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.
“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.”