving when Bulsiewicz began dating a vegetarian named Valarie, who had renounced meat. She later became his wife, and by the time they had a daughter three years ago, Bulsiewicz had largely abandoned those meat-heavy meals.
He radically shifted the way he ate about a year ago when he decided to try his hand at fermentation. It started with a recipe for homemade sauerkraut: chopped cabbage, packed with salt and water, sealed in a jar and left alone on the kitchen counter for three weeks.
Valarie Bulsiewicz, a healthy eater herself, was skeptical.
"It sounds strange. And it's been sitting on the counter," his wife reminded him.
"I was scared to try it for a long time," she said. "Now, I'm addicted."
Bulsiewicz couldn't get enough, either. "It was amazing, vibrant. It was really different than anything I'd ever tasted," he said. "I'm totally convinced now. This is what we need for our health in the future."
According to "The Art of Fermentation," which won a James Beard Award in 2013 for "Reference and Scholarship," fermentation is "the transformation of food by various bacteria, fungi, and the enzymes they produce. People harness this transformative power to produce alcohol, to preserve food, and to make it more digestible, less toxic, and/or more delicious."
These days, Bulsiewicz, armed with "The Art of Fermentation" and 16 years of medical training, is on a mission to change the way we eat.
The gut microbiome is home to some 50 trillion bacteria, he said, and the typical American diet doesn't help those healthy bacteria thrive. Fermented foods can "repopulate" those good bacteria, he said, and unlock nutrition in the foods we eat. This is how our ancestors ate, he recently explained to a large crowd at Mount Pleasant Hospital.
Dozens had come to learn about "kombucha," a newly popular fermented sweet tea. Its Asian origins date back centuries.
"The gut is the root of all health. It's where it all starts," he told the crowd. "If you mess up the gut, you mess up the immune system."
His message is unconventional for a mainstream physician, but he's clearly found audience. His "happygutmd" Instagram account has amassed more than 1,700 followers in the past year and he regularly speaks to packed rooms across the Lowcountry. Meanwhile, he's forged partnerships with Whole Foods, Verde and a local kombucha company. His followers are looking for ways to be healthier, and Bulsiewicz has tried to become "the doctor I want for myself."
His advice is relatively simple: Try a variety of fermented foods, eat many different fruits and vegetables, drink water or kombucha. His Instagram tips are full of emojis, bright pictures and inspirational quotes.
"This is not conventional Western medicine," Bulsiewicz admitted and, as such, he told the group at Mount Pleasant Hospital that academic articles studying the benefits of fermentation have been "disappointing."
"It's hard to do good nutritional studies," he said. "Who will do it? Who will pay for it?"
Still, he insisted at home in Mount Pleasant recently, "I'm not a snake oil salesman. I'm not trying to convince people that this going to fix all their problems."
But almost everyone, he said, except pregnant women who need to be especially cautious about the foods they eat, can benefit from fermentation. Bulsiewicz, himself, said he feels healthier than ever before. Sauerkraut is just a starting point, he said. He also eats fermented peppers, even fermented watermelon rind.
"When I started this, it wasn't with any sort of endpoint in mind," he said. "Where does this stop, I have no clue. I'm just going to keep going with it."