Diets weight loss

Detoxing from cleanses

I’ve been wanting to write a piece on the ridiculousness of cleanses for a while now, but for some reason just never got around to it.

Then I read this piece from the NY Post.

Apparently now, not only are misinformed adults perpetuating the myth that cleanses are a legitimate practice, but kids as young as 6 are starting to get into the act too.

I’m not exactly sure how “cleansing” became such an integral part of the healthy living equation?  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I kind of get it.  Today I did a quick Google search for ‘cleanses’  and got over 2 million hits.  I also got over 6.5 million hits for ‘detox diets’, including many from apparently legitimate sources, often with celebrity endorsements. The Master Cleanse, Juju Cleanse, Candida Cleanse, Dr. Oz’s 48hr Cleanse, Colon Cleanse and the Wild Rose Detox are just a few of the more popular examples of what’s out there these days.

And besides, what rational, health conscious individual wouldn’t want to get rid of all the toxic substances that have built up in their body through years of eating processed foods, exposure to various environmental agents, etc?  From that perspective, you’d be a fool not to detox, right?

Ah, if only it were that simple.

What is cleansing?

First I figured I’d briefly touch on exactly what a cleanse entails.

The act of cleansing can take a number of different forms.  God knows there’s enough different variations.  However, all cleanses contain at least one, and often several, of the following components:

  1. Detox diet – This would be where you try to eliminate all the “toxic” food from your diet.  These diets typically recommend consuming only unprocessed foods and avoiding anything that isn’t organic.
  2. Juice fasting – Many cleanses involve some sort of juice fasting, which consists of a period of time (3 days or longer) where the dieter is restricted to exclusively drinking juice.  Sometimes these juices can be made from fresh ingredients at home, but often you need to purchase them as part of an elaborate cleansing program.
  3. Superfoods – Cleanses often include the incorporation of “superfoods”, usually in the form of exotic plants or fruits.
  4. Supplements – These also tend to be a hallmark of most cleanses. Supplements can be any number of naturopathic type ingredients, often laxatives, which help to “flush out” your system.

What’s good about cleanses?

I thought I’d start by commenting on what is good about cleansing because the list is pretty short.  Cleanses almost universally promote the removal of processed foods from one’s diet.  As a general recommendation, this is certainly a good one.  They also tend to heavily rely on the consumption of fruits and vegetables, which is never a bad thing.

That’s about it though.

And what about the not so good?

Where do I begin?  Cleanses take good nutritional advice, like avoiding processed foods or consuming lots of fruits and vegetables, and pervert it to a ridiculous extreme.  They essentially twist that advice to a point where any benefit one may get from them is overshadowed by their downsides.

A cornerstone of good nutrition is balance.  Cleanses pretty much are the opposite of balance.  They promote the consumption of a VERY limited variety of foods.  If we look at the popular Master Cleanse, it consists of 7-10 days where you can ONLY drink 6-12 glasses of water with a mixture of maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper in them (you also have to take daily laxatives).  That’s it!  Eating this way, even for a relatively short duration, essentially guarantees side effects such as fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal distress and irratibility.  Longer term or repeated use can increase your risk of nutrient deficiencies, long-term weight gain, a weakened immune system, and heart and kidney problems.  And really, how could it not?  When you’re on this regimen you’re basically starving yourself.

A big issue with cleanses are that they are temporary by definition.  When it comes to your health any benefits you may see from a temporary change, will themselves be temporary.  For example, when on a cleanse many people report seeing improvements in their weight, glycemic control or cholesterol levels.  The problem is, if after your cleanse is over you end up going back to what you were eating pre-cleanse, so will your weight, blood sugar and LDL.  If you’re looking to make any lasting changes to your health, you need to make permanent changes to your lifestyle.

Another problem with cleanses is that because many of them require the purchase of supplements or juices, they can be very expensive.  It’s not uncommon for these cleansing “packages” to cost hundreds of dollars per cleanse.  And because cleansing isn’t generally viewed as a one-time activity, you can see that the monetary costs of cleansing will add up quickly.

I also have real concerns about the mindset that cleansing promotes.  It can act to give people an excuse to eat whatever they want, because, well, “they’ll be going on a cleanse next week anyways”.  It promotes a cycle of eating poorly (or not paying close attention to what one eats) followed by a short but intense phase of eating very restrictively.  In many cases, it sets up food as “the villian”, filled with toxic substances out to get you.  Basically it promotes an extremely unhealthy relationship with food.  Now I suppose it’s one thing when adults are making these decisions for themselves, but when they begin to pass these practices onto their children (as mentioned in the NY Post article above), I start to get really upset.  It’s mind boggling to me that these parents don’t seem to see how this isn’t a good thing.  Encouraging (or at least facilitating) your teenager to regularly cleanse with you is just setting them up for a lifetime of body image issues and yo-yo diets.  It really is madness.

But perhaps the most important reason why cleanses are so terrible is that there is ZERO evidence they do what they claim to actually do – that is remove toxins.  It’s true.  Cleanses do NOTHING to help remove toxins from your body.  The human body is a pretty amazing machine.  It already has several highly efficient mechanisms for eliminating toxins from it, namely the liver, kidneys and, of course, the colon.  Suffice to say, the practice of cleansing doesn’t do a thing to help these organs do their job.  You know that “toxic sludge” you eliminate from your colon when on a cleanse (generally facilitated by laxatives)?  That’s called feces.  Feces that would normally be “flushed” out of the body by regular bowel movements.  Cleansing just speeds up the process.

I did a quick PubMed* search for cleanse/detox diets, and guess how many results I got?  Four!  Yes, you read that correctly.  Four.  I wasn’t expecting a lot of papers, but I was shocked by that low a number.  You know what that tells me?  That the idea of cleansing is so absurd to the medical/research community, they aren’t even bothering to waste their time submitting grants to perform research on them (even for the purpose of discrediting them).  It would be a little like if some people got behind the idea that human beings could fly if they flapped their arms fast enough.  Based on our scientific understanding of the human body, we know this to be impossible.  There would be no reason to do research on it, even if there was a segment of the population that believed it to be true.  Trust me, if there was a possibility that cleanses had any impact on toxins in our body, there’d be a lot more research out there trying to prove or disprove it.  The fact that there’s essentially nothing is very telling.

(*for the non-scientific audience out there PubMed is a database of scientific journals.  It contains thousands of the most prestigious and critically reviewed science themed journals that exist.  Basically, if there were studies on cleanses, you’d find them on Pubmed)

The Bottom Line

The idea of detoxing your body by cleansing is one of the sillier practices you can do if your goal is to improve your health.  There is no evidence that cleansing has any impact on the levels of toxins in your body and it comes with a whole slew of downsides including, promoting an unhealthy relationship with food, significant expense and potential medical issues.  Cleanses are nothing more than a modern version of snake oil.  And frankly, it’s way past time we stopped believing that they were ever anything more than that to begin with.


*originally published on on April 4, 2014

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