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Body Cleanse Diets Are Pseudoscience

There is a new set of morality that has arising in various cultures around the world (especially the USA) that revolves around food and the idea of health. The cult of “health food” is rampant, and I can’t say how many times that I’ve listened to people making social status plays by bragging about their strange new diets.

The supposed health benefits of these diets are often counter-intuitive, and that’s where the attraction seems to lie: it’s trendy to jam your culture, it’s fashionable to believe the opposite of what you were acculturated to believe, it’s rebellious to think that you’re right established tradition is wrong, and it’s a status symbol to show yourself as being unique, different, or more informed than the people around you. When it comes to diet, this is often manifested in meal plans that are deficient of certain food groups, contain no cooked foods, only a certain type of food, or even no food at all.

I cringe when I hear the words “body cleansing.” To me, this is nothing more than a trendy buzz term invented by business people and pseudoscience wack jobs looking to make a quick buck off of insecure, fashionable, or otherwise impressionable people with money to spend.

Everybody cleanses their body every day. It’s called using the toilet. We are also naturally provisioned with our very own body cleansing kit. It’s called our kidneys and liver. Your body is built to clean itself, no additional, unbalanced diet that involves cutting out essential nutrients is going to help it along. If anything, it’s just going slow your metabolism and hinder the process.

Elizabeth Preston, a science blogger at Inkfish, decided to give one of those trendy juice diets a try:

The first few days of deprivation would, in theory, “cleanse the blood” and release toxins from my tissues that have been slowing me down and making me sick. I’d give my colon a break while “sweeping” it out. The latter days would boost my immune system and “fight off degenerative diseases.” After all that detoxifying and boosting, I would feel energized and restored. I might even have lost a few pounds—but it’s about health, not weight.

In the midst of my cleanse, I could experience unpleasant symptoms. “Don’t Panic,” the website for BluePrintCleanse would reassure me, “It’s Just A Healing Crisis!” Apparently, a body that’s becoming healthier looks a lot like one that’s unwell. Symptoms of detox may include fatigue, headaches, nausea, hives, decreased bowel movements, increased bowel movements, strangely colored bowel movements (“Did you just drink some of our beet juice?”), dry mouth, runny nose, and canker sores. I should ignore those symptoms, drink herbal tea, and be reassured that I’ll soon be skinnier. Sorry, healthier.

And as for losing weight:

If anything, it’s the opposite, because fasting slows your metabolism. BluePrintCleanse claims that the energy you save on digestion by not eating any real food gets diverted to “other metabolic processes.” But Swoap says this is false. Your whole metabolism will slow at once, not just the tasks attached to digesting food. This will make it harder to lose weight.

It’s a sign of a hyper-civilized, over-developed country when diets that are the exact opposite of what people have been socialized to believe are healthy are promoted as the next big thing in “health.” These diet schemes often work on the premise that we live in an inherently unhealthy, polluted environment, and we now need to take drastic measures to keep our bodies well. This is called marketing.

Cultures are accumulations of knowledge based on trial and error within a given landscape with available materials. If you want to eat healthy, look at the traditional foods of your culture. Mine consists of meat, starch, vegetables, fruit, poultry, and dairy. This is what is healthy for me to eat.

Leave the cleansing to the organs nature gave to for this purpose.

My sister’s family went on a body cleanse diet for a couple of weeks. Now they are sick. Go figure.

What’s your take? Do you think I’m wrong? Let me know.

Filed under: Food, Health, Opinion

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Vagabond Journey has been featured on MSNBC.com, The Daily Mail Online, Business Insider, Gizmodo, the Des Moines Register, CBS Phoenix, NBC LA, and numerous other international and local publications. has written 2687 posts on Vagabond Journey.

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  • Aimee

    I think you are absolutely right – with one caveat. Avoiding an excess is foods which cause trouble for you. For example, it isn’t pseudoscience that saturated fats cause arterial plaque. Avoiding foods high in cholesterol if you have a problem with cholesterol, or salty foods if you have high blood pressure, sweets if diabetic, etc. Knowing your body and what makes it feel good or bad is a good thing, and it might lead some people to, for example, avoid dairy. But in general I am 100% with you that the explosion in people with undiagnosed allergies and gluten intolerance, etc, is much more about social pressures than it is about health.

    • Vagabond Journey

      Exactly! The problem with many “mainstream” diets is that aspects of them are engaged in rather rampantly without a sense of balance or moderation. Eat any food to excess and it will give you problems. Nobody is going to say that oranges are unhealthy, but I’m sure if you ate 20 of them a day for years on end it will end up complicating something. It is my opinion that obtaining a sense of what constitutes a “balanced and well-rounded” diet is probably far better than any sort of extreme diet, but I guess this isn’t as interesting to talk about.”Yeah, well, I just went on the normal diet.” “Really, what’s that?” “Oh, you just eat normal amounts of normal food.” That’s just not going to sell :-) Though I have to add here that I’m not talking about processed foods when I say “normal.” There’s nothing normal about this crap.

    • Vagabond Journey

      Definitely, eating right for your own body is essential.

  • Vagabond Journey

    Hello Aimee,
     
    Exactly! I agree with you completely that the problem with many “mainstream” diets is that aspects of them are engaged in rather rampantly without a sense of balance or moderation — or they are full of processed food, which is another issue all together. Eat any food to excess and it will give you problems. Nobody is going to say that oranges are unhealthy, but I’m sure if you ate 20 of them a day for years on end it will end up complicating something. It is my opinion that obtaining a sense of what constitutes a “balanced and well-rounded” diet is probably far better than any sort of extreme diet, but I guess this isn’t as interesting to talk about.”Yeah, well, I just went on the normal diet.” “Really, what’s that?” “Oh, you just eat normal amounts of normal food.” That’s just not going to sell :-) Though I have to add here that I’m not talking about processed foods when I say “normal.” There’s nothing normal about that crap.

  • Uzuoma

    I agree with you 100% that most of this healthy hype is businesspeople cashing in on peoples’ insecurities and is most of the times ineffective. But, and maybe I’m misinterpreting you, it also looks like you are taking a shot at vegetarians and vegans/ people who vast? I have to disagree with you on that part. You were talking about traditions and it has, in fact, been traditions for many cultures to vast for a certain period of time to ”clean” mind and body. Examples are: Ramadan for most cultures influenced by Islam, the 40 days of vasting before easter for Christians (although I know few Christians who still do this) and many other cultures (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fasting).
     
    As for not eating meat/fish, I was very surprised  to learn that in Burkina Faso a country in West-Africa they have many dishes based on soja. There were some people who deliberately choose not to eat meat/fish. Since Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world I thought they would eat anything to fill their stomach but it seems my prejudice wasn’t right. There are also many other ancient vegetarian or vegan traditions.
     
    What I think is the difference is integrity and solidarity. When you vast or don’t eat certain things just to show off and you are very eager to let the world know how hard it is, I think you go the wrong way. When you are integer and keep it for yourself I don’t think there is anything wrong it.
     
    P.S.
     
    I like your website and enjoy reading the articles you write, very refreshing!
     
    Uzuoma

    • Vagabond Journey

      @Uzuoma Hello, thanks for this excellent comment and addition to this discussion. Yes, right on about how many cultures religiously use fasting. But it is my opinion that this is usually done for spiritual cleansing/ sacrifice. It’s just really interesting how food and the idea of “health” has become a new sort of quasi-spiritually in the West. Thank you for reading and sharing your views. It’s much appreicated.

  • http://idealistcafe.com/blog/ Russ

    Wade, I agree with the fact that the organs in our bodies do the cleansing on a daily basis, as they are meant to do. That said, I do believe in some of these cleanses and believe that they can yield positive results. The big difference is that the food most people eat, the amount they eat, and their exposure to toxins in many forms on a daily basis is far different than what it would be in a “natural” setting, the one in which our bodies have adapted to do their work. Eating meats 3x daily with fried or processed foods and all sorts of chemical  preservatives and artificial chemicals is totally different from foraging for fruits and greens and occasionally scoring some meat after a hunt. All these factors can tax the liver and kidneys and prevent them from doing their jobs properly, and can also keep the body from expelling waste in a timely manner. 
     
    So in that sense these cleanses can help, if people are limiting what they are eating and allowing their body to do “catch up” work while not bombarded with all the crap they normally eat, it’s probably a good thing. I should clarify though, I think some of the “hype” cleanses are nonsense, a real cleanse is simply reducing your intake to simple organic natural foods, not taking some crazy concoction out of  a box.
     
    I personally have experimented with some cleanses (not the ones you buy in a box though), I’ve done raw foods only for a month at a time, I’ve done juice fasts (make my own fresh juices at home), and I can attest to the superior feeling during and after them. The way I have explained it to people is not so much that I feel so amazing, but rather that there is an absence of any bad feeling. When eating whole, raw, natural fruits and vegetables you get tons of nourishment, and all gas, bloating, sluggishness, tiredness, lethargy, indigestion, etc basically disappear, and your body begins to run optimally without being weighed down by crap.
     
    Regarding healthy eating based on culture, I agree. Some people say raw foods are optimal since our bodies have arrived where they are after millions of years of evolution, with fire and cooking not being there the whole way. Some say paleo since we were hunter/gatherers, that agriculture and wheats are a relatively new thing, some same fish but no red meat, on and on and on. I personally think the best is heavy on the greens and fruits, moderation with meats, and then fill in the gaps with the rest. I think most traditional diets, as you mentioned, are fine, as they loosely adhere to this policy to varying degrees. People have lived fine for years on these diets, even though they are somewhat different based on region, and the epidemic of disease in modern society probably have more to do with over eating and modern food science, ie processed foods made in a lab instead of grown or raised naturally.
     
    You mentioned that your sister’s family all got sick after doing their cleanses. My understanding is that everybody is different when cleansing, I’ve personally never experienced that, but understand that it is fairly normal to experience “detox” symptoms, based on what you were eating beforehand. If you were eating lots of processed crap and sugars and suddenly take that away, your body will naturally react to it, and if your body was loaded with toxins from an unhealthy lifestyle, those will be released much faster than normal during a cleanse which can cause short term sickness as your body removes them.
     
    Side note: “Fat Sick and Nearly Dead” is a great example of how a “cleanse” can change your health. It’s a  documentary which follows a guy’s journey from extreme sickness to perfect health over 90 days by drinking only fresh juice made daily. Of course he lived a life of excess beforehand, but it’s a great way to get people to realize that they can control their own health by what they eat, and it shows that by removing the influence of all types of crap food we eat every day and allowing our bodies to do what they have evolved to do can in many cases yield results that some would consider nothing short of a miracle.
     
    Sorry for the epic comment and for covering what the other commenters sort of alluded to, as you can see I have a lot of thoughts about this topic. The marketing part of cleansing is definitely BS, but I think if it gets people thinking differently about being healthy it’s a good thing, I just wish there was a way to sell “common sense eating” instead of all this fad nonsense!

    • Vagabond Journey

      Hello Russ, Glad you jumped onto this one. It’s good to hear from someone who has another point of view on this. Right on about all the crap in foods, and cutting bad foods out is always a good way to “cleanse.” But I don’t think any extreme diet do the trick though. That’s just my opinion based on what I’ve read though, so maybe I’m missing something. I also can’t say I was too impressed with that documentary about the guy on the juice diet. It seems to me that just eating good quality foods would have done the trick. That’s just my take though.

      • http://idealistcafe.com/blog/ Russ

        @Vagabond Journey Hey Wade, agreed!  I think the problem is that most people don’t eat quality food day in and day out, and so these cleanses are probably targeted to them as a way to “fast track” the clean up process. When I’ve done my cleanses it’s often part of a larger process of trying to refocus and get back to my healthy habits, a little kick start of the body. But I think you hit the nail on the head, if you simply eat well to begin with, not as much junk resides in your body, and I’d imagine that the “cleaner” your body is, the more efficiently it can do its job. With that movie, the guy didn’t continue the extreme juicing long term, and you are most likely correct in assuming that if he just cut the crap out and didn’t go extreme, he could have done the same thing on a regular diet, but would likely have needed more than a couple months of healthy eating. If I recall, he had hit a wall with his health and wanted to find the fastest, most natural way (ie no drugs) to purge years of abuse from his body, and from there began a healthy eating regimen after his body was back on track.
         
        You’re right on when you say no single diet will do the trick. Really, diet is not even the right word, it’s lifestyle. That’s why diets fail most people, because they fail to adapt their lifestyle, so they seek out these “cleanses” and other extreme diets as magical health elixirs, then go right back to their bad habits lol.

        • Vagabond Journey

          One benefit of a cleanse that I can observe right off are its ritualistic qualities. We are cultural beings that respond to rituals and symbols, and marking off a time in your life to take extreme action can be used as a turning point for a major change, like the guy in “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.” It is my impression that this very real psychological effect of doing a cleanse could have real life benefits regardless of any other factors. Like @uzuoma mentions below, many cultures have traditions which include this.

        • Vagabond Journey

          Right on about “diet” being a concept that’s abstractly removed from a broader lifestyle. Wellness is an all-encompassing pursuit, and diet alone cannot be isolated from it and worked on. It’s a whole package kind of deal.  
           
          One benefit of a cleanse that I can observe right off are its ritualistic qualities. We are cultural beings that respond to rituals and symbols, and marking off a time in your life to take extreme action can be used as a turning point for a major change, like the guy in “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.” It is my impression that this very real psychological effect of doing a cleanse has powerful benefits.

    • Vagabond Journey

      “a real cleanse is simply reducing your intake to simple organic natural foods, not taking some crazy concoction out of  a box.”
       
      Good. 
       
      You express the idea of toxins being released faster by cleansing. Is this just a concept or is their scientific evidence of it? Does cleansing really compel the body to expel toxins faster and more completely? It is my impression that when you deny your body nutrition or calories that everything slows, and it seems to me that toxins would actually be release slower. Can’t say that I’ve studied this in-depth, so I’m just wondering if you have any hard science resources at hand. 
       
      One benefit of a cleanse that I can observe right off are its ritualistic qualities. We are cultural beings that respond to rituals and symbols, and marking off a time in your life to take extreme action can be used as a turning point for a major change, like the guy in “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.” It is my impression that this very real psychological effect of doing a cleanse could have real life benefits.

  • http://www.kq7a.com/ Jackq7a

    I’m gonna jump in on this as well. While I agree that some cleanse diets are BS, it’s not the case for all fasting or juicing. I suggest you watch Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead. If you fill yourself with crap food day in and day out and don’t eat the fruits and vegetables that your body needs then you are going to make yourself sick. It’s not rocket science, if you take vitamins, you understand the risks. Traveling exasperates this because it’s tough to eat well on the road.
     
    I believe that the body builds up a fruit and vegetable deficit over time. Juicing is a way to make up for the deficit because you can consume a lot of fruits and vegetables in the juicing. Juice fasting means that for a set period of time, you are putting mega doses of good stuff into your body and avoiding the stuff that you’ve put too much into your body over the years.
     
    When I started my diet, I started with juicing for a week. It helped me reboot my system and gave me a boost of energy. It can’t imagine being able to lose 150 lbs without juicing. I can say that without a doubt, juice fasting improved my metabolism, help increase my weight loss, and helped put me on the path to better health.

    • Vagabond Journey

      @Jackq7a Looking forward to your article about this :-)