Fixing Food: Why Cleansing Doesn’t Work

By Trevor Cook

Nutrition labels

Cleanses seem to be all the rage these days, particularly with American females over age 18.  From the so-called “Master Cleanse” (which substitutes food with tea and lemonade with maple syrup and cayenne pepper – and doesn’t sound disgusting at all) to Dr. Oz’s “Three-Day Detox” cleanse (only slightly more sane, as it allows fruits and veggies in juice form and some micronutrient supplements1), talk of cleanses is rampant on social media and daytime television.

Let’s be frank: juicing and cleansing is simply a more intense crash-course form of the old adage “eat less and move more.”  Cleanses “work” by drastically reducing a participant’s caloric intake that their body has no choice but to target its energy reserves to survive – first focusing on muscle then adipose tissue.  The net result is a loss of “weight” over a highly condensed period of time.  By this (poor) metric, we can conclude that they do in fact “work.”  I mean, who cares if you send your metabolism into a catastrophic tailspin and you regain all the weight back – and more – after you start eating again?

This is usually the point that someone starts mentioning that the primary purpose of a cleanse is to help rid your body of toxins, as if your liver and kidneys just up and went on holiday prior to this moment.  All jokes aside, if you have a liver and kidneys that work, you do not need to cleanse.  Let me say that again: If your liver and kidneys are functional, you do not need to participate in any cleanse.  Dr. Oz tries to argue that the standard Western diet has, “exceeded the threshold for what the body’s innate detoxification system can tolerate on its own.”2 However, there’s no scientific evidence that indicates that the body’s detoxification mechanisms would not resume to function as needed if the participant were simply to improve their diet and removed the more toxic elements found in Western nutrition.  In other words, there are no indicators that a cleanse is necessary to jump start the body’s natural mechanisms again, especially not for one to six weeks3; simply improving the quality of your food and quantity of calories ingested should be more than sufficient for the vast majority of the population.

Physiologically, there is no reason to do one of these idiotic cleanses; so why even consider it?  Physiology and psychology are more closely related than most would think, and an argument can be made for the psychological benefit.  For some people, the psychological effect of cleansing, the process of taking control of their cravings and enforcing mind over matter can set them up to better follow a new, more sound nutritional model.  By overcoming the intense pain and agony of the cleanse, a strict diet suddenly seems a lot less intimidating and difficult; it can be a mentally challenging experience that empowers the participant and readies them for the challenges of eating well in a world where the majority of food found in a supermarket is pure garbage.  That said, a short-term fast (24 hours or less) will accomplish the same objectives while simultaneously being less harmful to your body.

Make no mistake: As far as your metabolism and health goes, a cleanse is idiocy.  You will lose muscle mass, which will negatively impact your body’s ability to burn calories, and likely regain all of the weight back in the form of adipose tissue (fatty tissue) immediately upon completion.  If you repeat this cycle consistently, you’ll make your body less adept at burning fat and more effective at storing it.  There is no such thing as a free lunch.  As Mark Twight, owner of Gym Jones, eloquently said, “The truth is simple: to change your body in a meaningful way takes time. It took decades to ‘achieve’ the shape you are in now. To change your current condition will take months of constant attention and hard effort. To change your habits will take years.”

In conclusion, there is no logical reason to do a multi-day cleanse.  If you require the psychological catharsis potentially generated by a cleanse, I suggest you instead do a single, 24-hour fast in which you drink nothing but water.  It would more effectively purge your system, likely be quite mentally challenging for those not accustomed to intermittent fasting , and be much less harmful to your body’s metabolic systems.

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