By day three of a five-day Sakara Life meal plan—the latest seductive health craze gripping New York City—I’m digging into a raw, sweet potato noodle dish with the kind of enthusiasm typically reserved for duck tagliatelle.
I’ve been stringently depriving myself of caffeine, bread, sugar, and most everything delicious that one is advised to avoid during a dietary cleanse. Imagine my delight, then, when I am offered coffee at the Sakara Life offices.
“We’re trying to take guilt out of the equation,” says Danielle Duboise, 28, who co-founded the organic and vegan meal-delivery service with 29-year-old Whitney Tingle. “Those kinds of harmful thoughts add unnecessary stress to the system and can make you want to eat things you wouldn’t normally eat.”
Tingle adds, “Like when you’re on the Master Cleanse, you open your fridge and you’re like, ‘Ooh, mustard!’” The two frequently finish each other’s sentences.
In the last five years, cleansing has exploded into the mainstream with pricey cold-pressed juices from companies like BluePrint in New York and iZO Cleanse on the West Coast. And they all offer variations on the same theme: a fiber-less diet of vegetable and fruit juices that flush out toxins with maximal nutrients and minimal calories. (Never mind that many cold-pressed juices, unless they contain only green vegetables and lemon, are often as sugary as a can of Coke.)
You can’t open a tabloid these days without seeing Jennifer Garner, Gwyneth Paltrow, or any other celebrity “yummy mummy” clutching an electric green elixir in one hand and their child’s backpack in the other.
Paltrow is the celebrity face of “The Clean Cleanse,” a 21-day detox diet designed by Dr. Alejandro Junger, a holistic pracititoner, which includes two cleanse “shakes” and one meal based on a list of approved foods.
Sakara Life does not bill itself as a cleanse, but the website promises that their five-day meal program will help “detox your kidneys, liver, lymphatic system & skin safely and thoroughly” for $410.
While detox diets claim to be less “effective” if you stray from their programs, Duboise and Tingle are marketing Sakara as a flexible lifestyle, complete with three nutrient-dense meals a day, all packed with “hydrating” vegetables and healthy fats from nuts and seeds.
“We’re not in your face saying, ‘This is how you have to eat,’” says Duboise. “We’re saying that this is how we live, we feel really good eating this way and have thousands of clients who say the same thing, so try it out! And it’s not going to kill you if you have a burger one night.”
Duboise and Tingle grew up together in Sedona, Arizona, a mecca for the new age community, and were eating raw foods and fresh juices before they became mainstream fads. They were raised to believe that food is medicine (and alternative medicine is better than traditional medicine), but found life in New York City in their early twenties at odds with that philosophy.
Duboise was a model and actress, constantly trying to lose weight on various diet and fast programs. “I didn’t feel good in my body. I didn’t feel I was thin enough or pretty enough,” she says. “I was trying to fill some void in my life and thought if I was skinny or found the right diet that I would do it forever and be fine.”
Tingle, who has had cystic acne since puberty, was working long hours on Wall Street and was frustrated by New York dermatologists who prescribed her Accutane to no effect. She became convinced that her acne was a symptom of toxin build-up and turned to juice cleansing. “We lived on every extreme that you can imagine,” Tingle says.
Duboise’s detox-retox routine took a toll on her health during a three-week meditation retreat at a raw foods community and spiritual center in Patagonia, Arizona, where residents grow their own food and live off the land. Retreat participants spend the first week detoxing on a water fast and meditating for six hours a day. Duboise fell severely ill shortly after arriving. “I didn’t think I was going to make it out of there,” she says.
When she returned to New York three weeks later, she was diagnosed with pneumonia. “It was a huge shift for me,” says Duboise. “I began thinking about what extremes I was willing to go through to ‘fix’ my body. I realized that I was really hurting myself.”
She went on the retreat as an “excuse,” she says. “I didn’t like the way I looked and this place was basically a glorified, spiritual fat camp for me.”
Duboise and Tingle saw the potential for a diet-as-lifestyle brand in New York City, where the quick-fix juice craze has peaked. Victoria’s Secret models are mixing up their juicing routine with Sakara Life, and Instagramming photos of their meals. Lena Dunham is also a fan.
One would think someone like Dunham would be more skeptical of Sakara’s mind-body-food-wellness shtick and meal descriptions that read like a new agey spa menu. Their “Toasted Coconut Granola” breakfast is “dressed up with spirulina Goddess mylk [a nut milk] to ignite your spirit and supercharge your day.” And each meal is “made with love.”
Instead of traditional nutrition facts labels, Sakara meals are packaged with “superfood” descriptions espousing their magical health benefits: turmeric has “strong anti-inflammatory benefits that are comparable to over the counter remedies like ibuprofen,” while spirulina is a protein-rich “micro-algae that is known as the most complete food” and “contains chlorophyll, which binds to toxins and heavy metals in your body, escorting them out for good!”
But experts say our bodies do this on their own, and that the only proven effects of detox diets are psychological. Despite the wealth of research from reputable sources which has found cleansing and detoxing is bunk, consumers still have an appetite for it.
“People genuinely want simple answers, and cleansing has an intuitive appeal and veneer of legitimacy to it,” says Timothy Caulfield, a health and science policy researcher at Canada’s University of Alberta and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash “There’s this pervasive fear that we live in a world filled with toxins and need to somehow rid ourselves of them.”
Caulfield attributes this partially to a growing distrust of scientific information in Western culture, whether it’s Big Pharma or Big Food.
“It creates space for what were once ‘fringe’ views about food and health but are now just ‘alternative,’” he says. And they’ve become a bigger part of people’s identities. “It’s a form of self-expression. If you insult the cleanse, you insult the person who buys that cleanse.”
Duboise and Tingle have created an ideal product for a growing crop of wealthy urbanites extolling the hippy-healthy virtues of nutritional pseudoscience. After five days of eating Sakara Life, “you’ll feel lighter, healthier and more vibrant than ever before,” according to the website. “You will not only notice a spring in your step, but your skinniest jeans will button with ease, your skin will glow, and your hair will shine bright.”
This is the language of infomercials, but Sakara’s superfoods are sexier and more exotic than stain removal. Many of them come from exotic places or were eaten in ancient cultures, so marketers and consumers assign them magical powers and rhapsodize about their high “antioxidant” concentration.
While there have been some studies supporting the health benefits of consuming antioxidant-rich blueberries and other superfoods, most of them are “in vitro” studies—in test-tubes, rather than tested on animals, including humans.
“You can get really sophisticated with your biochemistry, but the evidence that this stuff is good for us is grossly oversimplified,” says Wilhelmina Kalt, a researcher with Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada (Canada’s equivalent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture). There’s a lot of verbiage out there, but only a tiny fraction of it can be substantiated. If these foods helped us live until we were 100, we would know that by know.”
The bottom line, she says, is to eat a varied diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. If you want to pay more money for Sakara Life’s fruits and vegetables and tell yourself you’re “eating the rainbow” while doing it, you’re only draining your wallet.