Saturday, May 02, 2009

Debunking the "Master Cleanse" Myth

When a dear friend wrote and told me that she's consuming nothing but distilled water, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper under the misguided assumption that she would be "detoxifying" her body, I was concerned. And when she told me that she's planning on doing this for a full forty days, I was horrified. Following is the letter I sent her in response. I share it here in the hope that it will prevent others from following the nutritional counsel of others who are ill-informed about human health and nutrition, yet very willing to make a quick buck selling books, gadgets, pills, potions, or other ineffective and often dangerous "quick fixes" to unsuspecting health seekers.

Dear One:

I hope you will read the following in the spirit in which it was sent: With total love and heartfelt concern for your well-being and a sincere desire for your most vibrant health.

It's not all good. I am very familiar with the "Master Cleanse," and it scares the crap out of me that you would do this for 40 days. You are in "ill health" (overweight) due to years of engaging in poor lifestyle habits, and you have been convinced that starving your body of nutrients (NO, the Master Cleanse "diet" is NOT nutritionally complete), for 40 days will solve your problem. This is simply not the case. It is far more likely that doing this for such a prolonged period will only create other health problems.

Since you seem to be inspired by what celebrities do, think about this: If I wrote a book in which I said that drinking your own urine was the key to vibrant health and weight loss, would you do it? If I told you in this book that you'd be regaining lots of lost nutrients by drinking your own urine, would you do it? If you read that Beyonce or Gwyneth Paltrow or some other celebrity was drinking her own urine to lose weight for a movie role, would you do it? I hope you wouldn't, but there are people who start each day with a nice tall glass of their own urine.

Here are some points I'd like you to consider:

1. You lost 5 pounds in 4 days, which is not surprising, because most of it is water weight. Unless you are extremely obese, the most fat you can safely lose on average, is 2 lbs/week. At best, what you are on now is a calorie-restricted diet. At worst, you are starving yourself of vital nutrients. Lemons, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and water, do NOT contain all of the essential nutrients your body needs. You'd be much better off eating a low-fat, low-calorie (1,200 calorie) diet, consisting of ripe, raw, organic whole fruits and vegetables, rather than starving yourself.

2. The "cleanse" does not "detoxify" your body. Your body "detoxifies" itself. The body is an amazing organism that has the ability to heal itself of chronic dis-ease, given the opportunity to do so. The quickest way to achieve this is with TOTAL and COMPLETE rest. A water-only fast, which requires you to be in a completely restful environment (extremely limited activity, zero stress, low stimulation), and absolutely requires medical supervision is the speediest route. (Your body's vital signs must be carefully and continually monitored.) The second fastest way to do this is by adopting the purest, simplest diet possible, so that your body is not spending enormous energy resources performing the bodily function of digestion. (The way most Americans eat, this is what their bodies are spending most of their energy doing: Trying to digest the unhealthful overabundance of junk that is constantly assaulting them.) So short of a doctor-supervised water fast, the safest, quickest, and most simple thing you can do to regain your vibrant health is to eat healthfully. Period. What you are doing now is unsound and DANGEROUS.

3. Please don't take my word for this. You say you have done your homework. But it seems to me, you have not really done so. Read what others have to say about the "Master Cleanse" program. You can start here, and then you can honestly say that you have begun to do your homework:

4. You will eventually regain ALL of the weight you lost and likely even more, after you end the "cleanse" program. By starving your body, you are not training yourself to adopt healthier life-long lifestyle habits. When you reintroduce solid food into your diet, and return to a maintenance level of calorie consumption (as opposed to starvation level), you will gain weight. No doubt about it.

5. There are safe ways to lose weight, which offer a lifetime of pleasurable and healthy eating and lifestyle habits. It's simple math: Calories consumed vs calories burned. If you consume more than you burn, you gain weight. If you burn more than you consume, you lose weight. If you consume the correct amount of calories to meet your body's nutritional needs and burn the appropriate amount of calories, you will maintain your weight. Period.

There's a reason why the folks on the popular TV show The Biggest Loser don't show you these very obese people losing weight on a "Master Cleanse." It's because it's not healthy, and it does not teach these people how to live healthfully and maintain their new bodies once they achieve them. You'll notice they feed these people real food (while restricting their caloric intake), and then they work their butts off in the gym and on the trail to burn calories.

In my personal and professional experience, (and I've worked with some of the leading health and nutrition experts in the world), the safest, most effective long-term way to achieve and maintain your ideal weight and vibrant health are by adopting these strategies:

1. Eat a diet mainly comprised of whole, ripe, raw, organic fruits and vegetables, with minimal amounts of healthy fat from coconut, avocado, nuts, and seeds. (10% of total caloric intake per day.)
2. Eat enough calories to meet your body's nutritional needs. (Likely around 1,600 calories per day, but this depends greatly on your height, ideal weight, and activity level.)
3. MOVE! Exercise is the key to a lifetime free from excessive weight, depression, and bone loss. Get a pedometer. Wear it! Strive to take 10,000 steps each and every day. If you do this, you can't help but burn calories, prevent bone loss, and feel great! Indulge in activities you enjoy: Hiking, biking, tennis, dance classes, or whatever else it is you choose. Just get away from the computer, out of your seat, and MOVE!
4. Consume lots of water. If you are practicing #1, you are going to consume lots of water-rich fruits, which help to curb your appetite. You won't need to drink 8 glasses of water a day like most people, who are eating foods with low water-content and are constantly dehydrated. If you don't believe me, just see how much time you'll be spending in the bathroom peeing and pooping, once you are eating a diet largely comprised of nutrient-rich, water-dense whole fruits and vegetables.

While I don't usually endorse any one "diet," I do recommend that you read The 80/10/10 Diet by Douglas Graham. He has counseled thousands of people (including many celebrities) and has helped them achieve vibrant health, he has supervised thousands of water fasts, and most important, he has a deep and profound understanding of human nutrition and biology.

People who undertake "juice fasts," "cleanses," and "detoxes" are generally looking for a quick-fix to resolve a lifetime of poor eating and lifestyle habits. But there are no "quick fixes." Developing new, healthy diet and lifestyle habits and maintaining them over the long run, is the surest and safest way to achieve the vibrant health and body of your dreams. This is my wish for you, and I'm here to support you in any way I can.

Love and hugs,



Nikko said...

Thank you for this post. A lot of people who are looking for a more "natural" way to live will fall victim to these really unhealthy fads. It's so important to get the word out that just because something is natural does not mean that it is good for you. In order for us to make truly compassionate choices, we need to be making informed choices as well.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Unfortunately it will probably fall on deaf ears. Most people are looking for the quick fix instead of a lifestyle change.

jessica said...

I have a friend who did this "cleanse." In less than two weeks, she made herself quite sick. I don't know why some people believe that they can undo a lifetime of poor eating habits with sugar, water, and lemon juice (which is basically, what this is.) I'll bet you anything that 1. the person you write about did not stay on it for 40 days (who in their right mind would?) and 2. that she's gone back to most, if not all of her poor eating habits. You were very kind to take the time to send her such a thoughtful and caring message. How sad for her that she failed to hear it.

Anonymous said...

You're right to a certain extent. I actually have a certified DOCTOR who put me on this in the hopes that it would kick start my thyroid. AND my body is NOT detoxifying itself. I appreciate your OPINION...but I have a lot of friends who actually did this for 5 days....felt great at the end and didn't put the weight back on and got rid of a few skin problems from the toxicity. Please try to limit your comments as simply a commentary of your opinions. You mislead some people. I'm also on a low glycemic diet. I had restricted my intake to 1200 and gained weight. I'm not horribly obese either. I took it to 900 and gained 15lbs. It was a sensible diet with exercise. Baffled my veteran's hospital to no end.

Anonymous said...

I was searching on eBooks for a good book to help me get through my diet. In the end I googled it and found this site

They are giving away a free ebook called "365 tips for healthy living". I didn't expect it to be any good because it's free but it's actually brilliant so I thought i'd share it here :)

Anonymous said...

I think people who go on the master cleanse usually have a limited time to lose weight so they turn to this. The celebrities being a good example I did this and I was fine. I even consulted eith a doctor and it wasn't as dangerous. The body is extroadinary and can go without food for a long period of time. In this instance your taking some calories aday so ur not completely starving. Some choose to do it because they are looking for spiritual clarity so I say don't knock it for everyone. If you get sick from doing this immediately stop otherwise ur body mind and soul just as long as u take percautions. This also has nothing with being lazy some people work and study and don't have time to lose weight quickly for something in peticular turn to it.

Vegiegail said...

Thank you for stopping by and leaving your thoughts, Anonymous. I stand by my original thoughts. This regimen is at best, silly, and at worst, dangerous.

Luke said...

Hi Gail,

Appreciate your sentiment here for your friend. I also wholeheartedly agree that the master cleanse is a bad idea in general.
I want to mention something though, that there's no documented proof that exercise helps people lose fat, (vs losing weight which can be done by catabolizing muscle), and that weight gain is not because of a calories in, calories out equation. You might be very interested to read/listen to Gary Taubes excellent book 'Why we Get Fat and what to do about it' (

All the best,

Lessonsinhealth said...

Hi Vegiegail!
Great post which is right on the money! I will confess that once or twice a year, I will do the "Master Cleanse" for a couple of days. No more, no less. Perhaps it is all in my mind, but I feel wonderful thereafter! I call it my Will power cleanse! 40 days on the cleanse? Absolute insanity!
Stay healthy my Friend!

Anonymous said...

I have seen the master cleanse work on others, including myself. I like to do it, because it helps eliminate toxic waste in my body. I guess its not for everyone. It also helps me to find my inner strength which is great for spiritual reasons. I also find that my body does not eliminate toxic waste as efficiently as you claim by itself, the cleanse is a great natural way to help the natural process of the body. I have kept off the weight and my skin has never looked better, and I feel really good physically and mentally. Like I said, its not for everyone, but I really liked the results.