- Illustration By David Holub
I'm a skeptic in most areas, but perhaps especially when it comes to detoxification cleanses, in which people purposely go for varying periods of time without solid foods. Instead, they drink juice or other potions, usually in an effort to detoxify. Meaning: a process by which a renegade ragtag of toxins, uh, get expelled from your system. Or something like that.
Being married to a doctor of clinical nutrition only fuels my skepticism, as I am often privy to her passionate critiques of food fads. As the clinical nutrition manager at the University of Vermont Medical Center, my wife, Stephanie Gall, is on top of every diet trend and topic.
Still, I'd been curious; after seeing many a friend emerge from cleanses claiming to feel super-energized, I thought, Why not try one? And so I, a man rocking a decades-long streak of not missing a meal, entered a three-day juice cleanse wherein six bottles of juice would be my calorie count for the day. Meanwhile, Stephanie would stand by, gathering ammunition, er, data to discuss post-cleanse.
For my detox, I went the convenient route, ordering a kit online complete with 18 bottles of juice and a ginger shot to start each day. Each bottle contained a multi-juice cocktail, some heavy on citrus, others on beet, kale and apple. I say "juice" though they were about 80 percent water.
Despite somehow being the highest-rated juice cleanse on Amazon, the program shall not be named, because its bottles and printed materials were riddled with spelling errors and other inaccuracies. (Though their "lemom" juice was wondrous.)
After a day of pre-cleansing — no alcohol, processed foods or animal products — I awoke the next morning and, by 8 a.m., had consumed a cup of warm lemon water, 1.5 cups of black coffee, a 1.5-ounce ginger shot and my first 16-ounce juice.
At 8:15, I urinated for six and a half hours. By 9:30, I felt groggy and tired, and at 9:51 my stomach bellowed its first major growl.
Later, during a phone call with my brother, I gave an extended, delirious treatise on Doritos. At 12:32 p.m., after I told a friend about my cleanse, she texted, "You're going to shit your pants." At 2:21, Stephanie texted, asking if my urine was red. Red? What the holy hell? Not to worry, she assured. Sometimes beets can, you know, tint things.
By midafternoon, my hunger was consuming me like I normally consume cheese. I spent the rest of the day thinking about food, muttering about food, writing mental love letters to food, and feeling the lack of food in every cell of my body. At one point, I thought about the taste and viscosity of egg yolks for an embarrassing number of minutes.
Topping off Day 1, I awoke around midnight apparently having broken a fever: My side of the bed looked like it had been dunked in a river.
I awoke on Day 2 feeling fluish. Perhaps it was the toxins being ushered from my system or, as some websites purport, a die-off of bacteria starved of the normal junk with which I assault my body. Detoxification, I reasoned, is war.
There's just one problem with this theory. As Stephanie later told me: Detoxifying isn't even a thing. This process of building up toxins and flushing them out, as is widely pitched in the cleanse world, isn't real.
"A common theme of a lot of cleanses or fasts is to detoxify something, and that's really a misconception, that we need to detoxify our body in any way," she said. Gulp.
As my juice-cleanse company states on its product description: "Every molecule of food that is absorbed through the intestinal wall ... moves into the liver for detoxification and preparation before being allowed to enter the rest of the body." OK so far, but it continues: "Problem is, there are too many toxins for our liver to handle, so many end up passing through and wrecking [sic] havoc on our cells," a claim Stephanie likened to the excrement of a male cow.
Our bodies already have ways to deal with things that aren't good for us, she said. "So, in general, the principle of a cleanse for the purpose of detoxification is not achieving that goal, because your body doesn't need to have that as a goal."
Even the simple notion of a "toxin" is nebulous, apparently.
"What is a toxin?" Stephanie wondered aloud. "Is it a free radical? Is it undigested food? Is it gluten? A toxin can be so many different things. It's not defined by any of these cleanses. You're just under the assumption that there's some kind of toxin in me and I gotta get it out."
Sure, our bodies accumulate free radicals from environmental exposure to things such as the sun, smoking, chemicals and alcohol. But we rid ourselves of them naturally through a balanced diet that includes essential vitamins and minerals, according to my in-house expert.
Most people, especially those hawking juice cleanses, can't always agree on what a toxin is or define it in a specific sense.
"It's like the term 'superfood,'" Stephanie said. "It's just a buzzword that's out there. It can be bent to whatever you want it to be. [Cleanse] products, like many supplements, are not tested by the FDA for their potency, their claims. It's using buzzwords to get people to buy it."
By midmorning on Day 2, I felt like I'd been cleansing for two weeks. More juice, more urination — I had numero uno'ed 49 times in the 45 waking hours of my cleanse. All the while, not a minute passed when I didn't feel hungry. But being hungry wasn't horrible. The worst part was knowing that I'd be starving in a few hours and still be unable to eat solid food. And when I went to bed hungry — one ferocious stomach growl actually wakened Stephanie — knowing that there would be little sustenance for breakfast was crushing.
By Day 3, a realization began to form: What I missed most wasn't really food or even eating and feeling satiated; I missed even more the activity and culture of food. As the cook in the family, I love planning for dinner, figuring out whether we have sufficient ingredients or whether I'll improvise something imaginative. I love cooking for others, especially Stephanie. I love the dual mental spaces you can occupy while cooking, in which your mind is able to wade into deep, meditative thought. I love conversations over food. The loss of these activities was palpable.
This discovery, Stephanie agreed, is a healthy reason to do a cleanse: reconsidering food and gaining motivation to improve your diet.
"It's a good way of clearing your mind out and just looking at food in a different way, and your relationship to food, and then saying, Here's where I need to change," she advised.
In fact, if I were to cleanse again, I would forgo the bottled juices in lieu of making my own, retaining some of the elements of food preparation that I missed. For that reason, and because the juices I had ordered were raw and unpasteurized, which can invite food-borne illness, Stephanie recommended a homemade approach, too.
"It's cheaper, you have more control over the ingredients, and you can make sure they're washed first," she said. "You could make all [the juices] yourself and have better control over the taste, the flavor, the quality, what goes in it."
Another healthy, science-based reason to do a short cleanse? A jumpstart on weight loss. By the end of my cleanse I'd dropped eight pounds, though I gained a few back in the following days.
"If that's a good motivation — to jumpstart a weight-loss routine or just better, healthy eating with a focus on fruits and veggies and proteins," Stephanie said, "then [a cleanse] is probably a good decision."
Beyond dropping some pounds, I didn't experience any other physiological changes, unless you count post-cleanse bloating and volcanic gurgles of my innards. I was not energized; I was not focused; I was not brimming with anything. I simply felt like I hadn't eaten in three days.
Even if many purported health benefits of detoxifying aren't real, I don't doubt that people can feel better after doing one. I realize that my experience, even coupled with Stephanie's evidence-based expertise, likely won't change someone dead set on their detoxification beliefs.
"Food is hard. People don't want to be talked out of their food philosophies or the stuff they believe," she said. "It's my job to try to ask the questions that get them thinking about it. Why do you believe that? Who told you that?
"People are really into, and have their minds made up [about] what benefits their diet brings them, whether that diet is a cleanse or vegetarian," she went on, "or the diet is high-fat, the ketogenic diet. My goal is to provide education at every opportunity I have and not to tell people what they're doing is wrong, even though I may think that."
My thought? There is plenty to be gained from a cleanse without needing to believe in the pseudoscience of detoxification. I was motivated to be more mindful about food and lost a few pounds to boot. That was good enough for me.