It must be spring: the robins have returned, the crocuses are peeking up through the earth, and we’re starting to hear a lot about cleansing diets.
Spring is the most popular time for a cleanse. Approaches vary, but most call for cutting out foods like sugar, wheat, soy, dairy products, and/or red meat from your diet for a certain period of time. Some programs also include juicing, herbs, fiber supplements, and procedures designed to promote, um, cleansing.
Back when I was in nutrition school, it seemed like everyone was doing the “Master Cleanse.” This was a popular two-week regimen consisting of nothing but a drink made from lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup. Listening to people talk about the hunger and irritability they were enduring was bad enough. I wasn’t tempted to try it myself.
I know some people, especially alternative health practitioners and coaches, who swear by cleansing diets. They believe such diets help clear out all the sludge and toxins your body accumulates over the winter, in the process promoting energy, improved skin condition, and weight loss, among other benefits.
Here’s a thing I’ve noticed, though: when the cleanse is over, most people seem to go right back to the junk food-eating habits that made the internal housekeeping effort necessary in the first place.
If you’ve been reading Make Friends With Food for a while, you know it’s not about “eat this, not that” (most of the time, anyway!). Deciding what’s right for you is your job -- aided, of course, by as much information as you can get your hands on.
But here’s my viewpoint, for what it’s worth: I don’t think cleansing diets are a good idea for most people. Anyone with a history of yo-yo dieting, disordered eating, or other problem behavior around food should definitely run the other way. Diabetics, pregnant women, teenagers, and the elderly would also be wise to steer clear.
If you’re none of those things, but you tend to feel cruddy on a strict diet and can’t wait for it to be over so you can go grab a burger, it’s much better not to do the program in the first place.
Instead, work on improving the quality of your diet slowly, without making any foods off limits. Pay close attention to how your body reacts to what you eat. Over time, you’ll find yourself naturally gravitating toward the foods that work best for you.
I can think of only two occasions when a strict cleanse might be useful.
The first is if you’re trying to diagnose an allergy or intolerance to a certain ingredient, such as dairy or gluten. A nutritionist trained in food sensitivities can guide you in eliminating all likely problem foods from your diet and replacing them one at a time until the culprit is identified.
The second instance is if you’re sick. Really sick. For example, if you have severe flu, food poisoning, or if you’re being treated for cancer. At times of health crisis, your body instinctively knows it needs a break from your normal diet in order to rest and heal. As a result, you’re unlikely to have much appetite anyway.
The body’s wisdom is pretty incredible, when you think about it.