All You Need to Know About Cleanse Diets
'Tis the season... for cleanses. That's right; now that the holidays are over and everybody is repenting from all of the treats in which they've indulged, "cleansing" has again become immensely popular.
Have you heard of cleanses? The basic idea behind a "cleanse" is that our bodies have been exposed to many toxins (either environmental or in what we eat) and so we need to cleanse our organs or our colons. I see these fad diets in the news, on social media, and sometimes I'm even asked about them.
Cleanse diets run the gamut of crazy-and-dangerous to healthy-and-worth-your-time. It's (clearly) important to distinguish one from the other.
A Brief Explanation of Relevant Human Physiology
The idea that a "cleanse" is necessary to rid your body of toxins stems from a misunderstanding of our human physiology. In order to better understand how to determine a good cleanse from a bad cleanse, let me introduce you to a few of the organs that continually detoxify your body.
Kidneys: These cute kidney-bean-shaped organs (yes, that's where the bean gets its name) are located in the lower part of your back. Although small, they are super-duper important. Among other things (like converting vitamin D to its active form and maintaining your body's sodium/potassium and acid/base balance), the kidneys filter some medications and toxins from your blood and excrete them into your urine. This is normal, natural, and beautiful - nothing to be fearful of.
Liver: Oh, what a mighty organ! The liver is unbelievably important. It's also a badass. It can withstand a lot of abuse and even regenerate if part of it is surgically removed. While most famous for metabolizing alcohol and drugs (including medications), the liver has a lot of jobs. The liver also converts nutrients to usable forms (like creating glucose out of fructose for energy), makes cholesterol (which sounds bad, but is actually a vital part of cell walls), and stores nutrients (including vitamin A and some sugar, for example).
The Digestive System: Instead of filtering out toxins, the digestive system protects you by never absorbing these toxins into your body in the first place. The thing you need to know is that the digestive system is not a simple tube. It's actually tens of thousands of cells all working together to move food, digest food, and absorb nutrients. It's a really intricate, beautiful process. That being said, it's important to know that (unlike the drainpipe in your shower), your gut doesn't ever need to be cleaned out (except, perhaps, before a colonoscopy). Rather, to keep your gut healthy, you should focus on two things: #1: Keep your cells healthy and #2: Keep your microbiome (the bacteria that live in your gut) healthy.
The important thing to note about these organs is that they each have a specific function. In the case of the liver and the kidney, these organs are meant to detoxify your body. In the case of the digestive system, unabsorbed toxins are already naturally excreted in the feces.
I'm not suggesting that you increase your consumption of toxins (you definitely can poison yourself doing this - please don't try at home). However, if your body is to the point of toxicity that your organs are unable to detoxify your body, you'll likely be in the hospital. In the case of the kidneys, this would mean dialysis. In the case of the liver, this would mean taking certain medications and praying for a liver transplant.
Cleanses to Avoid Like the Plague
Are you getting the idea that most "cleanse" diets aren't necessary? Cleanses range from dangerous for your health all the way to expensive placebo effects. Let me give you a guide to choosing (or not choosing) the "cleanse" for you:
Avoid cleanses that sound crazy.
No, really. If somebody tells you to drink lemonade, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup alone for a week, please walk away.
These cleanses are often the most dangerous type of "cleanse" - instead of "cleansing" your body of (imagined) toxins, you're actually at risk for dehydration, alterations in your blood sodium/potassium levels, and possible heart palpitations.
Doing extreme dieting for one week probably won't kill you, but the more frequently you indulge in extremely low calorie diets (especially those that don't contain adequate protein), the more muscle mass you will lose, ultimately altering your metabolism and making it difficult to lose weight (healthfully) in the future.
Just say "no" to crazy cleanse diets, kids.
Avoid juice cleanses.
There, I said it. I'm really not a fan of juicing.
As you know, fruits and veggies have a ton of awesome properties, so they're way better than any supplement you could take. The logic of juicing, then, is that pulverizing your fruits and veggies into a drinkable form will give you a concentrated source of all this good stuff.
Here's the thing though - the process of juicing is the process of removing the fiber from your fruits and veggies. Why would you want to do that?? Here are some of the great things fiber does for you:
Makes you feel full after eating
Prevents a huge spike in blood sugar levels
Feeds your healthy gut bacteria
Provides bulk to the stool to make it easier to poo
Slows down how fast you eat (so you usually end up eating less without missing out)
So instead of following Dr. Oz's weekend cleanse and making all that juice, just eat the fruits and vegetables.
Avoid cleanses in which you have to buy a bunch of supplements.
These are right up there with the "crazy" diets in terms of how dangerous they can be. Most "cleanse" supplements are actually packed with laxatives with the idea that dumping the contents of your guts is healthy. (It's not healthy; it's an eating disorder. But that's another subject for another day.)
Beware of dangerous supplements with laxative effects (including natural ingredients like black walnut), as they can cause dehydration and alter your electrolyte status.
Beware of expensive vitamin supplements because you'll spend a lot of money, then waste a lot of money peeing out all the extra water-soluble vitamins in your urine (because your kidneys detoxify your body even of too many vitamins).
Before starting any supplement, I highly recommend that you talk to your doctor or dietitian (and bring the ingredient list with you) before starting it.
With the exception of certain health conditions (like osteoporosis or Cystic Fibrosis), you really should be able to get all the nutrition you need from your diet. If you're not, you probably need to change your diet.
How I "Cleanse" After the Holidays
Now that I've sufficiently demeaned "cleanse" diets, I have to be honest - they're not all bad. In fact, after a weekend of unhealthy eating, I feel better much more quickly by eliminating a few foods that I just don't need and focusing more on the good stuff.
Here's how I cleanse:
Get rid of the junk
The sugary apple cider, the high-sat-fat fudge, the greasy-delicious party mix, the more-sugar-than-white-flour cookies. In addition to getting rid of these, I also don't eat out (or am very careful about my choices). By avoiding these foods, I'm "cleansing" from unnecessary sugar, preservatives, additives, salt, and unhealthy fat - because it's just not good for my body. I'm also resetting my taste buds to get used to eating good stuff again.
Eat real food
Fruits! Veggies! LENTILS! (Lentils are my fave "cleanse" food - talk about a natural way to cleanse your colon...) Low-fat yogurt! Avocados! Olive oil! Brown rice! I don't stress about exactly what I'm eating or how much or when. I listen to my body's hunger cues, I stock up on all the good stuff (and none of the bad) at the grocery store, and lean into eating the healthy stuff I love.
Cleanse my soul
From stress, from worry, from everyday tasks that get in the way of my inner peace. There's always lots of noise over the holidays. A lot of it is such beautiful, joyful noise - it is cleansing in and of itself. But my soul misses the quiet. So I do something to cleanse my soul as well as my body. Go for a run. Drive in silence and meditate. Read a book. Pray. Whatever it is for you, take time to do it.
I hope you and yours enjoyed the beautiful, crazy joy of the holidays. And now may your body and soul return to health and have an amazing new year.
With love, from Peas and Hoppiness.