Decoding Popular Diets: Cleansing

Big event coming up? Or feeling lethargic and bloated from indulging a little too much?  Time for a quick fix!  Right?  We've all been there - grasping for that miracle food, drink, supplement or diet that will whip us into shape in a few short days.  Whatever you desire - weight loss, energy, clear skin - there's probably a cleanse out there boasting that it can make those dreams come true...and in only 3 days!  Before you get started, let's review what cleanses entail along with their actual detox potential.  

We'll start with the basics: 

The premise: Detox the body by restricting food intake to a limited group of healthy(ish) options for a short period of time.  What's included: The type of cleanse will dictate what to include - some require a 100% liquid diet while others allow whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based products (whole grains, nuts, seeds).  What's avoided: Again, this will vary, but many cleanses avoid alcohol, caffeine, red meat, and most animal products.  

The analysis:  The type and length of the cleanse dictate the analysis.  Is the cleanse limited to liquids or does it include whole foods?  Do food + drink restrictions only last for a day or do they last a full week or even a month?  Greater restrictions over a longer time frame require a more thorough evaluation of the program's evidence-based merits.  From a broader perspective, the need for any form of cleanse or detox also comes into question.  

The changes:  Compared to the typical 3 meals per day structure, a cleanse may reduce food variety and intake.  Fat and protein consumption may be lower than usual alongside a boost in plant-based foods.  During liquid cleanses, you'll (obviously) take a break from chewing your food - that seems like a simple change, but it's an activity that you might actually miss!  With a juice cleanse, your fiber intake may decrease since the high-fiber pulp found in fruits and vegetables is removed.  

The good:  Often, cleanses emphasize veggies, fruits, and other healthy plant-based foods, which all serve as nutrient-dense components of a balanced diet.  From a motivational standpoint, starting a cleanse signals that you are ready to make changes, and that's a great first step towards healthier eating.  Finally, engaging in strict eating behaviors required by a short-term cleanse may help people mentally reset and better recognize hunger cues. 

The questionable:  Unfortunately, the stringent rules of a cleanse can also create the opposite effect, causing a reversion to bad habits following the completion of the cleanse.  Behavioral results will vary by person, so it's worth looking at your past eating behaviors and tendencies towards disordered eating to determine how any unsustainable and extreme restrictions might affect you.  For example, after completing the cleanse, you may feel dissatisfied with healthy eating or tempted to binge eat the restricted foods (or you may feel extra motivated to eat healthy!).  While a low calorie cleanse may lead to weight loss, that weight loss might occur at the expense of fat-free mass (muscle!), especially if the cleanse is low in protein and discourages exercise.  Additionally, many cleanses significantly reduce valuable nutrients (protein, fiber, fat) and can be surprisingly high in sugar (think juice cleanses!).  Finally, the liver provides our bodies with a built-in detox system, removing waste through bile and urine (read: the body will work to remove toxins even in the absence of a strict cleanse).  

The recommendations:  While I understand the desire for a quick fix, crash diets and miracle cleanses can do more harm than good (and yo-yo dieting often leads to net weight gain!).  I strongly encourage opting for a more sustainable approach to healthy living...but I also recognize the value of a reset.  The great news is that you can achieve a health and wellness reset outside the realm of a regimented cleanse!  Begin by drinking lots of water, increasing consumption of non-starchy veggies (hello fiber, vitamins and minerals!), exercising regularly, and limiting (but not forbidding) indulgences.  Focus on these strategies to maintain a consistently well-functioning digestive system along with increased stability in weight (or weight loss) and energy levels.   

Remember that cleanses fall along a spectrum of intensity, with my concerns focused primarily on the most prohibitive varieties.  If you still want to try a cleanse, here's my advice. 

  1. Opt for a whole foods cleanse rather than the liquid variety.  You'll likely feel less deprived while maintaining a better balance of nutrients.
  2. Try to avoid cleansing as a quick weight loss strategy, and instead approach it as a reset to kickstart sustainable healthy eating habits.  Find a plan that emphasizes veggies (fiber included) and that helps you recognize your hunger cues.  The last thing you want from a cleanse is for your cravings to increase
  3. Ease in and out of the cleanse rather than completing a complete diet 180 (read: don't go from pizza + beer one night to green juices for every meal the next day).  Aim to eat healthier foods before and after the cleanse so that you're encouraging lasting behavior changes rather than rapid results.     

Have you ever participated in a cleanse or detox?  What was the biggest challenge you encountered?  What health improvements, if any, did you notice?  Let me know in the comments below!