Experts debate benefits of cleanses, detox diets

Are these health trends really a route to improved health and lasting weight loss?

By Jennifer Garrett

Do you, like many of us, still have a bit of the holidays hanging around your waistline? If so, the lose-weight-overnight claims that come with some cleanses sound awfully tempting with spring right around the corner.

A host of celebrities claim to have used cleanses to prepare for the unforgiving gowns of the awards season. Of course, not everything from Hollywood translates well into regular life for the rest of us, but is cleansing an A-list practice that we mere mortals should adopt?

That depends. It turns out that cleanses run the gamut from near-starvation diets all the way to gentler organic meal plans designed to eliminate processed foods, caffeine and other potentially harmful or addictive substances from our diets. Many promise weight loss as a benefit. Others promote generalized improvement in health and well-being. Most involve diuretics or laxatives to stimulate the bowels.

Thomas Huber, a gastroenterologist with Meriter Health Services, generally discourages patients from cleansing. He points out that while cleanses have grown popular among celebrities, they are hardly a new phenomenon. They go back to Victorian times when people thought the colon retained toxic substances that contributed to illness. Huber says modern science debunked those notions nearly one hundred years ago, and colonic cleanses fell mostly out of favor among the general population and entirely within the medical community by the 1920s.

But an interest in cleansing persists, primarily among those who distrust and eschew Western medicine, which largely regards cleansing as unnecessary and potentially harmful.

The Master Cleanse, also known as the lemonade diet, is a rather classic colon cleanse that involves laxatives and a liquid-only ten-day fast to spur weight loss and provide "freedom from disease" by resting the digestive system and completely purging the colon of any residual substances.

Other modern cleanses seem to focus less on the colon specifically; rather, they are promoted to eliminate toxins generally from the entire body. These toxins largely come from exposure to harmful substances in our foods and the environment, says David Lincecum, who offers the Cap-City Cleanse independently as well as through sessions at local yoga studios. Lincecum says his program isn't a diet.

"Weight loss is not a goal," he says, but "it's often a side effect."

Maria Miller, a thirty-eight-year-old graphic web designer and dedicated yoga practitioner, took part in Lincecum's weeklong Cap-City Cleanse last October. Looking for assistance in improving her eating habits, Miller says the detailed daily plans, complete with menus and recipes, took all the guesswork out, and ongoing feedback from Lincecum eliminated uncertainties and helped her stay the course through the duration of the program.

"It was nice to have a guide to follow," Miller says. "You didn't have to question the foods you should be eating."

Meriter's Huber doesn't quarrel with eliminating processed foods or cutting down on sugar. "In terms of a healthy diet, that's a pretty wise thing," Huber says. "There's a number of food additives and colorants and taste enhancers that the FDA has never checked."

But he does draw the line at the use of laxatives—natural or otherwise—when not medically necessary. He says the digestive system naturally eliminates waste, and laxatives could throw off the body's balance. Lincecum, though, argues that natural laxatives are an essential element of a cleanse because they stimulate the body to eliminate built-up toxins.

Huber also cautions that cleanses can be dangerous, especially those that involve severe calorie restriction for extended periods. That can drive the body into ketosis, a process in which the body consumes its own fat and muscle tissue. And that can lead to heart damage.

UW Health gastroenterologist Arnold Wald argues that the kind of weight loss from a plan like the Master Cleanse is unhealthy. He also cautions that it will be temporary.

"There is the idea that a cleanse will help you lose weight … but there is very little evidence that it plays a role," Wald says. "Most of the changes that you see are water weight, and those you will see back as soon as you stop the cleanse."

Jennifer Garrett is a Madison-based freelance writer. 

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