From time to time I get asked about cleanses. What is typically meant by a “cleanse” is only drinking a juice concoction for several days. Some cleanses add things like cider vinegar, cayenne pepper, or other supposedly “healthy” substances.

The most common reasons to “cleanse” that I hear from people who drink these things include:

  • Lose weight
  • Feel better
  • Remove “toxins”

Let’s start with weight loss. Cleanses are very low calorie and don’t contain protein in any substantive amount. Consuming far fewer than 1,000 calories a day of juice is not a recommended weight loss strategy. At all. Cleanses typically put you in the starvation range of calorie intake and there is a mountain of evidence based medicine to show that this is not an effective part of any sound eating strategy. There are some medically supervised liquid weight loss programs that are very low calorie (in the 700-800 range), but the liquid is true meal replacement meaning it has a balanced nutritional complement. I have heard some weight loss experts suggest these types of programs can be helpful for people who are experiencing severe obesity-related complications and need to start getting weight off as fast and as safely as possible.

Will I feel better? Well, that’s a hard one to quantify given the placebo effect. If you think you are going to feel better, you probably will. Positive thought has a positive impact. Some people report feeling incredible on a cleanse, even euphoric. An excellent quote on this comes from Marjorie Nolan (by way of the Boston Globe, and read the whole article);

The euphoria and mental clarity that many juice fasters report on the third day of the fast isn’t about good health, Cohn says, but a result of simple starvation. “At some point your body shuts down that feeling on immediate hunger, you become lightheaded and dizzy, and that euphoric feeling starts to come on,’ she says. “I work with a lot of anorexics, and they feel euphoria too.”

Will a cleanse remove toxins? First of all, what is meant by toxins? Remember, “toxins” is not a medical word and using quasi medical speak is a classic strategy of snake oil salespeople. Do you mean urea? Biliverdin? Carbon dioxide? These are normal in our blood, yet dangerous in high amount if the kidneys, liver, lungs, or circulatory system are not in good working order. Technically, blood isn’t “cleaned” in the way we clean a counter top. The liver, kidneys, and lungs remove waste products by specific mechanisms and the waste chemicals exits our body through the appropriate chute (bowel, bladder, or respiratory tract). The system is well-designed to use what we need and dump the rest. When people develop renal failure, liver failure, or heart failure harmful substances can easily accumulate, but this is not fixed by cleanses. If cleanses truly removed anything that was potentially harmful we’d be using them instead of dialysis for kidney failure and no one would ever need a liver transplant. Want your liver, kidneys, and lungs to remove waste more efficiently? Exercise, because increased blood flow and a healthy heart and blood vessels are the cornerstone of organ health.

A cleanse is about as healthy as a pedicure, meaning it isn’t. At all. Pedicures have health risks. Ask anyone who has ever worked on a plastic surgery ward. They can lead to devastating infections, because the foot is a a terrible place to get an infection. I know this fact, yet I still get pedicures, because I like painted toe nails and the foot massage is nice. I chose a salon that sterilizes equipment, but I accept there are still risks and I’m not kidding myself that getting a pedicure is anything but a cosmetic procedure. A pedicure doesn’t make me healthy, only pretty (in my mind anyway) and gives me a feeling of being pampered.

So if a cleanse makes you feel pretty or pampered, then great. Have at it. Just understand that it is not healthy in any way based on our understanding of anatomy, biology, or physiology and the only thing that a cleanse is truly cleaning is your wallet. At least with a pedicure you actually get clean feet.


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  1. Excellent post. I used to be checking continuously this weblog
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  2. Hi Doctor, you know what, out of all the juicing blogs that I’ve came across talked about how it can help in weight loss. You are the only one that goes against it and I support what you said simply because I tried this method before, and I did not lose any weight at all.

  3. This entire concept just takes prey of the average person who is unwilling to put forth any real effort in living a healthy lifestyle?

  4. 9 out of 10 of the blogs that talk about cleanses seem to be trying to sell some sort of cleansing product. It is nice to find someone that will stand up and offer an objective view on the subject. Some sites claim losing 10 pounds in a few days. I wonder how long it takes to put that weight back on.

  5. Dear Kimberly, if you think Dr Jen is off the mark, I have some magic organic garlic I grew in my back yard which I’d be happy to sell you for the bargain price of $60/kg. And if you feel like it scrubbed your livers of ‘environmental toxins,’ I’ll gladly take $100/kg.

  6. Some important distinctions between a cleanse and a pedicure: people are substantially less annoying to be around while getting a pedicure. I would actually be more interested in hearing about how things are going with your pedicure than your juice cleanse. Something about the mix of hungry and self-righteous…

    Also, there’s something about it being socially acceptable to market short term disordered eating programs that I find profoundly conclusion, YES. 100% agree with you, thank you.

    1. “there’s something about it being socially acceptable to market short term disordered eating programs that I find profoundly conclusion”

      Oh, yes, THIS!!

      My community is largely on one sick diet, food challenge, or cleanse. There are very few of us who are not buying into this trend in our somewhat shallow and insulated community, and it bothers me greatly as I watch the community at large develop a collective eating disorder. The fervor and phenomenon here are worthy of a few different studies, from the psychologist to the sociologists, and other professionals in between. And what this is teaching our children about food and weight and healthy living??? I shudder…

  7. Thanks for the truth! That’s what I’m searching for about diet as well, in light of floods of conflicting information. Intuition and experience assures me that lots of vegetables and fruits are good. But what about dairy, wheat, corn, meat, protein ratio, etc.?

  8. Hi! Girl without a medical degree chiming in. While I agree with a lot of your points, I feel like you have may have glossed over the topic to some degree. It is true that many people use the word “toxin” when they mean “toxics” or “environmental toxins” but I’m not sure it makes them less real. Taking a break from foods that are highly processed or contain pesticides, mercury, hormone residues, and phthalates hardly seems like a choice void of ALL benefits especially since the effects of these substances are still being studied.

    Also, all cleanses are not created equal. Do you really feel that drinking pesticide-free fruit and veggie juices for a few days will do nothing for a person besides possibly have a placebo effect? I am of the mind that the inclusion of a greater amount of cruciferous vegetables, anti-oxidants and vitamins via a food source (even if it comes from a juicer) would be a step up from what most Americans eat and that generally most people I know are eating too much protein. I realize the key is to continue eating good foods when the cleanse is complete and not returning to poor eating habits. Thoughts?

    1. Kimberly, I feel like you’re missing the point, If you’re starving yourself, organic fruit juice is better than McDonald’s, but you’re still starving yourself. And drinking organic juice for three days isn’t going to do much for you if you go back to eating giant steaks and fast food when you’re done. Learning how to cook and eat a healthy diet over the long term is very difficult and requires much more effort than just a few days of juicing fruit. Quick fixes don’t exist, and pretending they do does more harm than good.

    2. It’s very clear that you don’t have a medical degree or for that matter any scientific knowledge. When you can provide proper evidence to support your snake-oil claims, I will take you seriously. Perhaps you would like to define your understanding of “toxics” (as opposed to toxins?) If your normal diet contains pesticides, mercury, hormone residues and pthalates I would suggest that a few days of eating your very expensive organic products is not going to make any difference and that you should look to amend your normal diet, not to line someone else’s pockets to buy their snake oil..

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