In recent years, cleansing diets have become increasingly popular as a way to detoxify the body, lose weight quickly, and improve overall health. Proponents of cleansing diets believe that eliminating certain foods and eating a very limited diet for a short period of time can rid the body of toxins and promote better digestive health. However, cleansing diets are controversial, with many health experts arguing they are unnecessary and possibly even unsafe. This article will examine what cleansing diets are, provide some examples, and discuss the potential benefits and risks.
What is a cleansing diet?
A cleansing diet is a type of short-term diet that involves strictly limiting food intake to certain raw fruits and vegetables, fruit and vegetable juices, water, herbal teas, and occasionally nuts, seeds, and sprouts. Cleansing diets are intended to give the digestive system a “break” while supplying nutrients and antioxidants to “cleanse” and “detox” the body. Most cleansing diets last from 3 days to a month.
There are many different types of cleansing diets, but some of the most popular include:
- Juice cleanses, which involve drinking between 4-6 servings of vegetable and fruit juices per day and eliminating all solid foods.
- The Master Cleanse, a liquid-only diet of lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and water.
- Detox cleanses, which eliminate processed foods, animal products, alcohol, caffeine, and sugar.
- The raw food diet, which consists of eating uncooked and unprocessed vegan foods.
- Herbal cleansing programs involving special teas, capsules, tonics, or juices made from herbs, roots, berries, and plants believed to have detoxifying properties.
Examples of popular cleansing diets
Here are some specific examples of popular cleansing diets and what a typical day on each might look like:
The Master Cleanse, sometimes called the Lemonade Diet, is a liquid fast that consists of 3-10 days consuming only:
- Fresh lemon or lime juice
- Maple syrup
- Cayenne pepper
A typical daily intake on the Master Cleanse looks like this:
|Morning||1-2 glasses of lemonade drink|
|Afternoon||1-2 glasses of lemonade drink|
|Evening||1-2 glasses of lemonade drink|
|Throughout day||Herbal laxative tea (optional)|
Juice cleanses involve consuming only fresh vegetable and fruit juices for 3 or more days. A day may look like:
|7am||16 oz green juice|
|10am||16 oz fruit juice|
|1pm||16 oz vegetable juice|
|4pm||16 oz green juice|
|7pm||16 oz fruit juice|
Raw food cleanse
A raw food cleanse involves eating only uncooked, unprocessed vegan foods. A sample daily menu may include:
|Breakfast||Fruit smoothie with almond milk, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and greens powder|
|Lunch||Massaged kale salad with tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, and zucchini noodles with almond ginger dressing|
|Dinner||Raw veggie tacos with walnut meat in romaine leaves with salsa|
|Snacks||Fresh or dried fruits, raw nuts/seeds, cut veggies|
Potential benefits of cleansing diets
Some of the claimed benefits of cleansing diets include:
- Rapid weight loss – Cleanses that involve severe calorie restriction can lead to quick loss of water weight and temporary slimming.
- Clearer skin – Eliminating processed foods, dairy, sugar, and other potential irritants may temporarily clear acne and skin.
- Increased energy – Juice and liquid cleanses provide nutrients without having to digest fiber, which some claim leads to feeling energized.
- Detoxification – Proponents believe cleanses remove toxins, pesticides, heavy metals and environmental pollutants stored in the body.
- Improved digestion – Periods of digestive rest and high fiber intake may relieve constipation and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Elimination of cravings – Cleanses require removal of caffeine, sugar, and processed foods that commonly trigger cravings and overeating.
However, there is limited scientific evidence showing cleansing diets actually produce these effects long-term.
Potential risks of cleansing diets
While the possible benefits sound appealing, cleansing diets can have some risks and downsides:
- Extreme hunger – Severely restricting calories leads to food cravings and frequent hunger.
- Nutrient deficiencies – Cleanses provide inadequate protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals needed for health.
- Dehydration – Frequent diarrhea and inadequate fluid intake on cleanses can lead to dehydration.
- Headaches – Low blood sugar, low blood pressure, caffeine withdrawal and dehydration on cleanses can trigger headaches.
- Fatigue and dizziness – Without adequate calories and nutrients for energy, people often feel tired, lightheaded or faint.
- Loss of muscle mass – The body will break down muscle for energy if it’s not getting enough calories from food intake.
There is also no evidence that detoxification occurs or that the body stores “toxins” that a liquid diet can eliminate.
Who should not do cleansing diets
The following people are advised to avoid or modify cleansing diets:
- Pregnant or nursing women. Nutritional needs are very high during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and extremely low calorie or liquid-only diets may harm the fetus or infant.
- Children or adolescents. These diets do not provide adequate nutrition for proper growth and development.
- Anyone with diabetes or blood sugar disorders. These conditions require careful dietary management not provided by cleanses.
- People with eating disorders. Cleansing diets may worsen disordered eating patterns.
- Individuals with kidney problems or kidney stones. Dehydration on cleanses may further damage kidneys. Oxalates in many juices may exacerbate kidney stones.
- Those with gastrointestinal issues like reflux or IBS. The liquid meals and dramatic dietary shifts on cleanses may aggravate digestive problems.
Anyone with an underlying chronic health condition, nutrient deficiencies, or who takes prescription medications should consult their healthcare provider before attempting cleansing diets, which can impact health and interfere with treatments.
Healthier alternatives to cleansing diets
For those drawn to cleansing diets for detoxification, weight loss, or as a “reset”, there are healthier, more sustainable ways to pursue these goals, including:
- Eat a diet emphasizing fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats like those in nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil.
- Minimize consumption of processed, fried and sugary foods and beverages.
- Stay well hydrated by drinking water throughout the day.
- Get regular exercise appropriate for your fitness level.
- Manage stress through relaxing activities like yoga, deep breathing, walking in nature, or meditation.
- Consider probiotic and prebiotic supplements to support digestive and immune health.
- Rotate potential irritant foods like dairy, eggs, gluten, corn, soy and nightshades periodically.
- Discuss concerning symptoms with your healthcare provider rather than attempting restrictive diets on your own.
The bottom line
Cleansing diets involve short-term severe dietary restriction intended to detoxify the body and promote weight loss. While their claimed benefits are appealing, there is minimal evidence that cleansing diets remove toxins or provide lasting health improvements. Such diets can also be nutritionally inadequate and potentially harmful for many people. More moderate, sustainable diet and lifestyle adjustments may provide similar benefits without the risks of restrictive cleansing regimens.