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The Truth About Detox Cleanses

Picture this: you’ve got a hot date with a Kellan Lutz look-alike and exactly one week to fit into that LBD  you bought just for the occasion (you know, the one where that back zipper just won’t budge and you need the assistance of your mom and your sister to shimmy into it).  While most girls may spend the next several days having a love affair with the elliptical machine at the gym or vow to cut down on carbs, celebrities over in Tinseltown are taking weight loss to a new level—with detox diets.

Over the past couple of years, detox diets have become as popular as the infamous South Beach and Atkins diets.  These diets typically center on a fast that is based heavily on liquids.  Living in today’s society, our bodies are not immune to processed foods, refined sugars and flour, pesticides and pollution—all things that build up within our systems that a.) aren’t good for us and b.) make us feel crappy.  The point of these liquid-based detoxes is to cleanse the body of this gunk by flushing it out our digestive system, recharging our organs and helping to eliminate the toxic buildup of conditions like asthma, heart disease and cancer. Weight loss is just an additional side effect of the detox, as pounds can be shed as a result of ridding the toxins. 

With the support of celebrities from Gwyneth Paltrow to Donna Karan, detox cleanses have become a health phenomenon that allows individuals to lose weight—and fast.  But because these detoxes are not viewed as technically a diet or method of starvation, the “detoxification” concept has been justified and as a result, has expanded from the red carpets of Hollywood to the homes of average young women who are striving to look like their favorite stars. 
Let’s take a look at Beyonce.  In order to prepare for her role in “Dreamgirls,” the star reportedly slurped a maple syrup concoction to drop a few pounds.  She was quoted as saying, “I lived on water, cayenne pepper and maple syrup for 14 days.  It was tough; everyone was eating and I was dying.”  Fast-forward two weeks later, and the singer was reported to be 20 pounds lighter.

Another highly publicized cleanse that swept the Internet and pages of magazines was Anne Hathaway’s 48-hour lemonade detox that she did before the Golden Globes.
But while Beyonce prefers to chug maple syrup when the pressure is on and Anne likes to sip lemonade, actress Gwyneth Paltrow endorses “Clean,” by Alejandro Junger, M.D.  This detox drink instantly found success, selling thousands of the $350 kits that are designed to restore balance within the body and get the bowels flowing.
Here are the most popular detox diets to go mainstream:
The Clean Diet
This 21-day detox diet, also known as The Clean Program, is praised by Paltrow for its ability to restore the optimal functioning of the body by:

  • Reducing the load on the digestive system
  • Protecting you from the damage of circulating toxins
  • Delivering specific liver detox nutrients
  • Promoting stomach repair

In this three-week program, you have a liquid meal for breakfast, a solid meal for lunch, and a liquid meal for dinner.  For the liquid meals, a special meal replacement shake is suggested, but juices, smoothies and soups can be substituted as well. 
The problem:
 The major downside to the Clean diet is not only will the prices of meal replacement shakes and supplements put a dent in your wallet (roughly $350), but the diet also recommends the use of laxatives and colonics, which can lead to electrolyte imbalances.
Martha’s Vineyard Detox Diet
From her carrot cake recipes to her 300-count bed linens, it’s only natural that Martha Stewart would have a detox diet with her name on it.  Roni DeLuz, the founder and director of the Martha’s Vineyard Holistic Retreat, created this diet with the goal of nourishing and cleansing the body.  This detox focuses on liquids such as vegetable juices, berry juices, herb teas and pureed vegetable soups, which are to be consumed for 21 days, equating to an approximate 1,000-calorie per day diet.  Like the Clean diet, there are also recommended supplements like vitamins and aloe vera juice (caffeine and alcohol are absolute no-gos).  After the 21 days are up, dieters should wean off the detox carefully, while slowly incorporating foods like protein powder, soy milk and yogurt into their diets. 
The problem:
With the detox allowing for only 20 grams of protein per day, this amount is well below the suggested daily intake.  In addition to there being a lack of protein, important fats and fibers are missing from this diet as well.  Another problem that the diet poses is its inconvenience: can you imagine having to bring liquid beverages with you everywhere you went for three weeks? 
Like most of these diets, while you are practically guaranteed to drop the pounds, there’s a good chance that the weight you’re losing is coming from muscle—NOT fat.  Therefore, once you discontinue the detox and return to normal eating, don’t be surprised if you regain the weight you just lost. 
Master Cleanse Detox Diet (or the Lemonade Diet)

A diet that has existed since 1976, it regained popularity in 2005 when a man named Peter Glickman (who is not a health professional) wrote the book Lose Weight, Have More Energy, and Be Happier in 10 Days.  This detox can be especially dangerous as not only are you only consuming liquids for ten consecutive days, but also these liquids have no nutritional value whatsoever.  For this diet, you begin your day by drinking a quart of salt-water solution.  Following this drink, you spend the rest of the day downing a lemonade cocktail that consists of cayenne pepper, fresh squeezed lemons and maple syrup (sorry, pancakes aren’t included).  According to this diet, the lemon juice is meant to dissolve waste in your colon, the maple syrup (your sugar) is intended to give you energy, and the cayenne pepper is supposed to eliminate mucous from the body.  Six to 12 eight oz glasses later, you then wrap up your day by drinking an herbal tea laxative, which is supposed to get rid of your body’s waste. 
The problem:

Living on maple syrup for ten days = no nutritional value!  At least with other detoxes fruits and vegetables are included in their cleanses, but with the Master Cleanse, you are depriving your body of the vitamins and nutrients it needs to function on a daily basis.
Hallelujah Diet
Is it called the “hallelujah” diet because it will transform you into a Megan Fox body double?  Not quite.  This detox diet is the brainchild of the Reverend George Malkmus and his wife, Rhonda, who believe God created our bodies to eat only raw and living foods.  In other words, foods like meat and dairy are excluded from this diet because they are “dead” foods.  Followers of this detox believe that food should be eaten in its natural state (however, it is acceptable to juice your fruits and vegetables). 
The problem:
Similar to the rest of these detoxes, the Hallelujah Diet is simply too restrictive.  One of the major issues people have found with this diet is that it does not offer enough calories for a person to feel full.  Furthermore, by cutting out meats and dairy products, once again, limitations are being placed on ways to access protein and calcium-rich foods, which are important for our health.
The many kinds of detoxes are countless and while they all have their varying differences, they all hold one major component in common: risks.  Let’s take a closer look at some of both the short and long-term consequences of detox diets.     
The risks

Columbia University professor Michael Gershon, M.D., says, “What frightens me is that because [the products] don’t go through the FDA, they not only have never bothered to demonstrate efficacy but they really don’t test for safety.”
Gershon explains that using great amounts of laxatives (even the natural ones like Beyonce or Hathaway used) have the potential to damage nerve cells or even prevent a bowel from functioning, which can require surgery in extreme cases.
Another risk is that when you are pushing too much liquid through your system, the balance of electrolyte salts in your body can become offset, which can lead to dehydration and diarrhea. 
Long-term detoxes and repeated fasts can also lead to vitamin deficiencies, muscle breakdown and blood sugar problems.  Lona Sandon, a Dallas dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, says that preventing your body from getting key vitamins and nutrients can “actually weaken the body’s ability to fight infections and inflammation.” 
Ultimately, experts have found little evidence to support that cleanses like Master Clean are beneficial and are guaranteed to actually bring sustainable results. If anything, they’re going to guarantee frequent bathroom trips in addition to the other unpleasant side effects such as headache, fatigue, aches, pain and irritability. 
Still want to detox, but liquids-only sounds too drastic? 
HC writer Aylin Erman spent last summer interning for Natalia Rose, a Clinical Nutritionist, where she devoted herself to cellular cleansing.  Erman agrees with expert dieticians in that plunging into liquid diets can be “dangerous.”
“You have to transition slowly,” says Erman.  “A switch from a standard American diet (SAD) to vegetable juicing is just not healthy nor health promoting—it would simply be overwhelming to your system, and you would feel the side effects of headaches, rashes, fatigue, etc. as your body dumps the released toxins into your blood stream.” 
In Erman’s experience, she detoxed by starting her day off with a green juice (chlorophyll containing greens and carrots), avoiding fruits (these can be yeast-causing in women with candida, which is very common, since they are very sugary and will add to bloating and fermentation in your digestive track), eating light-to-heavy throughout the day, and food combining at each meal (basic principle: avoid eating proteins with starches in the same meal as they require different digestive enzymes).
“The idea behind this ‘detox’ regime was to strengthen my digestive system and allow my body to devote its energies to other internal processes,” says Erman. 
Erman further suggests food-combing as a detox tool, which works by integrating more alkaline foods into your diet to help release toxic waste from your cells, and through exercise.
“You also need to be careful not to detox too fast, as I mentioned with a straight-up juice diet.  You need ‘safe poisons’ to keep yourself balanced,” says Erman.  “Eat the chocolate, but less and less as you become cleaner and cleaner.  Eat the cheese, but less and less as you become cleaner.  At some point, when you are happy with the results, keep your diet consistent so you can stay where you are.  Your body will start to speak to you and you’ll integrate and omit foods as you detox.” 
Erman believes that if done the correct way, detoxing can be a positive and healthy experience. 
“By moving slowly and being patient, you’ll detox with ease and will be able to maintain the results—and you do not have to starve yourself in the process,” says Erman. 
Other ways to naturally detox your body—without going to the extreme:  
Be nice to your liver
Even though they are one of the most important organs in our bodies, college students are notorious for giving their livers a beating after a weekend out at the bar.  Along with your kidneys, your liver works every day to eliminate the toxins that enter your body through your urine and bowels.  In other words, your liver is a champ and doesn’t need gallons of sugar and water to work effectively.  So what’s the best way to detox your liver and eliminate toxins?  Avoid alcohol (or at least large amounts) and monitor your acetaminophen intake (according to the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, that means no more than four extra-strength Tylenol pills a day).  Too much of either of these can lead to liver damage. 
Get a massage
Lots of spas offer special massages that work to detox lymph nodes, glands under the arms and other parts of the body.  These massages are designed to minimize the blockages that are known for weakening the immune system.  While doctors say it is impossible to do lymphatic drainage on a healthy person, it doesn’t hurt to book a massage as not only will your muscles thank you, but you’ll walk away feeling much more relaxed than when you walked in. 
Fiber is your friend
It is probably a rare day when a female college student visits the doctor’s office with the intention of getting a colonic.  Hardcore detoxers who really want to take their cleanse to the next level will have their doctor insert a tube into their rectum, where cool or warm water is used to flush out the colon (yes, this is gross).  While this procedure is not for the squeamish, it is also not for those who are worried about saving a dollar, as these sessions can cost up to $100 each. 
Instead, you can “regulate” yourself by incorporating fiber into your diet.  The American Dietetic Association recommends 20 to 35 grams per day as a sufficient amount.  So go grab a bowl of Kellogg’s All-Bran Wheat Flakes cereal and enjoy—no colonic necessary. 
Lona Sandon, Dallas dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association
Columbia University professor Michael Gershon, M.D.
Aylin Erman, HC contributing writer

Taylor Trudon (University of Connecticut ’11) is a journalism major originally from East Lyme, Connecticut. She is commentary editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Campus, a blogger for The Huffington Post and is a proud two-time 2009 and 2010 New York Women in Communications scholarship recipient. She has interned at Seventeen and O, The Oprah Magazine. After college, Taylor aspires to pursue a career in magazine journalism while living in New York City. When she's not in her media bubble, she enjoys making homemade guacamole, quoting John Hughes movies and shamelessly reading the Weddings/Celebrations section of The New York Times on Sundays (with coffee, of course).
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