Can you wash away your nutritional sins with a cleanse?

    Pulse Host Maiken Scott tries out a two-day cleanse. (Kimberly Paynter/for WHYY)

    Pulse Host Maiken Scott tries out a two-day cleanse. (Kimberly Paynter/for WHYY)

    Pulse Host Maiken Scott tries it out. 

    Think about all the burgers you have eaten, the delicious deep fried chicken, the cookies, french fries, the nachos you chased with margaritas. Feel bloated and poisoned just thinking about it? There are days when the idea of washing away all of my food sins with a nutritional cleanse sounds rather appealing to me. (Usually these are days when the scale simply won’t corroborate what I’m telling myself about my eating habits)

    And when you look around online, it sure seems like a cleanse can do magical things for your weight, health and well-being. Hundreds of different options promise a metabolism “reset,” weight loss, better sleep, glowing skin, and fewer headaches. You can find methods where you avoid certain foods, or more extreme versions where you fast, and subside on lemon water with cayenne pepper.

    But, what is the true value and purpose of a cleanse?

    For Philadelphia naturopath Jaie Bosse, nutrition is a big focus point with patients, and cleanses are part of her healing arsenal.

    “I recommend that people avoid sugar, alcohol and caffeine, also common food sensitivities, gluten, corn, dairy and eggs,” she said.

    It’s not just about food and bowel movements, though. For Bosse, a cleanse is about lifestyle habits. “Deep breathing, a regular bedtime, and sitting down to eat meals, while we are not returning phone calls or writing emails on our smart phones.”

    Bosse says cleanses are a good way to give your body a bit of a break, but it’s not a detox. So, don’t imagine your body expelling mysterious heavy metals, or some plastic toy you ate when you were three. It’s a way to be mindful, to examine nutritional habits and cravings, to pay attention to when you are actually hungry, and when you’re eating because you’re bored and stressed. And the food consumed during the cleanse will likely be healthier than your usual fare.

    “You’re going to find yourself eating a lot of salads, a lot of fruits and vegetables, good quality beef and chicken, if that’s your thing, and you’ll experiment with grains outside of your comfort zone, like quinoa,” she said. 

    After a longer term cleanse, which lasts two or three weeks, most of her patients report feeling significantly better than they did before. “They are sleeping better, they’ve lost weight, they might have less gas or bloating, and less allergies and headaches,” she said.

    I decided I should try a cleanse myself, but Bosse warned me that it’s not easy. “The cravings can be a real downfall with cleanses.”

    With that in mind, I decided to go for two days of cleansing, starting each day with a green shake, made up of spinach, pineapple and banana. After that, more shake, or salads for lunch and dinner.

    I mostly did fine on this restricted diet, and wasn’t especially hungry. The big challenges were making dinner for my family – cooking a pork loin and then eating a puny salad myself- and passing up delicious breakfast foods at a morning meeting. Mostly, a heap of bacon that I’m still thinking about. I slept well during my cleanse, and felt energized during the day. But, as Bosse had warned me, the cravings were tough.

    They were also a major struggle for William Bender, a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, who did a two-day smoothie cleanse.

    “My main emotion is anger” said Bender on the afternoon of day one of his cleanse. “I have a couple of steaks in the fridge and I’m thinking about them, even when I’m not looking into the fridge.” Bender also reported feeling tired and sluggish. “I think maybe this is a scam to sell more produce,” he grumbled. “Generally, I just don’t know why people do this.”

    I asked that same question of gastroenterologist Jim Lewis of the University of Pennsylvania, and it turns out, he is not a believer. “The first level of misconception is that what lives in our intestines is bad for us,” he said.

    Meaning – our digestive track is not like a chimney that needs to be cleaned out.

    “Over the last few decades it’s become very clear that what lives in our intestines is a partner in health for us, for example there are certain vitamins where we need the organisms that live in our intestines to absorb these vitamins,” he explained.

    Lewis also explained that even if you completely clear your system of all of its contents – for example in preparation for a colonoscopy – the digestive track quickly repopulates with the same microbes that were there before.

    He also says there’s no benefit to living on smoothies alone. “Evolution gave us jaws and teeth for a reason, so that we can chew our food and put it in a condition where our intestines can digest it.”

    Lewis said there’s no doubt that nutrition impacts our health, but he says there’s not enough research yet on how certain diets impact the microbes in our digestive track, and how that interacts with our overall health.

    He agreed that a cleanse could get people to think about their eating habits, to try some new foods and be more mindful, but, it’s not a cure-all.

    “If you’re thinking about long-term health, you need to think about long-term changes in dietary patterns.”

    A statement to remember, especially given the fact that William Bender ended his cleanse with a big serving of steak and eggs, and I celebrated with a mountain of greasy chicken wings.

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