Rid your body of toxins! Cleanse your colon! Drink the pounds away! Cleanse diets: we’ve all heard it a thousand times, but is there any truth behind the juice? Cleanse diets come in many forms: pills, teas, juices, and flavored waters with syrup. If you name it, they’ve got it. Every one claims to be different, but at the core they are all the same. They will never live up to their name, and luckily they don’t need to.
Your liver detoxifies your body all day every day. Its incredible physiology cannot be improved upon by any supplement you attempt to take. In fact, your liver will probably filter it out. So why do we continue to hear about these crazy cleansing rituals?
The Placebo Effect
Cleansing diets are psychologically interesting. In fact, there seems to be a strong placebo effect with cleansing diets. Sometimes the effect is so strong that it helps the occasional cleanser to maintain a short-term diet afterward. Even Judith Newman, a New York Times journalist, fell victim to the cleansing lure during research for an article.
In all honesty, cleansing diets just sound good. The idea of ridding your body of all your previous wrong-doings for a fresh new start is idyllic when you’re trying to make a positive change. This is only an illusion, though. As a health-enthusiast, you know the importance of a life-long commitment that cannot be accomplished through the binging of sugar-laden green goop or, even worse, the almost near fasting of relying on water for your sustenance.
The Stuff of Legends
Cleanses often sound too good to be true and it’s probably because they are. You might still be wondering what is in a cleanse diet and why people think they work. The first, and one of the most obvious answers, is water. Cleansing diets often involve you drinking copious amounts, which isn’t bad for you. However, it becomes detrimental to your health when that’s all you’re getting. If your caloric intake during a cleanse is less than 1,200 calories than you’re starving yourself. Although fasting like this is a part of many religious traditions, doing it as a means to lose weight is not healthy.
Typically, laxatives are also involved. Those who eat processed foods might feel a great relief when they take in these substances, but there are always downfalls. First of all, laxatives can negate all that great water you’re drinking and put you at risk for dehydration. The long-term health risk might be nothing, though, in comparison of the impracticality of having to use the restroom all the time.
Caffeine is another common ingredient that has similar pitfalls as laxatives. Caffeine is a stimulant that most people take in on a regular basis; however, in a non-naturally occurring form it is easy to get too much too quickly. First, caffeine is a diuretic which causes dehydration. Dehydration can cause your blood to become thicker. Add the stimulatory effect on your heart making it pump faster and it is not a good combination. You may get dizzy and have heart palpitations. Caffeine is also dangerous because it causes quick “weight loss” of the water from your body, tempting you to take more. Do not be fooled.
In a cleanse diet you might be surprised to find that there is a ton of sugar involved. How does sugar help you lose weight? The answer is that processed sugars don’t. Although the high sugar content could have something to do with the elated feeling people report when being on a cleanse diet. It’s like a little kid being on a sugar rush. The only good thing about there being sugar around when you’re starving yourself is that it could potentially help prevent ketoacidosis. Ketoacidosis is what happens to your body when you don’t get enough carbohydrates and it can be life-threatening. However, there are healthier ways to get the right amount of carbohydrates in your daily diet.
There are vitamins! Some companies will splurge the extra money to throw lots and lots of vitamins into their products. For water soluble vitamins, this is no big deal. You may waste your money, but your body can eliminate the excess through your urine. Fat soluble vitamins are a whole other animal. It is much easier to acquire toxic levels of these vitamins because your body cannot rid them as readily. If you are on blood thinners you will need to be vigilant for vitamin K, which could negate the effects of your medication. Also, grapefruit may also be a supplier of vitamin C for a cleanse diet so be aware if this is incompatible with your medication regimen.
“But it’s all natural, gluten-free, vegan, and organic!” Yes, they use every buzzword they can to pull you in. The problem is that they can make any claim they want and they don’t have to back it up. Maybe one ingredient is organic so they say the whole product is. They may use honey and still list it as vegan. Regardless, it doesn’t matter what hooks they try to dangle in front of you because it does not change the fact that what they’re selling is a lie. This is not to say that the sellers are bad people, they themselves might be fooled. However, this is your health. It is not about avoiding hurting someone’s feelings, it’s about doing what is best for your body.
The question still remains. Is there a way to enjoy the benefits of a cleanse diet without committing its cardinal sin?
There are actually many alternatives to commercial cleanses that can help put you on the right track psychologically and physiologically. Many of them take the foundational idea behind a cleanse diet and apply it in a healthy way (EG drink water, get your fruits and veggies, etc.). Although about 80% of registered dieticians do not recommend cleansing diets, those who do often recommend a “cleanse” of either alcohol, processed foods, or caffeine. Eliminating any of these from your diet can help you feel like new.
Also phytonutrients found in plants have actually been shown to modestly aid liver function. Adding new vegetables to your diet or swapping out processed carbs with greens can give you that slim feeling people who cleanse rave about. You don’t need to drink pre-made smoothies to reap the benefits of fruits and veggies.
Additionally, if you’re feeling weighed down or bloated, focusing on getting the right amount of fiber every day will help. The USDA recommends taking in 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories you consume (at minimum you should be getting at least 1,200 calories which equates to about 17 grams of fiber). Fiber is better for your body than the artificial laxatives in many cleanses. Most conservatively, the most ideal cleanse would be to drink the recommended amount of water for your body.
You can use this simple formula to help you get started: take your body weight in pounds and divide it in half, this is the number of ounces of water you should drink every day. If this is difficult for you to adhere to, consider using the 8x8 rule when it comes to water. All you have to do is drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day for a total of 64 ounces. Keep in mind that your water needs will increase if you exercise.
Of course, there are diets that are labelled as cleanses that do not follow the supplement downward spiral. For instance, clean eating regimens taken on by body builders after a competition can fall under this category, and most are safe to do. This is because you are not starving yourself. You are not taking any unknown substances in unknown quantities. It is perfectly acceptable to eat natural, healthy foods in smaller portions. In fact, that’s what a true healthy diet is.
Body builders are distinctly unique because they go through periods of calculated overeating. As their bodies adapt, their stomachs will expand to accommodate the regular intake of large meals. After a competition, a body builder may opt to do a cleanse that involves eating loads of fruits and veggies with smaller meals to help their bodies adjust back to their more typical size. This principle is similar for those who chronically overeat and can be applied likewise.
“But it’s only for a few days. Is it really that bad if I just go ahead and do the cleanse diet?” The answer depends. As a rule, you need to be most skeptical about pills because they can do the most damage to your body. Drinking excessive quantities of lemon and maple syrup water your body can handle, although the calories restriction is a concern.
Pills, however, can cause some heavy damage. If you’ve ever had a history of mental illness, you’ll definitely want to reconsider. Researchers have observed cases where even supposed “safe” pills exacerbate the symptoms. Also, keep in mind that the FDA doesn’t regulate these types of supplements. If you have any cardiac symptoms or are sensitive to caffeine (think about UTIs) you could be putting yourself at risk and won’t even know it until it’s too late.
You may also hear people raving about how they dropped so much weight in just a few days by doing a cleanse. Their claims may not be false, because fasting will cause you to lose weight rapidly. The problem is that you will gain it back almost as quickly. There is a saying in the health community that you can put the weight back on as fast as you lost it.
So if you lose ten pounds over the weekend, you can put it back on over the weekend. However, if you make a lifestyle change and lose the safe and recommended max of two pounds per week, you shouldn’t put it back on as quickly. Of course, this is more about the sustainability of what you’re doing rather than your body’s physiology, but it’s a little mantra that can help you keep moving forward when you are tempted to fall victim to fad’s claims.
Perhaps the most frequent questions is one of my favorites, “Why should I listen to you?!” This is often a desperate plea of someone who has been on a rollercoaster with their weight, diet, and lifestyle. The truth is, the world of health would be a lot easier to navigate if people were this skeptical about the miracles being peddle on them.
If that means having your critical eyes open all the time then wonderful! A safe rule of thumb is to try to determine what the seller has to gain from you and see if they offer any actual evidence aside from testimonials about why their products work (some nice double-blind randomized control trials would suffice). For instance, the information in this article is congruent with the stance of the International Food Information Council Foundation.
So what do these detox companies have to gain from you? Actually, more than you think. Initially there is money, of course. Even those who give you advice on how to cleanse using items you can buy at the grocery store have ads for miracle pills just waiting for you to have a moment of weakness. But it doesn’t stop there! They want you to lose weight and fast. They want you to be a happy customer even if it means giving you something unsafe that can really hurt you in the long run.
In fact the FDA issues warnings on the unapproved goodies these companies try to throw into their products. Don’t let your mind or your body become victim to their scams. If you have questions, feel free to ask your dietician or family doctor. If you’re too embarrassed to ask, that is also a good sign that you already know something is wrong. Don’t do it.
You Can Do It!
When you’re tempted to try a cleanse diet, try the safe methods mentioned above instead. You will most likely notice the same psychological benefits and actually get physiological gains, too. Overall, there is no need to torture yourself with any of the crazy fads out there. Start modestly and be good to your body. The results will follow.
 Heid, M. (2015). You asked: Are cleanses healthy? Retrieved from http://time.com/3656242/cleanses-healthy/
Herbold, N. H., & Mulvaney, A. L. (2014). A survey of attitudes and use of detoxification and cleanse diets by registered dietitians. Dietetics, 114(9), A38. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2014.06.125
 Newman, J. (2010). The juice cleanse: A strange and green journey. Retrieved from
 Percival, M. (1997). Phytonutrients and detoxification. Clinical Nutrition Insights, 5(2), 1-4.
 Retamero, C., Rivera, T., & Murphy, K. (2011). “Ephedra-free” diet pill-induced psychosis. Psychosomatics: Journal of Consultation and Liaison Psychiatry, 52(6), 579-582.
 Solloway, M. (2016). The #1 cleanse of 2015: Ditch the detox diets. The International Food Information Council Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.foodinsight.org/should-you-cleanse-detox-diet