A Juice Cleanse to Die For

Don’t be a schnook. It’s not how you feel, it’s how you look!
—Billy Crystal.

Dr. Hayek

Salma Hayek is better than a real doctor.

In a frankly frantic effort to lose my jolly holiday flab, I decided to try a juice cleanse. After all, if Salma Hayek is doing it, what better recommendation do I need? I like to take my dietary advice from actors, since they often play doctors, but they are better-looking.

You can juice all on your own, of course, but I was looking for something that was easier, because cleaning a juicer is a pain in the ass. After much Googling, I finally settled on a juice-cleanse company with the catchy slogan: “Drop Acid. Get Alkaline.” I’m not sure what that means, but my hippie days are far behind me and I have long since switched from acid to antacid. This is just another sad step in my continuing detour away from a splendid life of debauchery and toward the spirit-sapping agony of responsible adulthood. Regardless, the company web site was chipper and the online form made it easy for me to send them my money. Like many of these chic new companies, they deliver right to your door. Once I scheduled a delivery, I waited anxiously for my cleanse to start.

Bright and early on the appointed day, the FedEx man dropped off a cold box of colorful pint-sized bottles. Except for one that could pass for a urine sample and another that looked suspiciously like blended frog, they were innocuous enough. One had beets and was a bright, cheery red. They were numbered so I could take them in the right order. The numbers were big, almost as if the company anticipated that my vision would soon become blurry. They had thought of everything.

My day consisted of dutifully quaffing these uber-healthy concoctions, even as vague doubts began to bubble up. I was seriously hungry, and even the cheerful beet drink wasn’t fixing that. Some artistry had gone into formulating these fluids and they tasted okay, if you happen to like fruit and vegetables. But I had a hole in my stomach the size of a rib-eye. I made it through the day with only a slight amount of whimpering.

However, I definitely felt cleansed! Warning: You don’t want to get too far away from a toilet on a juice cleanse like this. I was urinating continuously. Sure, you should expect some peeing on a liquid diet, but this was a waterfall. By the end of the day, I had lost three pounds! Each drink made me lose a half pound. Wow! What a diet! Here were the ingredients of the six drinks.

agave apple beet *
carrot * cashew cayenne
celery * cinnamon cucumber *
ginger * kale lemon *
mint * parsley * pineapple
romaine * spinach vanilla

As often happens with my more humiliating diets, I decided to do some research. I almost always do research after I impulsively launch into something new or dangerous. If I did it in the other order, I wouldn’t try half of the dumb shit I do. And that, dear reader, would be a disservice to you.

The first thing I learned was that all the ingredients with an asterisk are diuretics. That’s half of them! Diuretics cause your kidneys to excrete sodium, and a lot of water goes along for the ride. That means you will lose water weight, and quickly. It also means you will lose electrolytes. But you lose weight! Are you going to let a little electrolyte imbalance bother you? What’s the worst that can happen? Well, probably nothing if you only juice for a day, but severe electrolyte imbalances can lead to sluggishness, seizures, stomach cramps, nausea, irritability, depression, confusion and heart arrhythmias. Then, of course, you die. Still, you lose weight!

As well as helping you to drop poundage, juice cleanses are supposed to detoxify your body. Sounds great, especially given how hard I’ve worked to pack on the toxins (Cheers!). Also, some of the juice companies boast that they will increase the alkalinity of your body, which they say is a good thing. But that’s not all! In addition, these liquid diets are supposed to make you feel fabulous. So, what’s the actual science behind these dramatic claims?

Detox like a Rolling Stone

Crop duster

That soaring feeling… that you’re being poisoned.

I scoured the journals for all the latest info on using juice to detoxify my apparently defiled body, and I found … nothing! There has not been a single peer-reviewed study on detoxifying your body with kale squeezings, cashew sap, lemon juice or any other liquid, for that matter. However, there were many scholarly opinions to the effect that eating your money (or burning it and blowing it up the other end) would work as well as any detox regimen currently being flogged on the internet. Clearly, these researchers are jealous of all the money these unaccredited juice-guys are raking in. Hard to blame them; it turns out to be a multi-billion dollar business.

But what about my toxic body? Aren’t I full of pesticides? My wife tells me to wash my fruits and veggies before eating them, but I don’t always remember. Don’t I have to pay for such a cavalier attitude?

Maybe not. The biggest surprise in toxicology is that the most prevalent pesticides by far are natural ones. They are produced by the plants themselves to keep creatures from eating them. That’s right, plants don’t want to be eaten, but they can’t run away so they’ve turned to chemical warfare to level the playing field. Plants regularly produce deterrents as nasty as cyanide and ricin, two notoriously potent  poisons, and they never exhibit remorse. 

But what about all the man-made chemicals we pump into the environment? We haven’t evolved a way to deal with them, so they must be super-toxic, right?

Haha! Turns out, the natural toxins are just as bad as synthetic toxins! Worse yet, we consume thousands of times more natural toxins than all the synthetic pollutants and pesticides put together. That’s right, spinach, celery, broccoli, kale, carrots, beets, lettuce, chard, cabbage, cashews, tomatoes, peppers and apples are all loaded with toxins. So much for detoxifying!

The science behind natural food toxins is eye-opening. If you have ten minutes to spare, you should watch this entertaining video with Bruce Ames, the man who invented the Ames test for carcinogens.

You’ll never look at natural foods the same way again. The proliferation of synthetic chemicals may inspire dread in many of us, but the real killers by far are the plants we depend on for food. They are not going down without a fight.

Fortunately, your magnificent liver is quite capable of dealing with this lifelong onslaught of toxins, and it processes them with gusto. That’s its job. This is not the first time your liver has seen an apple. It knows what to do. Quit worrying so much – stress isn’t good for you.

I’ll lose weight on a Juice Cleanse, right?

As for losing weight, well, there just aren’t enough calories in a juice diet to maintain your body, so yes, you will likely lose a few pounds. But as we’ve seen, a lot of that is water weight, which unfortunately rebounds quickly. Real weight loss takes time, but since juice cleanses typically don’t include sufficient protein, you’ll die from malnutrition long before then. The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t juice for more than a few days. If you do it for any length of time, be sure you supplement with vitamins, especially vitamin B12, which is hard to find in veggies but is extremely important for brain function and overall health.

Even if the weight loss is temporary, what’s wrong with that, especially if you have a reunion to attend? I looked slimmer after only one day. Well, slim may be an overly optimistic adjective (less gravitational?), but isn’t weight loss a major reason to think about juicing?

Unfortunately, when your body realizes it’s running out of food, it doesn’t raid your fat supplies. This is because nature is cruel. Instead, it completely inverts your wishes by going after muscle! I’m sure my muscles are rippling somewhere beneath my extravagantly upholstered exterior, but I’m not sure I have a lot to spare. Get hungry enough and you’ll even start to digest your heart muscle. It’s hard to put a positive spin on that.

Juicing is a low calorie diet that will make you very hungry. Talk to your doctor (not just someone who plays a doctor) before you try something like this. There can be problems if you’re not already in good health. Very few of the juicing sites I looked at recommended that you confer with your doctor, which set off some tiny alarms in my brain.

Look, I get it: doctors are such killjoys. But there’s an off chance that your doctor knows more about medicine than you, so you might as well get their advice. I know we’ve all been brought up with video games, but in the real world, you only get one life.

Feeling fabulous on my awesome juice cleanse

Psychedelic

Psychedelic Illuminations by Brian Exton.

Yes, after a cleanse you may feel fabulous: all light and goofy. I felt a little buzzed after just a day of juicing, although in case I forgot to mention it, I was very, very hungry. That’s your body suffering from lack of calories. As your blood sugar levels drop, you get increasingly spacy and dizzy. You may pass out. What fun! Reminds me of college.

As mentioned, due of the low calorie count, a juice cleanse is a kind of fast. If you continue to fast, you may start to hallucinate and if you’re really lucky you may see God, or something like it. That’s why fasts are incorporated into pretty much all religions. It’s a cheap high, and if everyone does it at once, it’s a shared experience of transcendence, a sectarian rave.

It might even be good for you on occasion.

The basics of alkalinity

The idea that you can change the pH of your body by eating certain foods is old and was disproved in the last century. Many websites claim that an alkaline body is disease-free, but that is, to put it charitably, a bunch of horse-hooey.

For one thing, your blood is naturally alkaline, and your body does an excellent job of regulating your pH in a very tight range. It’s a good thing too: your blood is able to pick up oxygen from your lungs and then deposit that oxygen in your tissues where it’s needed. How does it know when to pick up and when to drop off? It uses tiny changes in pH. Mess with this exquisite balance and nothing will work. You had better hope your food doesn’t change your pH!

How does the body do such a great job of adjusting pH? With a lot of buffering and the help of your lungs and kidneys. Your lungs help to balance your pH by adjusting the carbon dioxide you exhale, regardless of what you eat. Want the glorious benefits of alkaline blood? Just hyperventilate.

Your lungs provide immediate feedback to balance your pH. Meanwhile, at a more leisurely pace, your kidneys excrete just enough bicarbonate or acid to keep your blood in the Goldilocks zone. Together the lungs and kidneys represent a total marvel of homeostasis.

Run from anyone who says they will change your body’s pH. An acidic pH below 7.35 can lead to coma and death. An alkaline pH above 7.45 can lead to convulsions and death. Note the very narrow range of pH, from 7.35 to 7.45. Note the part about death. Enough said.

So forget the idea of adjusting your pH, but perhaps you should still keep an open mind about alkaline diets, as there is some evidence that they might help with certain chronic diseases involving muscle wasting such as diabetic ketosis, sepsis or chronic obstructive lung disease. It may even help people with low growth hormone. But the list of diseases that can be helped with an alkaline diet is pretty esoteric, so talk with your doc.

Saving the best for last

Included with many juice diets is a laxative. That’s because there is no fiber in a juice diet and fiber is needed to move your poop along. The thin dregs of a juice diet just sit there and sediment in your colon. It can block you up, thus the laxative. You should wonder about a cleansing diet that is so constipating that a laxative is required. I think the laxative may be doing the bulk of the cleansing here, but maybe I’m just being cynical.

These programs also often recommend colonics, a kind of enema on steroids. This cleans out the entire colon by repeated washing. All the poop is flushed out, and the colon is left shiny and pink. Some people carry wallet-size photos of their clean colons. You want to steer clear of these people at parties.

What could be wrong with hosing down your colon? Well, for one thing, it can screw up your electrolyte balance which can lead to the problems we discussed earlier, among other unpleasant things. Colonics can cause cramping, nausea and barfing. Worse yet, it can wash out your carefully cultivated gut-bacteria. You spend a lifetime making a nice home for them, and they repay you by helping with your digestion. If you don’t have a problem with that, why flush them away? Rebuilding your gut ecology takes time and leaves you vulnerable.

Unless a doctor orders it, there is no good reason for a colonic.

Cleansing your wallet

When it comes to evaluating a juice-cleansing program, muster some critical thinking. I know, what a pain in the ass, but here are some points to ponder:

  • Is the health site you’re visiting selling something? If so, don’t expect them to be objective, even if the website has very groovy copy or photos of hot doctors. Extra points if they are selling a secret formula, unavailable elsewhere.
  • Is there a real doctor behind the program, preferably board-certified? If not, they lack authority. If they have a doctor, is he or she trying to sell you something? If so, see the first bullet point.
  • Is the program all about detoxifying? If so, remember that your liver, lungs and kidneys continuously detox the hell out of you, even when you’re on one of these crazy diets. Have them show you their peer-reviewed studies of toxin removal. Don’t hold your breath.
  • Are colonics involved in the program? If so, do whatever billows your sail, but keep in mind that this is still not a real way to detox yourself and may do some real damage.

The Juice Machine

It’s great to seek out diets that look healthy and effective, and juicing seems to be both. But it fails on both scores: it’s not necessarily healthy and if you are looking for weight-loss, it’s a temporary fix.

The beauty of free markets is that new concepts get a fair shake, which is great, but the first adopters are often beta-testers. In the beginning, there naturally isn’t much information to go on. Unfortunately, a juice-based detox diet is unsupported by a single good study, and it would only take one good study to be worth billions to juice purveyors.

So why haven’t the studies been done? Because millions can be made without any supporting research whatsoever. In fact, if there were supporting research, the information about how to juice effectively would become public and companies would have fewer opportunities to exploit the knowledge gap. A lot of money can be made in the early days, in the gray areas before the science becomes well settled. To that end, it probably is better for these companies if the research is never done.

Despite the lack of science, we are willing, even eager, guinea pigs for anything that might possibly help us lose a pound. If it doesn’t make us too sick, we’ll entertain anything. Those of us who are prey to the diet industry are weak and needy and not always that discerning. And there is so much money to be made by charging premium prices for pretty bottles of cheap vegetables, that it’s not likely to stop anytime soon.

The bottom line on juicing

Now that I’ve busted all the myths of juice cleansing, you might think I’m not a fan. But really, if you want to drink your vegetables, why not? Despite all the toxins in those juices, there are also plenty of good things in there as well. After all, it’s food. And it may keep you away from junk food, which is a clear win. But remember that most juicers take the fiber out, which is pretty much the opposite of what you should be doing. That lack of fiber means you won’t poop, which is why many of the juice diets include laxatives. And that part of the diet seems really wrong.

There’s an easier, cheaper and healthier approach: just eat more spinach and beets. Put them through a blender if you want. Even Salma Hayek might prescribe that.


REFERENCES

Ames BN, Profet M, Gold LS. Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural). PNAS October 1, 1990 vol. 87no. 19 7777-7781.

Coon, J.M. 1975. Natural toxicants in foods. J. Am. Dietet. Assoc. 67: 213-218.

Strong, F.M. 1974. Toxicants occurring naturally in foods. Nutr. Rev. 32: 225-231.

Mishori R, et al. The dangers of colon cleansing. Journal of Family Practice. 2010;60:454.

Minyard, J.P. and W.E. Roberts. 1991. A state data resource on toxic chemicals in foods. Pages 151-161 in B.G. Tweedy, H.J. Dishburger, L.G. Ballantine, and J. McCarthy, eds. Pesticide Residues and Food Safety: A Harvest of Viewpoints. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society.

Position of the American Dietetic Association: Food and nutrition misinformation. J Am Dietetic Ass. 2006;106:601.

Gibbs WW. Gaining on fat. Sci American 1996; August: 70-6.

Lewis JL. Acid-Base Regulation and Disorders. Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, July 2008.

De Vadder, Filipe, Petia Kovatcheva-Datchary, Daisy Goncalves, Jennifer Vinera, Carine Zitoun, Adeline Duchampt, Fredrik Bäckhed, and Gilles Mithieux. “Microbiota-Generated Metabolites Promote Metabolic Benefits via Gut-Brain Neural Circuits.” Cell 156, no. 1–2 (January 16, 2014): 84–96. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2013.12.016.

Mattson, Mark P., and Ruiqian Wan. “Beneficial Effects of Intermittent Fasting and Caloric Restriction on the Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Systems.” The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry 16, no. 3 (March 2005): 129–137. doi:10.1016/j.jnutbio.2004.12.007.

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