What the Heck Is a Cleansing Diet?

Cleansing diets are all the rage. Dr. Oz has been shamelessly promoting the “Oz 3-Day Detox Cleanse” for years, unfettered by any burden of evidence for a benefit that outweighs any risks. Defending Oz’s use of hyperbolic language — like “miracle in a bottle” — a spokesman says:

Our audience are not scientists, and the show needs to be more lively than a dry scientific discussion.

We’re not über scientists, but we do understand the language of consumer promotion. And all this language of cleansing and detoxification is a bogus promise of redemption from unhealthy habits. It taps into guilt, and in some people, susceptibility to an eating disorder.

With the recent, sudden, and unexplained death of British model Peaches Geldof last week, more attention is turning to the hazards of extreme dieting in the form of juice cleanses. Geldof’s cause of death is so far undetermined. In 2011, she told a UK celebrity magazine:

I have no willpower, but with the juicing I’m like: “I have to do it because I have to lose this extra 10 pounds.” I’ll lose it, and then I’m back going mental for the chips. I juice, and then I eat chips.

Such a restrictive diet for more than a few days can create imbalances in essential nutrients and electrolytes and create the risk of refeeding syndrome and death when a normal diet is suddenly resumed. Super-thin individuals who turn juicing into an eating disorder have sparked the term “juicerexia” to describe this phenomenon. Weight management expert Judith Wurtman asked recently:

Will substituting lemon juice and pepper for meals lead not to a “purified” body but rather one that in the future is so frail, it must reside in a wheelchair?

Many doctors will tolerate cleansing or detox diets, offering caution that they are only harmless when followed for a short time. Others, like Oz, exploit them and then express shock when the danger of an eating disorder crops up. Meanwhile every healthy food or recipe is casually labeled as having “cleansing” or “detox” properties because it seems trendy.

All of this is nonsense. None of these foods or diets are backed by any evidence that they do anything to cleanse toxins from the body. Soap and water are good for cleaning the outside of your body. Your liver and kidneys remove any toxins within. An extreme cleansing diet offers little potential for benefit and if taken to an extreme, can harm those organs that really do have a detox function for your body.

Good wholesome food is just that. It’s not cleansing or detoxifying. The best strategy for good health is a sustainable diet of good, wholesome food in moderation that you’ll enjoy for a lifetime.

Click here to read more from Women’s Health, here to read more from the Huffington Post, here to read more from CBC and here to read more from ConscienHealth.

Wash, photograph © Andreas Levers / flickr

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6 Responses to “What the Heck Is a Cleansing Diet?”

  1. April 19, 2014 at 1:14 pm, Rose Aspalter said:

    I always wonder, why this cleansing-and-detox-hypthosis are so popular! A very simple answer (maybe too simple?) is: People feel guilty, because they eat too much.
    We have to help them in other, healthier ways, to overcome this feelings!
    Thank You so much!

    • April 19, 2014 at 8:42 pm, Ted said:

      I agree with you, Rose.

  2. May 02, 2014 at 8:04 am, Ross James said:

    If detoxing or cleansing is not a good solution, what would be some healthy ways to “reset” or “reinvigorate” your body after making unwise eating choices, especially around the holiday season. I know the answer is to prevent the problem but for those people that do not how can they can back on track?

    Are there certain types of foods to intake or avoid over a brief period of time (3-5) days that will help restore the body and promote healing?

    • May 02, 2014 at 10:31 am, Ted said:

      I’ll invite a wise dietitian to comment. My own strategy for myself is to return to good, healthful foods that I enjoy and attend to other ways of taking care of myself. Adequate sleep and getting out for a walk, hike, or a bike ride would be at the top of my list. If I eat something dumb, I try to simply move on without getting stuck on it. Your body does a good job all by itself of clearing out anything you don’t need. All you have to do is feed it, exercise it, and give it enough rest.

  3. May 02, 2014 at 12:04 pm, Pat Baird, MA, RDN, FAND said:

    Thank you for the compliment, Ted! Ross, you are completely correct than we need to help people overcome their feelings when it comes to weight loss.

    Juicing has been shown to have more negative than positive effects. There is no long-term research to support juicing is effective OR healthy. What science DOES show us is what Ted concisely outlined.

    We have a large body of evidence to support that combining several lifestyle changes lead to successful and healthy weight loss. Smaller portions, including snacks, increasing activity (get a pedometer and walk more!) — and getting 7-9 hours of sleep are good starting points. Sleep is a health essential that’s often overlooked — and is proven to have more health benefits than juicing!

    • May 02, 2014 at 12:35 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Pat. And thanks, Ross, for raising the question.