If the holiday season’s been a gluttonous rampage that began with leftover Halloween candy and ended with the roof off your kid’s gingerbread house, then you’re not alone. The new year offers a chance to make amends, and the weight loss market, that $60 billion (give or take) cash cow, has promised its fair share of panaceas over the decades. There’s been cabbage soup, Dexatrim, baby food, grapefruit, Jenny Craig, SnackWell’s, Atkins, South Beach, and the list goes on.
Now, with attention spans like a goldfish’s, we turn to cleanses any time we feel like we owe our bodies an apology or want to shed a few pounds with abrupt (rather than prolonged) suffering. It doesn’t hurt that they come with major celebrity endorsements (Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyoncé, and Salma Hayek all tout their favorite detoxifying regimens) and the chance to atone publicly by sharing pictures of your measly daily intake.
The idea of drinking only juice or water to refresh the body isn’t new. Most religions recommend a fasting period to cleanse the soul and strengthen the mind’s control over the body’s cravings. It’s only been recently though that the mainstream has adopted cleansing as a glamorous way to purge our pipes of so-called toxins.
Juice fasts are the most accessible. Juice tastes good and delivers enough sugar that one feels deprived of little (other than the act of chewing) over the three to seven days that they are “prescribed.” Commercial lines like Blueprint, Cooler Cleanse, Organic Avenue, and Juice Press all sell freshly-made kits of raw fruit and veggie juices (often blended with a nut-milk for a dash of fat and protein) that amount to 1,000-1,200 calories a day. You’ll pay between $60 and $70 for the convenience of having the cold-pressed line-up in your fridge. Or, you could buy a juicer—between $40 and $400 —plus the heaps of (organic, since pesticides are some of the toxins you are flushing from your system) produce that you liquify into six daily juices. (Relay Foods has gotten in on the action by selling $6 to $8 juicing kits that include the produce needed to make 24 ounces of juice at home.)
Two years ago, I completed The Clean Program, a 21-day cleanse, to which I added an extra week in the beginning to prepare my caffeine- and alcohol-accustomed system. I kissed those two delights—along with dairy, gluten, sugar, meat, and other purported dietary offenders—goodbye and replaced my solid morning and evening meals with liquid ones. I could have paid $300-plus for the supplements to make up those liquid meals, but opted instead to make “clean” smoothies for breakfast and “clean” soups or juices for dinner, with a rule-abiding chewable meal for lunch.
After a few days of debilitating headaches and crankiness, I took advice from the program’s virtual support group and started a magnesium supplement. It helped and I made it through the month without gnawing off my own arm, sneaking sips of mouthwash, or losing my will to live. I didn’t notice any big changes in my health or appearance (who knows if the whites of my eyes were actually whiter), but I am glad I did it, if for no other reason than to prove that I don’t need cookies, coffee, cheese, or wine in my life—I just want them.
For the hardcore, there’s the Master Cleanse —10 days of water flavored with lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. At only 100 calories a glass, you can treat yourself to anywhere from six to 12 a day, drunk either hot or cold. The diet, intended to flush the body of dietary, hormonal, and environmental toxins, as well as “material” that’s built up in the colon, is one that much of the medical community finds futile. Doctors argue that our bowels have evolved over millions of years to clean themselves and that the digestive tract is a one-way tube with no place for anything to reside. The notion that our guts need a rest is also refuted by medical experts who say that they are strengthened by the act of digesting protein and fiber (of which juice or flavored water have none).
You’ll no doubt lose some weight on a cleanse—you’re taking in far fewer calories than usual—but health practitioners warn against the metabolism-slowing, fat-storing response that kicks in when meals are skipped too often. Not a problem for us all-or-nothing types though—we’ll happily anguish for 10 days if it means enjoying the remaining 355.