Lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup: Part of a well-balanced breakfast.
By Shaza Elsheshtawy
Body cleansing and detoxification diets are sold as the ultimate way to rid the human body of all of the toxins they accumulate from high-sugar, highly processed 21st century diets; they clean bodies up and leave the dieter feeling physically, and sometimes mentally, rejuvenated.
Some body cleanses are extreme. Many require the dieter to undergo an intense fast or to consume only liquid for seven to ten days. A well-known detox regime, Master Cleanse, made popular by celebrities such as Beyoncé Knowles, puts the dieter on a lemonade-only 10-day fast made from freshly squeezed lemon juice, grade B maple syrup and cayenne pepper, drinking it a minimum of six to 12 times a day whenever they’re hungry. According to the Master Cleanse official website, “Every day of The Master Cleanse that you overcome the psychological need to eat, you feel a growing sense of control that motivates you to complete the process.”
Mallory Newbrough, a junior musical theater major at Ithaca College, has tried Master Cleanse three times. The first time, she did not complete the full cleanse because the grade B maple syrup and fresh organic lemons used in the drink were too expensive. She tried again during Spring break of her freshman year in college, making it through the full ten days – but it wasn’t easy. Even though she felt good once the ten days were up, Newbrough says it was an extremely demanding experience.
“It was a very strange ten days of my life,” she said. “When you don’t get to eat food, it just sucks. It’s definitely a mentally draining and emotionally rocky experience, but if you succeed and you feel stronger afterwards, then all the better.”
However, there are detox diets that are not as severe. Mary Bentley, associate professor in IC’s school of health sciences and human performance, did a cleanse for three weeks last summer with her brother that consisted of consuming all raw foods—mostly vegetables and fruit—cooked brown rice, lentils, protein shakes and nutritional supplements. They only eliminated meat, dairy, alcohol, coffee, excess sugar and processed foods from their diets. Bentley said the diet was not as bad as she originally thought; she was more tired than usual but felt the cleanse was mostly a good experience.
Bentley and Newbrough had positive cleanse experiences, so much so that both said they would do one again. But the issue (aside from an overactive bladder in the case of the Master Cleanse) is that scientists have called the legitimacy and necessity of these body-cleansing diets into question. Many scientists, doctors and nutritionists argue that the diets are a waste of time, money and actually have harmful side effects on the dieter’s health.
In an article from The Times U.K., the body cleansing industry is called fraudulent because there is no scientific evidence for claims that these diets actually ‘detoxify’ and that “the entire market for detox products, which is worth tens of millions of pounds a year, rests on myths about the human body that are hitting consumers in the wallet.”
On the Mayo Clinic’s website, a not-for-profit medical practice, it also states that body cleanses are not scientifically proven and the human body does a good job removing toxins on its own.
“Most ingested toxins are efficiently and effectively removed by the kidneys and liver and excreted in urine and stool.”
If the human body can do a more-than-sufficient job cleaning up after itself, then what do people like Bentley and Newbrough see in diet-altering body cleanses?
Newbrough said she struggled with addiction in the past and was at a point in her life where she had low energy and felt drained all the time. Master Cleanse was a way for her to restore her health and keep mentally at ease.
“My mind, when I did this cleanse,” she said, “was in a very busy place and I was able to focus on this one thing for that ten-day period, and that’s how I got through it… it was a strange sort of meditation.”
Bentley’s rationale for embarking on her cleanse had more to do with retracing her nutritional steps in order to keep her vices in check, to start anew diet-wise and maintain a high level of personal health.
“The cleanse was really more to push the ‘reset’ button a little bit… It wasn’t that much different than my [normal] diet except [the lack of] dairy and coffee and alcohol. Those three are my vices. It’s like keeping your vices in check.”
Despite claims by scientists that benefits associated with detox diets are scientifically unproven, both Newbrough and Bentley said they felt good, if not better, after completing their cleanses. An explanation could be they felt better only because they thought they were supposed to: in other words, they could have experienced a placebo effect.
According to Newbrough, that sense of inner well-being and health is not entirely based on a placebo effect. She thinks a placebo effect could be involved, but because the cleanses, especially Master Cleanse, are so mentally and physically trying, she said there is no way someone undergoing the diet would feel great and healthy just because they believe they will.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s all placebo at all because a lot of this process sucks,” she said. “There are days that just blow. They’re so slow, you’re hungry, you don’t want to do anything, you feel gross, you feel mentally drained, physically exhausted and your body is just releasing all these toxins… and it’s gross.”
Assistant professor in Ithaca College’s school of health sciences and human performance, Julia Lapp, who specializes in clinical and public health nutrition, says a placebo effect could be taking place here–but that’s not all. She stresses that a lot of these detox diets cut caffeine, alcohol and processed foods out of a diet and increase the dieter’s intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
“My guess,” she pointed out, “if you’re feeling better it’s because you’re eating more nutritious foods and probably has nothing to do with the supplement.”
An article published by the University of Southern California in Healthcare Mergers, Acquisition & Ventures Week says that simplifying a bad diet down to something healthier is probably the main “feel-better” culprit. The article says, “Dieters’ claims of beneficial results—reduced bloating, clearer skin, decreased headaches, for example—were achieved not by detoxifying but by eating less food, improving hydration and reducing or eliminating the intake of caffeine or alcohol.”
Bentley also pointed out that if she were to do her body cleanse again she would eliminate the supplements; she did not notice them doing anything the elimination of coffee and alcohol and increase in raw foods and liquid in her diet were not doing already.
Deciding to detox, however, does not have to be so black and white. There is a more natural way to cleanse—one that most of us were born with—that requires no conscious effort on our part. It’s called stage one and two detoxification, made possible with help from the liver and kidneys.
Professor Lapp says the human body can certainly clean itself up. Through these two stages of detoxification, the liver excretes enzymes that break down toxins from drugs and alcohol—along with regulating blood sugar levels—which the kidneys collect and prepare for excretion in urine or stool.
Leaving it up to the human body to clean itself up does work. However, Bentley cautions that if someone is still thinking about undergoing a cleanse, they should consider their current dietary habits first, because jumping straight into one might cause more harm than good.
“I would recommend it to someone who has a fairly good lifestyle already,” she said. “But for [someone] who eats the typical American diet to go all of a sudden one day to a raw food diet I think would be very hard.”
Newbrough also suggests that the dieter conduct research about their chosen cleanse because dieters have to understand what is happening to their body. She stressed that her research on Master Cleanse prepared her mentally for those long ten days.
Whether you want to undergo a Master Cleanse or a raw-food-plant-supplement-based cleanse, research is key. But the extremity of detox diets might mean they’re not for everyone. Keeping our bodies ‘clean’ comes naturally—and there’s certainly no placebo effect in keeping it natural.
Shaza Elsheshtawy is sophomore Journalism & Politics double major who plans on trying the Beyoncé Knowles lemon detox over fall break. E-mail her at [email protected]