Revamping your relationship with food is worth it—but it ain’t easy.
By Liz Yokubison
Three days without wine, sugar, or caffeine, and what did I have to show for it? A pounding headache. Despite (usually) hitting my five-a-day goal for fruits and veggies and only occasionally giving in to the temptation of chocolate chip cookies, I had decided to try a cleanse. The 14-day program would, supposedly, be a good way to clean up my diet, but with 11 caffeine-free and cookie-less days still looming, I seriously questioned this strategy—and my sanity.
Our bodies are built to cleanse: urinating, sweating, and even breathing are processes that scrub toxins from our cells and balance our chemical makeup. A dietary cleanse helps the process along. The program I’d chosen boiled down to a two-week elimination diet. I was cutting out processed and inflammation-inducing foods (dairy, sugar, gluten, alcohol, caffeine, and a long list of crave-inducing flavors) with a twofold agenda: to reduce my intake of toxins and to speed up the process of eliminating them. My nutritionist insisted that, if I adhered to the Spartan menu, my liver would more efficiently break down the poisons that had built up in my system and my colon would more effectively excrete them. The result: I’d have more energy, better circulation, and more regular bowels than if I had tried tabloid-touted cabbage-soup diet.
According to my nutritionist, Becca Brenner, PhD, nutritionist and owner of Park City Holistic Health in Park City, Utah, my cleanse was intended to balance my goals with a realistic plan. I wanted to feel better, jump-start a more wholesome diet, and make long-lasting changes to my lifestyle. I wasn’t trying to ditch my hard-earned health for the sake of fitting into a high-school reunion outfit. But with a growing migraine, my resolve and my motivations needed reinforcing. Would I really lose weight and end up with the glowing skin promised by a chorus of fad-cleanse pushers?
That’s what happened for Brooke McLay, a Colorado-based mother of four who’d lost 15 pounds in 10 days while on the Master Cleanse. Brooke says the lemon-juice-, cayenne-pepper-, and maple-syrup-fueled liquid fast she tried, one of the most widely known, “is definitely not for the faint of heart.” But she’d been tempted by a desire to shed a few pounds, commit to a plan, and break free of her self-professed sugar and carbohydrate addictions. Brooke’s cleanse helped her to make a few changes—she spent the next year as a vegan—but she eventually reverted to her old eating habits and gained back her unwanted weight.
Brooke’s experience is typical of extreme, unsustainable, and unhealthy cleanses. Her weight loss was a result of water loss, and her results were short lived. Brenner cautions against extremely low-calorie and fasting cleanses as a weight-loss strategy. “There is a difference between fasting and cleansing,” she says. “Fasting is just a crazy, quick fix.”
Instead, Brenner advocates whole-foods cleanses, like the program I chose, as the most effective for flushing body toxins, revamping metabolic efficiency, and jump-starting long-term lifestyle changes. A whole-foods cleanse eliminates packaged and processed foods along with wheat, dairy, red meat, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. These foods that “cause low levels of inflammation, which are linked to every major illness from cardiovascular disease to cancer,” Brenner says.
Audrey Sanders is a poster child for cleansing’s toxin-elimination potential. A breast cancer survivor from Lombard, Illinois, Audrey attributes her 21-year remission to the healthy diet she adopted after undergoing an alternative treatment—an aggressive 90-day cleanse—with the guidance of a naturopathic doctor. The lump on her breast disappeared, says the 53-year-old, whose diet consists only of raw, animal-product-free foods. “I felt 100 percent better and thought to myself, Whoa! Now this is something,” she says.
While Audrey’s case is anecdotal and her commitment extreme, her long-term lifestyle change is proof that my cleanse could be the tipping point to a new lifestyle. Right?
Yes, confirmed Adam Kelinson, nutritional consultant and author of The Athlete’s Plate (VeloPress, 2009), because I also had support. “So often, I get clients who come to me after trying a fad program or their first cleanse, and they are at a loss for what to do,” he explains. “They don’t know how to assimilate anything from the experience. Kelinson, who works primarily with athletes, believes cleansing is a way to detoxify but also to re-create and reestablish relationships with food. “It’s an educative process,” he says. “Creating a supportive environment is so important. We talk about where you come from, where you want to go, and how to get you there. We make changes for a sustainable lifestyle.”
Kelinson’s go-to cleansing method is more extreme than the whole-foods plan Brenner put me on, because, he theorizes, the body can’t go into cleansing mode while it’s processing whole foods. “The digestive system is still too active to allow the innate healing of the body to take over,” he says. A liquid menu that includes juices, along with herbal teas, broths, and even miso soup, provides sufficient caloric and nutritional value to maintain a normal level of activity, yet it frees up the digestive system to flush toxins and weans the body off processed foods.
Even though other professionals confirm his hypothesis, my lifestyle, goals, and role as a mom made me better suited to a whole-foods option than a raw-food or juice-fueled 14 days. But the bottom line that both Brenner and Kelinson hold is that all three options replace processed foods with nutrient- and fiber-dense alternatives. And all three are safer, healthier, easier to maintain, and easier to transition to and from than fad-type cleanses touted by dewy-skinned celebrities.
Despite my withdrawal-induced headache, I had a realistic program to follow, the guidance of an expert, and a shopping cart full of brown rice and leafy greens. What else could I expect in the days to come? Brenner calls them “die-off symptoms.” My Day 3 headache, dry mouth, and nausea were the result of sugar withdrawal and the starving yeasts and bacteria that I’d been unknowingly feeding with the processed sugars and additives that were part of my regular diet.
“It’s not a happy time—let me be honest,” admits Audrey, who still cleanses with the changing seasons, four times a year. “You may feel a little bloated if you are not used to eating greens, or you may notice skin irritation because the toxins in your body are escaping through your pores,” she says. “But to go through that and feel better on the other side—that is worth it.”
I could have made it easier on myself by avoiding the pre-cleanse caffeine and sugar splurge I’d done in the days leading up to my first day. “The cleaner you eat going into a cleanse, the more prepared your body will be,” Kelinson says, confirming what I’d already realized.
I felt the brighter side of my cleanse by Day 5, and after my fortnight of whole foods, I had a spring in my step and a new outlook on eating that has stuck with me for more than a year. “Cleansing is really a simple thing. Enjoying the process will help you be successful,” says Kelinson. “Even if you tried one just once in your life, you’d be doing yourself a lot of good.”