Healthy Living Gone Too Far: The Absurdity of Cleanses


Living in Southern California – where some people literally become obsessed with eating healthy – it’s not uncommon to hear people talk about the various different cleanses that they do to rid their body of toxins and essentially control-alt-delete their homeostasis.  For the most part, I think that these are infomercial gimmicks at best that do very little at actually achieving their stated goals.

The most common for a while around here was the Master Cleanse.  (With a name like that, how could you go wrong?) For those venturing down this road of alternative detoxification, here’s what you do: do not eat anything for the duration of the cleanse except 6-to-12 glasses daily of a truly noxious-sounding elixir of fresh lemons, grade B maple syrup and cayenne pepper.

Yes, you heard it right: lemons, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper will scour clean your insides of those harmful toxins (not exactly which ones, though) and you’ll even lose weight — obviously, since all you’re ingesting is essentially a thick, spicy glass of fruit juice for 10 straight days and taking a daily laxative to make sure all those toxins get truly flushed out.

There will always be disputed evidence as to the effectiveness of these cleanses, but there is nothing truly conclusive that they do anything other than starve you and over-prepare you for a colonoscopy (for those of you trying this soon, do schedule an appointment with your gastroenterologist so you can at least assure yourself of one benefit of this starvation trial).

I’ve heard many different outcomes from this regiment and they all fall into two categories:

I Feel Better

Okay, this is just a value statement that I can’t argue against.  If you feel better, that’s great.  But feeling fine doesn’t mean that your internal organs are in magical alignment or that there’s nothing wrong with you. You might still have high blood pressure, dangerous levels of cholesterol, and undigested meat in your gut even if you feel like you could jog up Everest without a jacket.  Since there’s no specific goal other than getting rid of toxins (now being called “free radicals” to make it sound more scientifically valid despite being especially vague) and also losing weight, which brings me to the second item:

I Lost Weight

Of course you lost weight!  You’re subsisting solely on fruit juice for a week and a half — you’re lucky you’re not in a coma. It doesn’t take a dietician to know that starving yourself triggers your body to slow down its metabolism, not speed it up; meaning that while you might be losing some weight, it’s probably just water weight and, if gone on for too long, it might include your own muscle as your body eats itself in order to survive.  Solid!

It turns out that the body is extremely competent at cleansing itself of toxins and harmful substances — your liver, lungs, and kidneys all include this in their daily job description.  And unless you’re overloading it with pure garbage like trans fats, heavily processed sugars, caffeine, alcohol, and other stuff that we know is bad for us but we tend to eat anyway, they’re going to continue to rid you of most of those toxins.

I sense that those organs will do a better job than 10 days of lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup.  (Nothing quite like subsisting on large amounts of sugar to clean out that pancreas.)

The Reality

If you want to cleanse yourself, just start eating healthy. Eat greens, raw fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and limit your intake of processed foods and products — trust me: you don’t need a laxative if you eat the right natural foods (see: prunes).

That’s it.  That’s the secret.

Most likely if you’re feeling good during/after the Master Cleanse, it’s not because of what you’re putting into your body; it’s what you’re not.

Photo courtesy of fo.ol’s Flickr Photostream and ahockley’s Flickr Photostream.


  1. You make some excellent points. Incidentally, there is some pretty compelling evidence to suggest that Calorie-Restricted diets lengthen lifespan. Personally, I do believe that it takes an enormous of amount of energy for the body to digest food — even healthy food — and sometimes the body enjoys a break so that it can concentrate on other things (“spring cleaning”).

    But on the other side, living on pizza and jack daniels for 9 months and then doing a 10-day cleanse, might not be as helpful as just eating healthy in the first place — so I agree with you there!

    • I had a feeling that you would bring a different perspective to this one. Thanks for commenting!

      I agree with you about the studies on the calorie-restricted diets: Americans especially consume way more calories than they need. Overeating has many negative effects, absolutely.

      However, I just still don’t see how the human body needs rest from eating. Sure, it does take a lot of energy to digest food; but, food is also the source of our energy. Granted, I do go through phases where just naturally I prefer eating less and usually that feels fine, too. I also prefer smaller meals more frequently – less up and down in energy and it feels more balanced for me that way. But both are still far cries from 10-day fasts where one subsists on lemon juice, maple syrup (how in the world can that possibly be cleansing at all?), and cayenne pepper.

      I also don’t understand how the body sees a lack of food as a break, or a chance to clean or reboot. It sees it as starvation and goes into survival mode, hence the lower rate of metabolism, which actually means that you have more work to do to get healthy after you’re done with your fast. The stomach working overtime after you’ve gorged yourself equals bad. But so does your stomach not getting anything of real nutrition or substance for nearly two weeks.

      Again – if you feel good after it, then hey: I’m not going to get in your way. I just think that, if anything, it must be more of a mental cleanse than anything physical. Perhaps the lack of food helps one focus on the necessities in life and the reboot takes place in your psyche. I admit that it’s definitely a strong commitment and takes a lot of willpower to endure that type of diet for 10 full days. But that’s not how it’s marketed. Supposedly it rids me of toxins. I’m still curious as to what those toxins are; and I still haven’t seen the scientific evidence to show definitively that the body ever needs anything like the Master Cleanse. And even if there are marginal benefits, wouldn’t just starting into a healthy lifestyle trump any limited ones that would most likely end shortly after the 10 days were up?

  2. Fasting is a helpful practice that has been going on for centuries. I believe there is something to letting your body rest and spend energy repairing instead.

    • I like the idea behind that, Kate: the notion that your body will rest if you don’t feed it. I just don’t know that it works that way physically. By not eating, it’s not like your stomach just shuts down and takes a break, giving the rest of your organs the ability to focus on other things. It’s not like turning off the lights in the other room while you’re not there so you can conserve electricity.

      In fact, I’d say that it does the exact opposite, putting your body under unnecessary stress as your brain thinks that you’re starving and goes into survival mode, lowering the metabolism to conserve energy. That’s not my definition of rest.

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