I remember my first cleanse vividly. After months of gorging on French bread, Brie, potato chips, and more beer than I care to admit, my pants no longer fit. Even my Spandex felt tight—a testament to my willingness to consume anything and everything while studying abroad. I had to jump up and down to squirm into my jeans, only to have my button nearly explode off when I sat down. That’s when I knew it was time for a change. And I wanted a quick fix.
One simple search on the Internet for “lose weight NOW” lead me to the Master Cleanse, a 10-day liquid diet consisting only of “lemonade.” Apparently Beyoncé drank the Kool-Aid (err, lemonade) and lost 20 pounds. It’s perfect, I thought. My roommate agreed, and we decided to embark on our first cleansing journey together.
Hours later, we were back in our flat with countless lemons, a huge tub of grade B maple syrup, cayenne, several jugs of the purified water, and a bottle of sea salt (for what I fondly started to call the salt water flush from hell). Game on.
The Beginning of the End
The first glass was fine. It definitely didn’t taste like Stella Artois (my preferred beverage at the time), but that was OK. It also didn’t taste like pizza (my preferred food at the time), but the lemonade mixture was oddly satisfying. The prospect of dropping 20 pounds in 10 days probably helped make the drink taste even sweeter. “Six-pack abs, here I come,” I repeated to myself while chugging the spicy-sweet mixture.
A full day of cleansing came and went, and I didn’t feel tortured or skinnier. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for either. Disappointed but not defeated, I charged on.
Day two, I was miserable. I had no energy. I felt like I was suffering from a rare disorder in which a parasite eats all of your organs, causing a slow, painful death, and my patience level was at an all-time low. After walking two miles to work, I thought I was going to collapse in agony. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. On top of my lack of physical stamina, I had close to zero brainpower. Staring at my blank computer screen felt as strenuous as running a marathon in a snowstorm; hilarious gchats were the most annoying things I’d ever read; I hated everyone; I hated the Master Cleanse; I hadn’t lost weight.
Being the stubborn person that I am, I pushed on. But by day four, my friends abandoned me, my Spandex still felt like it was going to burst at the seams, I was on the verge of being fired from my unpaid internship, and the sight of anything edible—or inedible for that matter—made me hallucinate. (It looked eerily similar to this.)
Then I found evidence of sandwich consumption under my roommate’s bed. She’d been cheating. And she wasn’t ashamed. “You’re insane and this is stupid,” she said. I was steaming with fury (and hangry as hell), but I also appreciated her bluntness—and the fact that I had an excuse to give up. An hour later, we were in a bar, beers in hand, and burgers in our mouths. Life was good again.
Though I admit I didn’t follow the cleanse to a tee—I skipped the prep, didn’t listen to my body when it was tired, gave up after only four days, and skipped the phase-out process too—I did expect to see some positive results. But the only thing I lost were friends (albeit temporarily), and the only thing I gained was weight.
Try, Try Again
In an effort to discover the true value of the Master Cleanse (and prove to myself I could do it), I tried it three more times. While I did get better about following the rules, the results were the same: I was hungry, irritable, weak, and low on brainpower. Many who have cleansed say those feelings pass and are replaced by energy, stamina, and bliss—but that wasn’t the case for me. I did lose a few pounds, but they came back (plus more) as soon as I started eating solid foods.
Maybe it was the Master Cleanse, I decided. And on to juice cleanses I went.
At this point, I’ve done seven. I experimented with brands, cleanse types, phase-in and phase-out strategies, exercising and not exercising—you name it, I tried it. But just like my personality, my body is stubborn. And every time I limited my intake to liquids, my body simply wanted food—real, solid, nutrient-dense food.
The Real Reasons You Shouldn’t Cleanse
So why did I continue to torture myself?
For one, I love trying new trends, diets, and means of reaching my full physical and mental potential. I also love food, eating a lot of it, and having a few drinks to help wash it all down. Naturally, that can lead to weight gain (ahem, holidays), and instead of being patient and getting back on track, sometimes I want an easy way to get back to the body I’m used to (and out of elastic pants). Plus I have a history of injuries, and as an athlete, it can be difficult to adjust to a body that isn’t hitting the gym six days a week. But cleansing will solve all those problems, right?
Wrong. And here’s why:
1. Your body needs protein and fiber.
Protein is often associated with gaining serious muscle, but it’s necessary for every body type—weight lifters and yogis alike Effects of a high protein diet on body weight and comorbidities associated with obesity. Baker, Clifton P. IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. The British Journal of Nutrition, 2012 Aug;108 Suppl 2:S122-9. . Not only does protein help muscles recover, it also helps promote a healthy weight by keeping you full and fueled. Protein also provides essential amino acids the body can’t produce on its own. And sadly juice provides little to no protein (unless you’re doing a cleanse that includes nut milk, but that still has a low amount).
As for fiber, most people aren’t getting enough as is Filling America's fiber intake gap: summary of a roundtable to probe realistic solutions with a focus on grain-based foods. Clemens, R., Kranz, S. et al. University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA. Journal of Nutrition, 2012 Jul;142(7):1390S-401S. . If constipation, low energy, and frequent hunger pangs aren’t reason enough to up your intake, consider this: A high-fiber diet also reduces risk for heart disease. Many fruits have a healthy serving of fiber, but the process of juicing them and discarding their nutrient-rich outer layer cuts down on the amount of fiber that makes it into your cup. The one thing you’re still getting plenty of in juices is sugar. Which leads me to my next point...
2. Eating fruit is much healthier than drinking it.
While juice cleanses may seem like an easy way to load up on vitamins and minerals, they’re often full of added sugars and devoid of the good stuff (like fiber and antioxidants). Juicing fruits does tend to preserve some vitamins, but why guzzle several hundred calories worth of fruit when you can eat one serving and actually feel full? Plus, all that juice can actually lead to type 2 diabetes—whereas eating fruit reduces the risk! Deconstructing a Fruit Serving: Comparing the Antioxidant Density of Select Whole Fruit and 100% Fruit Juices. Crowe, K.M. & Murray, E. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2013 Jun 26. pii: S2212-2672(13)00514-5.
3. Juice is expensive.
Cleansing, whether you’re making the juice at home or buying a pre-packaged one, can cost a pretty penny. In fact, for the price of the average cleanse (around $180 for three days), you can buy two weeks worth of groceries for yourself—even at a high-end grocery store. Sure, treating yourself every once in a while is healthy, but why not cut back on booze and caffeine for a week and splurge on a massage or class package at your favorite fitness studio instead of hopping on another cleanse? With few actual health benefits, it seems like throwing your hard-earned cash to the wind.
4. Crash diets don’t work.
Losing 12 pounds in two weeks may sound great to some (and it is possible to do in a healthy way), but it’s tough to keep it off. When you deprive yourself of things like sugar and carbohydrates, the likelihood of returning to old habits, and binging in the process, is high. And while you may initially lose weight, going from liquids only back to solid food often causes stress (on you and your body), resulting in gaining the weight back in full—and often plus a few more. The better option: Make small, meaningful changes, like cutting back on processed foods and drinking more water, one at a time (i.e. not cleansing).
5. Cleansing makes you feel like sh!t.
Sure, several cleansing testimonies say that the results were incredible: “My body has never looked better,” “My mind has never been clearer,” “I have more energy than a puppy.” And while that may be true for some, for the majority it isn’t. The lack of nutrients in juice cleanses can cause hunger, fatigue, lightheadedness, dizziness, a rapid heartbeat, temperature fluctuations, impatience, and a whole slew of discomfort. And to think: This is what you’re choosing to do and paying for. Thanks but no thanks. I’ll take feeling awesome for free!
6. Your body detoxes itself naturally.
Looking to get rid of the excess wine, cheese, and dessert in your system? I don’t blame you—both booze and food hangovers can be painful. And after days of indulgence, purging your system of toxins may feel like the right thing to do. But guess what: That’s what our organs are for. The liver is constantly working to help purify our bodies, and every time we pee we’re getting rid of some of the bad stuff Detoxification pathways in the liver. Grant DM. Journal of inherited metabolic disease. 1991;14(4):421-30. . The same goes for our intestines: Every time we poop, we’re getting rid of things our body doesn’t need (or want) What’s Your Poo Telling You? Richman, J. and Sheth, A. Chronicle Books, 2007 . Sure, cutting back on red meat, dairy, and processed foods can help our organs do their jobs more efficiently, but we don’t need to drink liquid for days on end to accomplish that. Just eat healthy!
The New Normal
At this point I think it’s obvious that I’ve given up on cleansing. Not only did it put my body through a rollercoaster of stomach aches, cramps, fainting spells, and a lack of focus, but I also never accomplished my goals of feeling better and losing weight. But that doesn’t mean I stopped trying to figure out how to get myself back on track in times of need. Instead, I identified the things that make me feel bad, those I tend to overindulge in, and created a plan to help feel like the healthiest version of me.
Here’s what that looks like: For seven to 10 days, I remove caffeine, alcohol, dairy, meat, and anything processed from my diet. Instead, I fuel on whole foods like fruit, vegetables, lentils, eggs, and a whole lot of water and tea. In that time, I decrease my level of exercise and limit myself to things like long walks, restorative yoga, and 15-minute steam room or sauna sessions. By the end of the “cleanse,” I feel energized, healthy, happy, and fit—whether I’m fitting into my skinny jeans perfectly or not. I’ve also found that detoxing my mind helps too. Taking time to meditate and write, and ignoring social media and mindless Web browsing, help me feel centered, focused, and sleep like a baby. Which makes a lot of sense: Destressing and disconnecting can have a ton of health benefits (including weight loss).
That's my cure. But what works for me may not work for you. It’s all about listening to your body and doing what makes you feel happiest and healthiest. Not sure where to start? Here’s what I recommend:
- Choose a length of time that is realistic
- Cut down on the obvious stuff like sugar and alcohol
- Consider limiting caffeine to one drink per day
- Identify foods that make you feel anything less than awesome, and decrease your intake (or cut them out completely)
- Eat mostly fresh produce and natural whole grains
- Experiment with new workouts
- Drink tons of water
- Get eight hours of sleep a night
- Give yourself some love
You may not see double-digit weight loss, but you will feel awesome—mentally and physically! And that’s what it’s all about, right?