You’ve Been Rinsed

Is the Cleanse Trend Actually Healthy?

Consumers love to hate on toxins, but medical professionals aren’t convinced, Lizzie Crocker reports.

Summer’s in full swing, so if you’re still trying to squeeze into that bathing suit and want an excuse to “detox” at the same time, you should probably ask yourself: What Would Gwyneth Do?

Cleanse, of course.

It’s the hottest health trend around—a variety of celeb-endorsed regimens that promise not only to help you lose weight, but to flush your body of so-called toxins, too. These poisonous invaders, from processed foods and pesticides to alcohol and “free radicals,” supposedly make us sick, fat, and generally miserable (even if we don’t know it) and prevent our bodies from being the lean, disease-fighting, cell-regenerating machines they’re meant to be.

One of the most popular new programs, the 21-day Clean Cleanse, consists of a fiber- and nutrient-packed shake for breakfast and dinner and incorporates low-acid whole foods for lunch. Created by a Uruguayan-born, Los Angeles-based cardiologist and endorsed by Paltrow’s GOOP, the program costs $425 (for supplements alone) and promises to aid the body’s natural healing process by “removing the major toxins and adding in nutritionally beneficial foods and supplements.”

For fewer calories and cash ($60 a day for six juices, recommended to beginners for three to six days), the New York-based Juice Press cleanse purports to “pull toxins out of the blood and help push them through the easiest means of egress.”

But here’s the rub: there’s little scientific evidence that cleansing actually rids the body of toxins. In fact, critics say the cleanse craze is just a fancy new word for “dieting”—dressed up in pseudo-science and rounded out with costly, antioxidant-rich fruits from the Amazon or Peruvian herbs that claim to boost energy and libido. Many medical professionals say cleanses in any form have few health benefits and that Americans often use them as a panacea to make up for otherwise damaging their bodies with bad eating habits, lack of exercise, and stress. What’s most ridiculous about the detox myth, they say, is that the body is already plenty capable of eliminating toxins.

It’s called urine.

“Unless you’re suffering from liver or kidney failure, those two organs do a perfectly adequate job of removing toxins,” says Christine Gerbstadt, a registered dietician and practicing physician in Washington D.C. There’s no evidence that cleansing is any healthier than eating a plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables, she says.

There are, of course, other risks that come with drastically changing your diet, even if you’re guzzling supposedly nutrient-rich green juices all day long. Because many of today’s cleanses consist mostly of cold-pressed, fiberless juices, Gerbstadt says they limit the body’s ability to absorb nutrients (fiber aids digestion). The decrease in calorie intake can also slow metabolism and send the body into starvation mode, she says, so that, once you resume your regular diet, it immediately stores food rather than converting it to energy.

And in an ironic twist, due to an attempt to appeal to palates that can’t take down a bitter kale and dandelion concoction without gagging, some juice cleanses contain what could be deemed a toxic amount of fruit sugars. In 2008, when juice cleansing was still a relatively new concept, I tried out BluePrint’s “Renovation” cleanse for three days and got canker sores by the end of day two from all the sweetness. Today’s version of the “Renovation” contains 152 grams, or roughly 31 teaspoons, of sugar per day. That’s approximately five times The American Heart Association’s recommendation of a maximum 26 grams per day for women and 36 for men.

Most cleanses also come with a disclaimer that anyone taking prescription drugs (70 percent of the population, according to new CDC report) should either be wary of cleansing or avoid it altogether—and with good reason.

“If you’re doing a juice cleanse, absorption of certain drugs is going to be altered,” says Donald Hensrud, chair of the Division of Preventive Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. “Either you’ll absorb the drug less because it’s meant to be taken with food or it might be absorbed too quickly.”

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Consumers, however, aren’t waiting for any rigorous studies to prove what many of them hold as self-evident—that cleansing reduces inflammation in the body, flushes the system of impurities, and makes skin luminescent. If they can afford it, they’re going to continue drinking the green Kool-Aid; juicing alone is now a $5 billion industry.

“A lot of people are carrying weight on their bodies which is really just carrying toxins,” says Marcus Antebi, the founder and CEO of Juice Press. “Whether it’s a fat cell or a blood cell encapsulating a toxin or it’s too much protein in the system that the body can’t use, it’s all toxins.”

Antebi, a fast-talking businessman who worked for years in the world of luxury goods, got in the cleanse game in 2010. Unlike a lot of other juice products made for the masses, he says, his are cold-pressed and made from 100 percent organic produce, resulting in the “freshest, cleanest, best formulas out there.” The real power of doing a juice fast, he says, is not just what you’re taking in but what you’re leaving out—namely processed or cooked foods.

When a person stops consuming toxic substances or “making mistakes,” as Antebi puts it, the body can better “release those mistakes.” By giving your digestive system a break, you’re also reserving fuel, which can then be used in healing processes or be stored and transformed into what Antebi calls “vital force.”

“That’s what makes us creative, visionary, talented, emotionally intelligent, et cetera,” he says. “And it boosts the immune system.”

Isabel Bacon, 26, agrees “wholeheartedly.” Bacon, a teacher, ditched Organic Avenue for Juice Press because she loves its “provocative marketing” and appreciates the effort they make to cleverly inform their consumers about their products. “They have tons of literature on why certain things are good for you and what they offer,” she says.

“Whenever I ‘fast,’ my mind feels a lot sharper and clearer, and I have more energy,” Bacon says.

To be sure, Antebi admits that his vital force theory is “abstract science, because science hasn’t necessarily caught up with studying this stuff.” But for Antebi and, ostensibly, a lot of his customers, this stuff needs no further explanation. Antebi recently sold shares of his New York City-based company to Yankees first baseman Mark Taxeira, and the company has raised $7 million in venture capital from other investors on top of a reported $10 million in annual sales.

As for the Clean Cleanse, Hensrud says there’s no evidence it has any long-term health benefits. But he and other medical experts would be happy to endorse cleansing as adamantly as Gwynnie if there were any studies confirming the marketing materials.

“Advocates say cleansing is good for everything from improved immunity to depression and even cancer, but the evidence is all anecdotal,” says Dr. Ranit Mishori, a practicing physician and associate professor of family medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. “First you have to decide what you’re treating or specify what toxins you’re eliminating, and then you have to test it in a randomized fashion and show that it works.”

Dhru Purohit, CEO of Clean Cleanse, says the company is in talks “with two teaching hospitals and a private company” about putting together a clinical trial. “It’s really difficult for a young independent company to fund a trial,” he adds, “so it has taken us a few years of savings to get to this place where we can afford to do it.”

For the untold number of cleansers swigging juice for breakfast, anecdotal evidence will have to do for now. A colleague of mine recently confessed that, with only a few days to go on the Clean Cleanse, she did not feel, well, cleaner. But she was “definitely less gassy.”

Fair enough. Every cleanser has her reasons. Perhaps this is the real benefit of cleansing—that assuming you’re not damaging your body, you feel better, and that’s all that matters in the end.