Spring is in the air, winter is *hopefully* behind us, and summer finally feels like it is right around the corner. What better time to cleanse, right?
But spring cleaning for your home is one thing…your body is another. So when did everyone get so excited about the idea of “cleanses” and the concept behind cleaning out your body by supplementing fancy (and financially frivolous) juice cleanses for solid food?
While no one can deny that drinking your dinner…at least a few times a year…has become a trend, can anyone really explain why or if it is even a healthy option for your mind and body?
Boston Babies wanted to provide parents tempted by this new lack of food fad a feature from a Boston based dietician on the concerns behind cleanses. Before you drink (or buy!) that bottled beverage promising to cleanse your body and open your mind, read below to see what Sandy has to say on the subject…
I still chew my food, but many people have turned to slurping. Of all the fad diets, how liquefied (i.e. processed) food has taken the spotlight as the pinnacle of healthfulness, has me baffled. It’s spring and that evokes the need to clean, but good news: your body is like a self-cleaning oven.
I firmly believe that food is medicine and the foods we choose affect our health. Good nutrition should be the kind of medicine you take everyday…not just when you’re sick, or for 3-7 days per year. It is exciting to see a movement away from calories-in-calories-out, to now exploring the quality of food, individual variation in metabolism, the role of sleep and stress, and the world of healthy bacteria living inside us. Perhaps “juice cleanses” are a reflection of the current desire for “real food,” unfortunately they miss the mark.
Cleanse diets promise rejuvenation, detoxification, energy, glamour, weight loss, youthful glowing skin, vitality, healing, etc. But, nowhere is “cleansing” defined in any physiologic or concrete terms. So, the first question I ask anyone who tells me they are considering a juice cleanse is: what exactly are you “cleansing?” It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what you hope to gain, objectively and honestly.
To those with a firm understanding of nutrition and how the body works, words like “cleanse” and “detoxification” elicit the heebie-jeebies. Concerns about juice cleanses are twofold: the physiology (they don’t nourish our bodies) and the psychology (they do nourish our insecurities).
What follows are some of the most common responses to the question, “what are you trying to cleanse?”
1. “I DON’T KNOW…”
This might be the #1 most common answer, which doesn’t bode well for Team Clean. It represents those who know that cleanses don’t work, but can’t quite fight the allure of the trend, the “everything-free” trend (gluten-free, sugar-free, fat-free, dairy-free, calorie-free, chew-free, etc). There is a concerning/growing culture of food fears, but food should be the answer not the enemy, right? If we are choosing sides here, then stay nutrient-FULL, not nutrient-FREE.
Good nutrition is not a practice in minimalism, and “strength” doesn’t come from enduring extreme diets. In reality, you risk becoming physically weaker (wasting the muscle that you worked so hard for) because juice cleanses lack enough calories and provide minimal protein. Detox diets feed these dysfunctional relationships with food, closely linked to body image. “I’m doing a cleanse” has become a socially acceptable (even admirable?) way for an already thin individual to say, “I’m trying to lose weight.”
Pay attention to how often, when, and how you talk about food. Research confirms that information about the food choices and diet habits of others in our social network (or one that we aspire to be a part of) will increase the likelihood that we will follow suit and imitate. Be informed and responsible about not only the food choices you make, but also how you discuss food and diet around others – that includes FaceBook and Instagram. Be mindful, and turn an eye inwards to learn more about your underlying diet motives and body perceptions.
2. I WANT TO HAVE MORE ENERGY, TO FEEL BETTER!
Watch out for sneaky marketing that relies on anecdotal benefits like, “you will feel better!” It is hard to refute those statements, and heck, why wouldn’t we all want to feel better? (I once overheard a yogini say: “I started a juice cleanse yesterday, and – I swear – this morning I woke up and I could see colors more clearly.” I certainly couldn’t disprove her gains in Technicolor 3-D vision, but…?)
Healthy eating leaves you energized throughout the day, satisfies you mentally and physically, and promotes long-term wellness. One popular juice cleanse openly warns on its website, “You may feel tired, frustrated or angry because it’s new,” and a celeb detox devotee kindly shares that mid-day headaches are to be expected.
Other risks and side-effects of cleanses include: cramping, bloating, nausea, dehydration and electrolytes imbalances, dizziness, constipation and/or diarrhea, fatigue, irritability, muscle wasting, suppressed metabolism, blood sugar spikes/swings, suboptimal vitamin/mineral levels, poor concentration… These are the same clinical symptoms that we see in the manifestation of starvation. For more about that, look up the landmark Ancel Keys study: the bottom-line is that overly restrictive diets make you grumpy, tired and all-around depleted.
3. I WANT TO CLEAN AWAY FAT, TO LOSE WEIGHT!
When did starvation become synonymous with wellness? The caloric provision of cleanse diets can range widely from ~300-1500 calories per day, but the most commonly fall in the 600-800 calories/day zone. Will you lose weight? Yes. Is most of the weight you lose due to fluid loss? Yes. Will you gain it back? Yes (and may regain to a higher weight than you started). Will you breakdown the muscle you worked so hard for? You bet! Will you disrupt your sense of hunger/fullness perception? Yes indeed. Will you tweak out (slow) your metabolism in the long-term? Maybe.
By her mid-30’s Gwenyth Paltrow experienced a shin fracture due to early onset osteoporosis, attributed to her restrictive diet (macrobiotic and frequent cleanses) in combination with a strict exercise regimen. Cleanses lack bone-food like calcium and vitamin D. While we’re at it, they also lack skin-food like healthy fats, zinc, and protein, which puts a wrinkle in the cleanse claim about youthful dewy red carpet skin.
Healthy eating and weight management is a lifelong process, and provides adequate calories, carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins/minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber to support metabolism and all your daily activities. Cleanse diets don’t cut the mustard.
4. I WANT TO CLEAN OUT THE STOOL BUILD-UP! – TO LET MY DIGESTIVE SYSTEM REST.
There is no such thing as stool build-up on the walls of your colon: there is either stool filling the colon (you need to poo), or there’s not (you pooed!). There are however harmful effects that come from stool lingering in your GI tract and not moving along as it should. So what’s the secret to the ideal stool “commute?” FIBER! Unfortunately, cleanses provide no – or negligible – fiber.
If your goal is to scrub those pipes clean, the best way to do it is …with fiber. Without fiber, stool will either tend to linger (constipation) or will just run through (diarrhea). In case you still fear there may be remnant food matter, your Migrating Motor Complex – a special pattern of contractions – kicks in about every 90 minutes to do a final clean sweep of any lingering undigested food.
A happy GI tract – the mucosal lining, lymphoid tissue, and bacteria – plays a big role in immunity and helps keep your whole body healthy. So, if your goal is boosting overall health, fiber-full diets win again. Fiber feeds the motley crew of bacteria living and working in your GI tract. Emerging research on this “microbiome” is fascinating. Those little buggers seem to play a role in regulating weight, risk of diabetes, and immune function — and even remove (detox!) heavy metals from the body. Read more about your internal residents here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the-100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
The idea that your stomach needs a break is perplexing. Your digestive system is made of muscle, so keep it strong and make it work! (Slurping your meals will just give you one wimpy GI tract.)
5. I WANT TO CLEAN OUT THE TOXINS!
As so many other great doctors, dietitians and health experts have pointed out in commentaries on the juice cleanse fad, your body does a fantastic job of clearing out toxins on it’s own. It’s that self-cleaning oven concept. Your kidneys, liver, skin, blood, lymphatic system, and digestive tract all work together to sort, absorb, store, excrete, filter and label everything that passes through.
The best way to support your body’s detox and defense systems is with an everyday, all around healthy lifestyle. But, if you still really want to get specific about foods, there’s a little bit of evidence that cruciferous vegetables (like kale, cauliflower, broccoli) might boost the detoxifying action of liver enzymes; the sulfur found in garlic & onions seems to bind up some cancer-causing compounds; I mentioned how fiber and the gut bugs can bind up toxins, and that protein fuels immune cells; high sugar intake impairs immune function; and of course staying hydrated helps too.
We also know that inadequate nutrition – even short term – impairs immunity. The low calorie, low protein, and low vitamin/mineral levels in cleanses will leave immune function in the gutter. All immune cells are made of proteins, and proteins also carry minerals, vitamins, and hormones to where they are needed for healing and defense mechanisms. Juice cleanse companies don’t make detailed nutrition information available (how much protein DO they provide?), but one popular brand reportedly provides 14g of protein per day. A woman needs around 50-75 grams of protein per day to support health, and an active man closer to 100 grams.
Remember that juice cleanses are moneymakers. At a cost of around $70-125 per day, or $500-900 per week, these companies have great motive to convince you that you must “detoxify” your body. The concept of toxins is highly nebulous, but sure does sound scary. When I ask people what “toxins” they are trying to rid themselves of, the answer is usually: “From all of the crap I’ve been eating.” If you don’t put processed unhealthful foods in (and don’t smoke, and drink only within moderation), then you won’t have to clean it out.
6. Lastly…I WANT TO BE SOOO NATURAL!
Cleanse diets conflict with “natural.” Natural would be eating food in its native solid form, not processed. By definition, pulverizing, smashing, squishing, blenderizing, cold-pressing, and juicing are all means of processing. Please stop wrecking those nice fruits, veggies, and nuts. Let them be. Why do we insist that fruits and veggies aren’t good enough just the way they are? Their little phyto-egos are hurt. When it comes to food manipulation, less is better.
Natural would mean honoring our innate magical means of food breakdown, nutrient absorption, metabolism, and waste excretion. Natural means trusting our body to guide when and how much we eat: nutrition is individual.
In my thinking, natural also means fairly priced fruit and veggies. If you do out the math based on the caloric content and cost of juice cleanses, one piece of fruit is costing you around $10 (it’s rather brilliant). If paying a little extra for produce is within your means, then how about supporting local farms?
You’ve probably heard the punch line before: there are no quick fixes. Enjoy the luxury of a wholesome, nutrient-rich diet. The body is pretty magical on it’s own, and we should do our best to support its natural strategies: through healthful eating, managing stress, getting enough fluids and sleep, and maintaining a healthy weight.
It is also important, especially for parents, to consider how society’s fixation on food affects our children. It is important to model best practices. Issues surrounding health, wellness and body image affect our kids sooner than we may like to believe. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against juices for kiddos: “fruit juice offers no nutritional benefits over whole fruits. Whole fruits also provide fiber and other nutrients.” Be mindful when making meal for your little one, providing them with balanced food options. Help get children excited about food, not scared, exposing them to diverse and interesting options.
Let’s clean away misinformation, and if we must use the word “detox,” then here’s how to do it:
- Eat diverse foods, especially the ones that come out of the ground, and the more intact the better.
- Chew your calories – don’t drink them (unless it’s a good source of calcium & vitamin D).
- Manage stress constructively.
- Be mindful.
- Get your zzz’s: there’s heaps of research relating poor eating habits to inadequate sleep, sleep also promotes immune function.
- Live actively: exercise most days and allow for adequate recovery.
- Poop daily.
- Trust your body.
Sandra Klemmer, MS, RD, LDN, CNSC
Sandy is a licensed and Registered Dietitian (RD), Certified Nutrition Support Clinician (CNSC), and holds a Masters degree in Nutrition. She currently works at a top hospital and also sees clients privately in Brookline, MA. A member of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, Sandy has served on the Board of Directors for the Massachusetts Dietetic Association. Other experiences include research on health behaviors of college students and childhood obesity, interning with the British Nutrition Foundation, and acting as a nutrition consultant to a marketing agency. She is a lover of all movement and is happiest on a yoga mat or in running sneakers. Sandy believes that nutrition is an opportunity to nourish ourselves from the inside: “it is a top-to-bottom, inside-and-out approach to wellness.”