Are cleanse diets dangerous?

They may seem like a quick fix, but here’s why Dr. Susan Biali doesn’t recommend cleanse diets

Are cleanse diets dangerous?

Source: Best Health magazine, January/February 2013

Ah, cleanses. Celebrities swear by them, friends rave about them, and patients ask me if they are okay to try. The claims of these detox programs vary widely, promising everything from weight loss to improving your skin or detoxifying your liver. Here’s why I don’t recommend cleanses.

The ‘high’ from a cleanse is misleading

It would be great to undo years of poor food and drink choices by drinking lemonade for a week. There’s also something exciting and glamorous about following an extreme (or extremely expensive) cleanse that your favourite celebrity loves. Even the word ‘cleanse’ is part of the appeal. But such regimens don’t actually clean your body, and may starve you of nutrients instead.

People may talk about how good they feel during these cleanses. So they must be working, right? Not exactly. First, most are basically extreme low-calorie dieting. The Master Cleanse, famously used by Beyoncé to drop weight for the movie Dreamgirls, is a liquid fast of mainly lemonade made with maple syrup and cayenne pepper’essentially a starvation diet done for 10 days. 

During starvation, once the initial hunger pangs pass, people experience feelings of well-being and euphoria. This euphoria is like a natural anesthetic that protects from the pain of a starving body.

Also, most people eat multiple unhealthy foods as part of their daily diet. Sugar, fast food and pop give you a quick hit and then drag you down, so anyone who stops consuming such foods would naturally start to feel better. But your body needs real nutrients and whole foods in order to survive and thrive.

Any weight loss is short-lived

Cleansing to lose weight is essentially crash dieting. Of course you’ll lose weight if you consume very few or no calories, but this type of dieting can potentially put your health at risk. And remember, rapid weight loss rebounds quickly, so you’ll regain the weight as soon as you go back to normal eating.

Your body detoxes naturally

It’s designed to do that nicely on its own; your kidneys and liver are constantly filtering your bodily fluids, and any toxins and waste products are eliminated. Your body’s natural detox capacity can get overwhelmed in extreme or rare situations’for example, long-term exposure to toxins such as mercury. But in cases such as these you would need a doctor’s help, not a special smoothie.

Fasting may even damage organs like your kidneys and liver. If you are still intent on doing one, use extreme caution. A report in the 2003 Annals of Emergency Medicine documented a case of cardiac poisoning linked to a herbal ‘internal cleansing’ preparation. Whether it’s one you buy in a package or a homemade cleanse a certain celebrity has done, always check with your doctor first before you consider trying it. Or just do your own healthy detox, which is guaranteed to work without any scary consequences: Simply resolve to make great food choices. Stay away from processed foods, sugar and even alcohol as much as possible. Eat lots of healthy proteins, good fats, and fibre, fruit and vegetables. You’ll look and feel great, lose weight’and you don’t have to pay a cent for that advice.

This article was originally titled "The skinny on "cleanse diets” in the January/February 2013 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!