Flavour of the Week

The Skinny on Cleanses

flavour-of-the-week-logoIt’s that time of year – your weight has likely increased a few pounds over the holidays and you are feeling sluggish and bloated from all of those sugary and fat-laden treats. How do you get your healthy eating plan back on track?

For some people, doing a cleanse or detox sounds like a great idea – they promise to help you lose weight fast and clear your system of built-up “toxins.” But do cleanses and diet detoxes actually live up to these promises?

More than likely, they do not. Not only are most commercial cleanses and detoxes completely misleading in terms of over-stated benefits, they may even be dangerous, particularly as they become more restrictive (1,2). The biggest concerns lie with cleanses where caloric intake is extremely low – sometimes in the range of only 500 – 700 Calories per day! While most people will lose weight on these cleanses, it is usually short-lived and the weight flies back on as soon as you start eating actual food again.

Fact: The weight you lose is water weight, not fat, and could even be lean tissue like muscle. Very low-calorie diets that lead to extremely fast weight loss will not target fat stores like the ads suggest – you will deplete your glycogen stores first (and thereby lose “water weight”) and may potentially also sacrifice muscle mass given most cleanses and detoxes contain negligible protein. Not only does this weight loss give you artificial results, but your metabolism slows down, which hampers lasting weight loss.

Fiction: Cleanses do not remove “toxins” that would otherwise linger in your body – your system is actually pretty efficient at clearing out waste products. You have several organs and body systems devoted to just that: your colon, kidneys and liver rid the body of waste and undesirable substances every day.

Fact: Cleanses, particularly very low-calorie ones, may alter the tightly controlled pH of your gut and actually wipe out the healthy bacteria that reside there by depriving them of nutrients.

The bacteria in your colon (or microflora) obtain about 80% of their required nutrients directly from the food you eat – cleanses and detoxes can effectively starve these beneficial bacteria (in addition to starving you!). Without these microflora, your digestion and immunity can both be negatively impacted; that certainly is not advertised on the box!

Fiction: Depending on how strict your cleanse is, you may not feel as energized as promised. You can even feel worse! By running on very little fuel and a lack of essential micronutrients, cleanses may lead to fatigue, headaches and dizziness. In terms of maintaining motivation, this can be a huge problem – those potato chips look even better than usual when your blood sugar is low!

Fact: There is a very good chance that you *are not* getting your money’s worth with most commercial cleanses. Some cleanses are nothing but bottled fruit juice and a few multivitamin-mineral pills, yet have the audacity to charge several hundred dollars per week!

Of course, not all cleanses can be generalized into the dangerous category, but those that eliminate all solid food and provide too few nutrients do not lead to sustainable weight loss and can do more harm than good. Those that allow you to eat whatever you want while you take “all-natural” pills are no better – if you are on prescription medication, make sure to talk to your pharmacist about potential drug-herbal interactions.

If you want to kick-start your 2012 eating plan and are considering a cleanse, try our “clean eating” non-cleanse for 1 – 2 weeks:

1. Drink lots of fluids. While your liver and kidneys do a great job of eliminating waste products, why not help them along? You should aim for 2 – 3 L of calorie-free beverages each day.

We’re not talking diet soda though! While tea (especially antioxidant-rich green and rooibos tea) and coffee do contribute, there is no better hydrating fluid than water. If you are not a fan of plain ol’ water, try adding lemon, lime or cucumber. You can even try artificial sweetener- and preservative-free flavour packages.

2. Cut out alcohol. The hidden sabotager behind any weight loss plan, alcohol is higher in calories than protein or carbohydrates! In fact, one drink per day will cost you over 1,000 Calories per week. Aside from calories, alcohol also slows down your body’s ability to burn fat stores by as much as 30% and promotes the dreaded “spare tire.”

3. Limit or avoid caffeine. Calling all coffee junkies – not only can curbing your caffeine habit make you feel and sleep a whole lot better, it can help you lose weight. A fat-free 16 oz latte contains 120 Calories – doesn’t sound like much but this works out to 2,400 Calories per month if you have one each workday: that can amount to over half a pound of weight loss if you skip it.

Health Canada recommends no more than 450 mg of caffeine per day – the equivalent of about 4 cups (8 oz) of coffee. To avoid the headaches that come with caffeine-withdrawal, swap out a few cups of your typical coffee for some green tea and slowly wean yourself down.

4. Go processed-free. Even if you have great willpower, having snack/junk foods readily available in your house can make change difficult. Purge those cupboards and goodie drawers! If you want the full “cleanse” experience, try limiting anything that comes out of a box or package…

  • Have steel cut oatmeal instead of boxed cereal. Add berries, chia seeds, walnuts and a sprinkle of Vietnamese cinnamon.
  • Try whole grains like bulghur, quinoa and millet instead of the usual pasta and rice side dishes
  • Use leftover chicken breast or hard-boiled egg on a bed of spinach, red peppers and grated beets instead of a deli meat sandwich.
  • Snack on air-popped popcorn and raw veggies and fruit in place of other processed snacks like crackers

5. Load up on fibre. Not only does fibre keep your colon healthy and happy (and is often missing on cleanses and detoxes), fibre helps you feel full, prevent blood sugar spikes and improve cholesterol levels.

Most Canadians consume less than 50% of current fibre recommendations each day. Consume a variety of whole grains, beans/legumes, nuts/seeds, veggies and fruit to get the best of both worlds – soluble and insoluble fibre. Aim for at least 25 g per day.

Extras: Some people also choose to go vegetarian for a few weeks by eliminating meat, poultry and fish, but this is by no means necessary. Though adding more beans and legumes is not a bad idea, if you are thinking about going vegetarian, even short-term, there are certain nutrients of concern.

If you are thinking about eliminating gluten or dairy, just be aware that these foods provide important vitamins and minerals… and gluten-free junk food does exist! We don’t suggest trialling a gluten- or dairy-free diet without talking to a dietitian.


  1. Mullin GE. Popular diets prescribed by alternative practitioners-part 1. Nutr Clin Pract 2010;25:212-4.
  2. Mullin GE. Popular diets prescribed by alternative practitioners–part 2. Nutr Clin Pract 2010; 25:308-9.

One thought on “The Skinny on Cleanses

  1. What would Ben Goldacre say about this physiologically unsound piece of “wisdom” explaining how cleanses work?

    “I believe the safest way to detox is by doing a vegetable juice cleanse. The reason for detoxing is to improve your overall health. And what happens when you’re drinking all this green juice is your blood becomes oxygenated and toxins are pushed out.” from Refinery29 Detoxing Tips

    I’m sure his response would be hilarious!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s