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The Dirty Truth About Cleansing Diets

By Anna Norum-Gross • Aug 8th, 2013 • Category: Features

While working out and eating right have never been more popular than they are now, not everyone is on that fitness bandwagon. Some people looking to lose weight have taken a decidedly easier approach, opting out of gym memberships and ancient grains from organic grocery stores to instead drink their way to a slimmer form. These so-called “juice-cleanse” diets have plenty of detractors, who believe that relying on juice alone to lose weight can be downright dangerous, but many believe they’re the greatest thing to come along in years. Even some major celebrities have endorsed them.

Beyonce Knowles, for instance, claims to have lost 20 pounds on the Master Cleanse diet, which prescribes a mixture of lemon juice, cayenne pepper, maple syrup and water instead of meals.

But weight loss isn’t the only supposed benefit of juice cleanse diets. They are also believed to remove toxins from the body, a belief that has been around for centuries.

“The idea of consuming only water or juice to rid the body of so-called toxins is not new. Virtually every major religion has some fasting and cleansing ritual that supposedly allows the body to heal, regenerate,” wrote Judith Newman in a 2010 New York Times article.

Lucy Cobbs, a 24-year-old costume designer, has tried several juice cleanse diets. “I’ve done Organic Avenue, Juice Press and BluePrint. I had been to their stores and gotten products and advice from people I work with,” says Cobbs. She believes they helped to “re-regulate and cleanse” her system and get her back on a track of healthy eating. When a reporter cited a doctor who had stated there was no evidence that a juice cleanse actually does any “cleansing” at all, Cobbs responded with curt, “Who knows?”

“The idea that [a juice cleanse diet] somehow ‘cleanses’ you, or that this juice is so special that it’s worth $65 a day is a scam on the order of healing crystals and vitality-bestowing magnets,” wrote Hamilton Nolan in a piece posted on Gawker.com.

In an interview with CNN Health, Dr. Michael Picco, a consultant on gastroenterology at the Mayo Clinic, said that cleansing did not have any real benefits. “The whole basis to this cleansing business is that people say it can help things like the immune system, fatigue and depression, and it can clean the toxins out of the colon, and it can aid in losing weight. There is really no evidence to that at all. Sometimes those cleanses could actually be quite harmful, too.”

Kat Olin, who is now doing the BluePrint Cleanse for the second time, says she wasn’t impressed the first time around and wants to give it another chance. “Basically, I think people expect an epiphany, expect to feel the toxins leaving their body,” she says. Because she did not find the cleanse to be difficult to maintain, she is trying it again, hoping to “make up for” the fact that she has not been keeping a healthy diet lately; with a full-time job at a law firm and three young children, she doesn’t have time to prepare many of her meals.

The BluePrint Cleanse website does seem to be aimed at people like Olin who want to consume healthy things but simply don’t have the time. “I know what whole foods are, and I’ve seen people buying them. I would too, but I’m too busy to be choosy,” states the site. Average people with busy lives are meant to relate to this sentiment.

The BluePrint Cleanse juices contain nutrients many of us do not get in our daily meals; they include things like kale, beets and cashews. According to Olin, it is questionable as to whether the BluePrint Cleanse will “trigger your body to cleanse and detox,” as the website states, but she thinks it’s a good way for her to get some of the nutrients she hasn’t been consuming lately.

But can a juice cleanse help with weight loss? If someone replaces all three meals with a low-calorie juice for up to several weeks, they most likely will shed some pounds. But will it last? Joanna Bak, a recent graduate from Tulane University says, “Anyone who has taken a basic nutrition course can tell you juice cleanses do more harm than good. And any weight you lose will be gained back once you go back to your normal diet.”

According to Dr. Picco, “Any weight loss you get is not real. It’s due to loss of fluid and waste and it is potentially harmful. Weight loss needs to be done with diet and exercise.”

“People don’t want to hear that the best way to lose weight and maintain it is to diet and exercise. It’s hard, and it takes a long time. People want shortcuts,” says Sarah Liana, a 27-year-old nanny.  “Remember those things that were in infomercials a few years back that you put on your stomach…[that] supposedly worked out your muscles for you so you didn’t have to go to the trouble of doing actual sit-ups?”

As you might have suspected, it is not healthy to eat little to no food for an extended period of time. In fact, in some cases, doctors link eating disorders with juice cleanses.

Dr. Pauline Powers, who leads the scientific advisory committee for the Global Foundation for Eating Disorders, was quoted in an article in Marie Claire describing juice cleanses as “the perfect pathway to disordered eating, with a great power to lead otherwise healthy women down the path of disordered eating.” Last year, the University of North Carolina Center for Excellence for Eating Disorders added juice fasts to the list of topics addressed with patients.

Perhaps juice cleanses shouldn’t be condemned altogether. Some provide vitamins and nutrients we often neglect to consume. But many juice cleanse diets mislead clients, selling them the idea that the diet will “cleanse their system,” discouraging them from eating entire food groups, such as protein and carbohydrates, for extended periods of time, which can have adverse effects on the body.

Moreover, these kinds of cleanses can be especially dangerous for people who are predisposed to body-image issues. As Courtney Rubin wrote in a 2011 article for Marie Claire, “It’s society’s most accepted form of eating disorder.”

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