'Cleanse' diets include potential benefits, risks

Wednesday, April 6, 2011 | 9:37 p.m. CDT; updated 5:05 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Some detox dieters choose a cleansing mixture with freshly squeezed lemon juice. Both natural and supplement-based cleansing options are available at Clovers Natural Market, which has two locations in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — Just juice. For three days.

MU student Elizabeth Strickert was eager to try a cleanse diet but wasn't sure she could make it.


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“I thought I would break down by the end of day one and order a pizza," she said. "But I didn’t feel that urge at all.”

Strickert is taking part in a diet trend in which people temporarily fast to "cleanse" their bodies. Some cut out processed food for a few days; others stop eating altogether. The Master Cleanse, popularized by celebrities such as Beyonce, involves drinking only a mixture of water, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper for 10 days.

Those interested in cleanse diets have many options. Columbia's Clovers Natural Market is one of many natural food retailers where the cleanse business is booming. Clovers' employees sell a variety of cleanse products, including two-week, whole-body cleanse kits that cost $20 to $30, and work with customers to find "the right cleanse," said Nellie Boyt, a supplement buyer at the store.

Natural food retailers' sales of herbal formulas for cleansing, detoxification and organ support totaled more than $27 million in 2008, according to a New York Times report.

The science is not conclusive on cleanse diets; there are medical professionals on both sides of the debate. While fans say a supervised cleanse can eliminate waste and result in improved whole-body health, critics worry about nutritional deficits. Most agree that many products' most-hyped promise — dramatic weight loss — would be temporary at best.

"An individual can expect to regain any lost weight if the causes associated with poor weight management are not identified and addressed," said Matthew Cowan, a naturopathic physician who commonly recommends various detoxification systems for his patients.

Matthew Bechtold, a gastroenterologist at University Hospital, said he's not aware of any data that show cleanses eliminate toxins from the body, another popular claim.

“Our bodies do a pretty good job getting rid of things we don’t need,” said Barbara Stegeman Mitchell, a nutritionist and dietitian at BodyMind Connections.

The benefits ...

One explanation for the popularity of cleanse diets is that they make some people feel healthier.

"I felt really energetic and healthy," said Strickert, who used pre-made fruit and vegetable juices she ordered online during her three-day juice only diet."I also found that I was enjoying fruits and vegetables more than usual."

But Strickert wasn't terribly impressed with her results.

"I didn't see any negative effects, but I don't think the benefits were that outstanding," she said.

Nutritionist and dietitian Mitchell said a day or two of using a cleanse that still involves eating natural whole foods should not have adverse health effects; some people might feel better after taking a day off from everything except fruit. But, she said, the results of cleanses vary from one person to another.

“I don’t discount that some people may feel better,” Mitchell said.

However, she added, other people might try a cleanse and actually feel worse.

“We are all really very individual organisms. There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” she said.

Jill Williams, a cleansing and nutrition specialist, said a person's response to a cleanse depends upon his or her health, current lifestyle and the type of cleanse used.

Cleansing is more than just a diet, Williams said; her approach includes cleansing the mental, emotional and physical body.

“It is a lifestyle of cleansing up old unhealthy habits,” she said.

"The goal of detoxification is to improve the body's ability to eliminate waste," said Cowan, who received a doctoral degree in naturopathic medicine from the National College of Naturopathic Medicine.

Cowan recommends cleanses that target the liver, gallbladder, small intestines, colon and kidneys, citing benefits such as increased energy, weight loss, improved digestion and clearer skin.

Successful detoxification can also affect a person's mood, metabolism, hormone balance and musculoskeletal system, he said.

Williams, who provides education and guidance on transitional lifestyle cleanses through a private practice, said she believes a lot of doctors are against cleanses because they believe the process is unnecessary and dangerous.

"This is often because they have been educated by fad cleanses and media that popularize and simplify cleanses," Williams said. 

She advises people to be wary of diet pills and fad drinks, which she said are only quick fixes. She emphasized that cleanses should be transitioned into slowly.

“An appropriate and safe cleanse allows the digestive system to rest and the body to spend its energy healing,” Williams said. 

... and the risks

Longer, more frequent or more restrictive cleanses might have harmful effects, such as the loss of calcium and other major minerals from the body, Mitchell said. The use of laxatives or other supplements to help weight loss can worsen this effect.

"This totally alters the absorption of minerals and vitamins," she said.

Mitchell said that a prolonged period of "low energy intake" might lead a body to believe it is facing starvation and slow down its calorie burn. Usually, once a person returns to a normal diet, his or her metabolism returns to normal; but Mitchell explained that some older people and those who diet frequently might have a slower rate of metabolic recovery. Bechtold added that when the body lacks sugar and glucose, it starts to break down muscle.

Other potential negative side effects of cleanses include extreme headaches and fatigue — particularly when the diet is done incorrectly, Williams said. Detoxers might also experience irritability, diarrhea and joint and muscle discomfort, Cowan said. Williams doesn't advise going on a cleanse without guidance, and she recommends that people educate themselves and check with their physicians before they begin.

Mitchell said she recommends limiting the duration of a cleanse — or "detox" — to one day no more than once or twice a month. She also recommends using natural whole foods when cleansing.

“The human body is amazingly adaptable," Mitchell said. "Anything you do for a short time, it can usually recover pretty well.”

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Mark Foecking April 7, 2011 | 7:59 a.m.

"The Master Cleanse, popularized by celebrities such as Beyonce, involves drinking only a mixture of water, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper for 10 days."

Sounds like a helluva balanced diet to me...

Seriously, the food pyramid exists for a reason - it is the best consensus of a bunch of very knowledgeable people as to what your body needs on a regular basis to stay healthy. Furthermore, as new data becomes available, they update it.

Eating fruits and vegetables is a good way to get lots of good nutrition. Whether they're fresh, frozen, or organic makes FAR less difference.

The body will metabolize and excrete "toxins" independently of any "cleanse" diet. If it didn't, we'd all be dead in short order. Most of the "toxins" occur naturally in food - they're part of the chemical defense mechanisms of the plants we eat and use as animal feed. There are thousands of chemicals in raw vegetables that would never be allowed if they were additives.

Just eat a balanced diet, and more importantly, get plenty of exercise, and you'll live better than you will spending a bunch of money on snake oil.


(Report Comment)
Linda Ferris April 7, 2011 | 11:24 a.m.

If there was no money associated with the "dis-ease" industry (doctors, pharmacists, etc.) that is perpetuated by a philosophy of "keep them sick for as long as po$$ible" than you would truly see a wellness culture where people eat right, exercise and manage their own good health. There are other more progressive parts of the U.S. where this is the norm. Using an extreme example of a Beyonce diet is not rational, and more progressive communities in America do not condone this or other extremes.

Treating the whole person (body, mind and soul) with combination threatments/therapies derived from Eastern and Western medicine is finally replacing barbaric medical "practices." Maybe it will finally find its acceptance in Missouri. Either that or we can spend our medical dollars in cities and locations that advocate wellness and healing instead of "dis-ease."

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking April 7, 2011 | 12:36 p.m.

Linda Ferris wrote:

"If there was no money associated with the "dis-ease" industry (doctors, pharmacists, etc.) that is perpetuated by a philosophy of "keep them sick for as long as po$$ible" than you would truly see a wellness culture where people eat right, exercise and manage their own good health."

The medical establishment does not want to "keep them sick". The FDA, AMA, and many other mainstream groups are constantly telling people to watch their weight, exercise, eat 5 or more veggies/day, watch their fat, salt, and sugar intake, and decrease their level of stress. The problem is entirely that people don't do it.

Fat, sugar, and salt taste good to most people. Most people drive a car if they have to travel more than a few hundred feet. Most people would rather have fried chicken and mashed potatoes than a homegrown salad with garden tomatoes. That's no one's fault but their own.

The problem with "wellness" is it has become a multi-billion dollar industry that hawks unproven, sometimes dangerous medicines and treatments for conditions which are often simply caused by ignoring what doctors have been saying for decades. Doctors advocate "wellness" also - it makes their life simpler and their patients easier to manage. A whole lot of science goes in to modern medicine, and no other field is so heavily scrutinized by both itself and outside agencies. Most "wellness" treatments are characterized by their lack of science, and lack of scrutiny.


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