It is the New Year. Resolutions abound. We are inspired by the promise of a new beginning and the hope that this time, with the right combination of information, technology and willpower – we can change our destiny. With the memory, perhaps regret, of recent holiday excess fueling our decisions, we want to jump start our goals with something powerful. There are many cleanse diets to choose from – but is this a healthy, life affirming, invigorating practice or just another diet fad?
For centuries, periodic fasting has been part of many traditions; it is practiced today at Yom Kippur and Ramadan, even Passover can be imagined as the precursor to the first gluten-free diet. It has also been noted that children and animals will naturally stop eating when they are sick, and many parents will tell you that one of the first signs of illness in children is the lack of interest in food. Juliette de Bairacli Levy, who wrote many books on natural health for both children and animals, recommends a gentle fast (with broths and teas) as a first measure to treat any illness. There seems to be some intelligence in the body that naturally knows to withdraw from food as part of a process of restoring the body to health.
But what about fasting intentionally when you are not ill? Is the cleanse diet tapping into some natural wisdom for optimal health and energy? Does the liver need detoxing? Or is this just the diet trend of the moment?
There are a few warning signs in the hype surrounding various cleanses available. First of all, the signs or symptoms that one needs to detox could apply to almost anyone: fatigue, indigestion, headaches, feeling sluggish in the morning – who doesn’t feel these from time to time? Also, there are many cleanse programs from which to choose, some of which are extremely expensive. Does it really make sense to pay hundreds of dollars for a diet based on the idea of eating less? Most of the plans say to avoid processed food, but many of the cleansing supplements themselves are highly processed. They definitely violate rule #7 of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual: “avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.”
The science behind health claims made by cleanse diets has come under scrutiny. The word “detox,” short for detoxification, has traditionally been used to describe the process of drug withdrawal or recovery from poisoning – not the process the body goes through when fasting. There appears to be no scientific study that shows reduction in toxicity in the body after undergoing a dietary fast. Many doctors, including Frank Sacks, MD, of the Harvard School of Public Health, argue there is no medical evidence to suggest that the body needs help in ridding itself of toxins. According to most mainstream scientists, the liver does that all by itself.
The French have long been concerned with the health of their livers, and their diet has traditionally contained elements that are believed to support liver function. Dandelion, whose leaves make their way into French salads, has been shown to increase bile secretion and aid digestion. The chicory plant, varieties of which include radicchio and endive, and whose roots are roasted and ground into “chicory coffee,” has been shown in animal studies to protect against liver damage. It is also rich in inulin, which supports the growth of healthy intestinal bacteria that add to digestive as well as overall health. The European tradition of consuming bitter food at the beginning of a meal (think bitter greens in a salad, or a Campari aperitif) is believed to stimulate the secretion of bile which aids in digestion, perhaps helping the liver to handle all the wine and cheese to come. Do the supplements included in cleanse packages include herbs known to support liver health? Some. Is that better than eating them in a salad? Not necessarily.
One thing I have noticed in the discussion about the cleanse craze is a somewhat anorexic-bulimic approach combined with neo-puritanical language. These two ways of thinking often go together, as our culture is permeated with binge purge cycles that piggyback on an ambitious, competitive work ethic – an intense work week followed by a weekend of “excess.” It is easy to forget the influence of this country’s puritanical roots until you notice the language people (especially women) use when they talk about the desire to embark on a cleanse. Even the word itself – cleanse, or detox – suggests there is something dirty about us that needs to be purified, if not punished. The regret, and possibly self-loathing that lurks just below the surface of someone’s reasoning behind the need to “reset,” suggests that we are a long way from the French tradition of eating endive and then enjoying a glass of wine.
The range of programs that call themselves a cleanse or detox is vast. They can range from eating nothing but juice for weeks at a time to simply eating only food cooked at home. Obviously the experience and results of these plans will vary wildly. But almost all plans have certain rules in common: drink a lot of water and reduce or eliminate processed food, white sugar, white flour, alcohol, caffeine, and cigarettes. I’m convinced that anyone who underwent such a program, after the initial pain of withdrawal, would emerge feeling better, healthier and with more energetic. But I would approach it as a lifestyle adjustment rather than a purification of my body, and especially at this time of year I would choose foods and ideas that are nourishing. Eating mostly fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, throw in some yoga, fresh air and a massage or two – sounds lovely. But I would choose life affirming goals rather than punishing ones, and definitely stay away from anything that makes me feel bad about having enjoyed the holidays.