Recently, I walked into a new juice bar that opened on my street. The menu board claimed that some of the juice options could “cleanse” my body of “toxins.” I was curious about what this meant, so I asked the cashier. Far from providing answers, our conversation left me more intrigued. I decided to interview The Awakening Center’s Staff Nutritionist, Michel Harris, MS, RD, LDN, to learn more about the research behind these cleanse fads.
Let’s start with the basics. Michel explained that our bodies already have a built-in cleanse system: a bowel movement. Seriously! It’s not any more complicated than that. In other words, your body doesn’t need any extra help to detox. Other organs (like the liver) also sift out anything your body can’t use, and your bowel movement does the actual cleansing. So any company (or infomercial) that claims to eliminate the toxins that hide in your colon has no medical research supporting it. Michel emphasized that those claims are false.
Although your body doesn’t need any extra help to cleanse itself (you don’t need to train your body to have a bowel movement) some do experience constipation. Michel noted that moderately increasing fiber in a diet will support your body’s built-in process. There are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber—found in foods such as wheat bread, fruits, and vegetables—helps move food and waste through the digestive track. Soluble fiber—found in oatmeal, beans, and other foods—actually binds with cholesterol, and helps remove it from the body.
All the talk about “cleansing” suggests that eating any diet will leave behind something “bad” (or toxic). Recently, I spoke with someone who had completed a 14-day cleanse that involved eliminating a few food groups. I asked Michel if there are any possible nutritional benefits to this practice. Short answer? No! There are no benefits from removing a food group from your diet, even temporarily. All foods are OK, and our bodies require variety. Now some folks actually experience allergic reactions to certain foods. Or might display sensitivities. If you suspect that might be your situation, then consult with your physician and a nutritionist.
I asked Michel if there are any harmful side effects from completing one of these cleanses. She emphasized that even for those without a history of an eating disorder, eliminating food groups can increase the risk to developing one. Many experience temporary water weight loss from a cleanse, which can trigger additional ED behaviors for someone who might be vulnerable. And the individual who chooses to complete a cleanse is more likely to set up the body for a nutritional deficiency. Michel emphasized that eating a variety of foods from all the food groups is nutritionally valuable. For example, a person completing a cleanse might cut out dairy suddenly and leave them vulnerable to calcium deficiency. Ironically, following a “cleanse” diet may make it more difficult to stay healthy.
So let’s put the current cleanse fads (Whole 30, juicing, etc.) in perspective. These are simply dressed-up versions of old trends. Remember the grapefruit diet? Or the cabbage soup diet? These days we laugh at these fads—who in their right mind thinks eating just cabbage soup is sustainable? We should be just as critical and dismissive of current cleanse fads. Resist the temptation for an easy fix, educate yourself and others, and remember to trust your body. It knows how to take care of itself.
Lily is a graduate intern therapist at The Awakening Center, finishing her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health at Roosevelt University. In her free time, Lily enjoys reading poetry and playing the harp.