Dietary cleanses rise in popularity, but there are risks

Dietary cleanses rise in popularity, but there are risks
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

To the rational mind, the notion of willingly depriving oneself of food for days on end seems illogical, at best. Basic biology, after all, dictates that calories are necessary to sustain everyday functioning and that low levels of, say, iron or potassium could throw off our physical health, possibly even dangerously so.

And yet, extreme dietary cleanses seem to have gripped the imaginations of even the most practical among us. Somewhere along the line, we bought into the idea that our bodies harbor toxins that need flushing out or that dropping weight via an all-liquid diet is someone medically sound.

So how have these regimens become so popular? What’s so enticing about them? And do they actually do any good?

Kinds of cleanses


For anyone looking to embark on a cleanse, there’s no shortage of options: juice fasts, water fasts, lemonade diets. A company called BluePrint Cleanse, for instance, sells three- to 10-days worth of juices made from ingredients such as kale, cashew nuts, apples and pineapples. Another, Ritual Cleanse, follows a similar program of organic raw juice, promising on its website potential benefits that include mental clarity, weight loss and increased sex drive.

For the star-struck among us, there are celebrity-endorsed cleanses. Gwyneth Paltrow, the incurably buoyant actress and mother of two, swears by the Clean Program, a 21-day eating plan consisting of a shake for breakfast and dinner, and a light lunch. Salma Hayek co-founded the Cooler Cleanse, a program that professes on its website: “Consuming only liquids for a few days frees energy in the body, which can then return to the essential jobs of deep inner cleansing and healing.”

And then there’s the Master Cleanse, which tells users to ingest only a mixture of water, lemons, cayenne pepper and maple syrup up to six times a day for 10 days.

The big draw


Teddy Bass, an L.A.-based personal trainer who works with celebrities, notes that one reason cleanses have caught on is because of our belief as a society in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

“This is a fad-oriented society,” he says. “If people read that someone got results from doing this for a certain amount of days, then they really want to do it.”

Psychiatrist Megan Jones, director of the Healthy Body Image Program at Stanford University, adds that even those of us who might otherwise be above the hype can get ensnared in a clever marketing ploy — on the emphasis that cleanses place on “health.”

“‘Healthy’ is becoming a pseudonym for ‘dieting,’” she says. “The advertising industry is using health as a way of selling an unrealistic and unattainable ideal. For very smart, well-educated people, it’s not socially acceptable to go on a diet.” A cleanse, she adds, sounds more in line with taking care of one’s body.

What the pros say

So is there anything healthy about a dietary cleanse? Dr. Adrienne Youdim, the medical director of the Weight Loss Center atCedars-Sinai Medical Centerin Los Angeles, doesn’t think so.

To begin with, she says, our bodies are equipped with everything they need to rid themselves of bacteria, chemicals or viruses.

“The body actually has a very intricate way of detoxing on its own,” she says. “Our liver is designed to clear toxins out of the body. Our kidneys are designed to clear toxins out of the body. Our gastrointestinal tract itself has mechanisms to clear toxins from the body. There really isn’t any reputable science to suggest that there is any health benefit” to cleanses.


As for the weight loss promised by a week of liquid dieting, Youdim notes that any poundage shed on a cleanse is likely to be temporary. What’s more, she adds, cleanses done repeatedly might actually cause the practitioner to gain weight in the long run.

“The weight loss is often not the kind of weight that you want to lose,” she says. “You may be losing lean mass, and when that comes back it comes back as fat. If these are done recurrently, the long term would be changing your body composition for a higher percent of body fat.”

So why do it?

The question remains, then, as to whether cleansers know that there isn’t much science behind their diets and do them anyway, don’t know about the lack of science at all or simply don’t care about the science.

In an essay for the website Thought Catalog, editor Ryan O’Connell describes his attempt at the Ritual Cleanse. He decided to try the juice fast, he says, after reading another writer’s account of it. But O’Connell, 25, harbored no illusions about the health benefits of the cleanse.

“Let’s not get it twisted — it’s total crap,” he said. “It’s starvation nation. It was more of a personal goal, like, ‘let me see if I can do this.’”

Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, who embarked on the Master Cleanse and documented his experiences in an article in the magazine’s May 2012 issue, had entirely different reasons for trying the cleanse. After picking up a particularly persistent stomach bug while sampling Southern food, he decided to try to flush his system.

He decided on the Master Cleanse, he says, only after realizing that juice fasts consist of more of what he calls “bitter” kale juice than sweet, tropical beverages.


“They encourage you to drink green juice, and it is really awful,” he said. “Once I knew I couldn’t just drink piles of pineapple juice and apple juice, I decided I would do the Master Cleanse.”

The verdict

Both Steingarten, 70, and O’Connell reported being miserable throughout their cleanses. After two days, O’Connell said, he all but gave up.

“I think I had Stockholm syndrome,” he says. “I was so hungry, and the next day I had trouble writing — I couldn’t do my job. They say it makes you focus, and I’m like, ‘Focus on what? Food?’”

Steingarten adds that he lost a certain sense of joy as the days wore on.

“Food kind of accompanies me on my journey through life, especially given my profession, on my journey as a food writer,” he says. “One loses that source of happiness.”

The experience is in keeping with what Youdim would expect. “The potential side effects include being irritable, having anxiety or insomnia, and some physical discomfort,” she said.

But while O’Connell said that he would never go back to it — “I betrayed my body; I took it down a dark path and I would never disrespect it like that again,” he says — Steingarten, who has appeared frequently as a judge on shows like “Iron Chef America” and says he lost four pounds on Master Cleanse, felt differently.

“I’m considering doing it again for various professional reasons,” he said. “I have some television I have to do, and I wouldn’t mind looking skinnier. Talk shows, news shows, panels — they don’t like showing fat people.”