Before you start that new diet or exercise program, some experts and diet gurus suggest a cleansing diet. It is supposed to clean out all of that bad food you’ve eaten over the past months, or years. Product companies can make some pretty outrageous claims, but you deserve to know the truth – and not just what we claim is the truth. We’ve taken science, clinical trials and expert opinions in hand to give you only the facts so you live a healthier life.
What is a Cleanse Diet?
A cleanse diet is a means of washing away waste and toxins, according to many claims. There are two types of cleansing to consider – supplements and cleansing foods. Sometimes you use both, but they can also be used independently. “Anybody can benefit from a cleansing. It’s a way you can jump-start your body for a more active life, a healthier life,” offers Linda Page, ND, PhD.
Supplements for Cleansing
One common, and heavily promoted, cleansing diet uses supplements to speed up the elimination process. Most supplements just work as diuretics or laxatives, but some companies throw in liver cleansers to give the formula a more rounded profile.
Cascara Sagrada – Cascara sagrada is nothing more than a natural, stimulant laxative. There’s little definitive information on how it works, but it is thought to irritate the bowel, pulling water into the intestines that inevitably causes increased bowel movements.
Senna Leaf – Senna leaf is generally the same as cascara sagrada. It works as a natural, stimulant laxative.
Magnesium – Magnesium is another natural laxative. You often see this added to calcium supplements because calcium can cause constipation. When taken alone, it can cause frequent trips to the bathroom. It is often sold as a means of relieving slow or hard bowel movements.
Dandelion Root – Dandelion root is a diuretic. Diuretics pull fluid out of the body via urination. There are no discerning healthy amounts of fluid to leave in the body, so these supplements need to be taken with caution.
Uva Ursi – Uva ursi is another natural diuretic.
Milk Thistle Extract – According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, “Previous laboratory studies suggested that milk thistle may benefit the liver by protecting and promoting the growth of liver cells, fighting oxidation (a chemical process that can damage cells), and inhibiting inflammation.”
Side Effects Associated with Cleansing Supplements
There are two major side effects to take into consideration when choosing supplements as part of a cleansing diet – dehydration and dependence.
Dehydration can be caused by diuretics and natural laxatives. Based on information provided by the British Journal of Pharmacology, “diuretic therapy can cause hypernatremia and dehydration due to the loss of water in excess of electrolyte loss. Conversely, their use can lead to hyponatremia, which is responsible for the common adverse effects (headache, nausea and vomiting).”
Dependence is also an issue. Using laxatives for any more than a few days can cause the bowel muscles to grow lazy. This means you will not be able to have a complete, natural bowel movement without help from more laxatives. According to the Journal of American College Health, “Serious medical problems that may occur with laxative abuse include electrolyte and fluid imbalance, structural and functional colonic changes, and allergic reactions.”
Foods That Promote Cleansing?
A more natural means of utilizing a cleansing diet to promote overall health and natural weight-loss is by using foods that support the gut and digestive process.
Dark, Leafy Vegetables – Look to collard greens, spinach and other dark, green leafy vegetables to use as part of a cleansing diet. Not only do these promote healthy digestion, they also provide tons of vitamins and nutrients that many people lack in a normal diet, including fiber, vitamin C, folate and vitamin K.
Fiber – The National Fiber Council puts fiber intake into perspective, “Few Americans know about the many health benefits of fiber, nor do they proactively seek ways to add more fiber to their diets. In fact, the average American barely consumes half the recommended amount of fiber needed per day, averaging an intake of 10-15 grams of fiber daily. At this level of intake, most Americans don’t realize fiber’s potential health benefits.” One health benefit is cleansing the colon and intestinal system.
Prebiotics and Probiotics – These healthy bacteria are there to keep your bowel in tip top shape. Though few cleanse diets suggest the use of prebiotics or probiotics, “these microorganisms may help with digestion and offer protection from harmful bacteria, just as the existing ‘good’ bacteria in your body already do,” says the Mayo Clinic. “Good” bacteria can be killed by antibiotics and laxatives.
Chia Seeds – One of the least common foods used in cleansing diet is chia seed. Chia seeds are full of omega fatty acids, something we all need more of in our diet, but it is the soluble and insoluble fiber that helps cleanse the bowel system.
Side Effects of Eating Cleansing Foods
The only side effects you have to worry about when eating cleansing foods are increased bowel movements and gas or bloating. It is best to start out slow, especially with foods that contain fiber. If you jump right into the recommended intake of fiber you will likely be in some pain for a while.
Is a Cleanse Diet Safe?
Safety of cleansing diets can go either way. If you are using supplements to cleanse, there are side effects to consider like diarrhea and dehydration. Cleansing foods also come with potential side effects like gas and bloating. The best choice is to add healthy, cleansing foods to the diet and use cleansing supplements in moderation for no more than a couple days. “Long-term use of laxatives, except for bulk laxatives, can make you dependent on laxatives to go to the bathroom and may mask important constipation symptoms,” offers Chris Iliades, MD. Bulk-forming laxatives include fiber.
Fad Cleansing Diets to Avoid
Fad cleansing diets like the Master Cleanse and lemonade diet are nothing more than a hoax. “Medical experts say it’s baloney. What’s most ironic about the detox myth, they say, is that the body is already quite capable of eliminating toxins – a gift from human evolution,” reports NPR.org. Any cleansing diet that says to drink only juice or liquids will lack the protein, vitamins and nutrients needs for healthy, daily function.
Yes, you will lose weight when you follow a cleansing diet, but that weight-loss is nothing more than water loss. You will gain that weight back as soon as you stop the diet. According to the Recovery Ranch, a center for people with eating disorders, “Although laxatives artificially stimulate the large intestine to empty, the “weight loss” caused by a laxative-induced bowel movement contains little actual food, fat, or calories. Instead laxative abuse causes the loss of water, minerals, electrolytes and indigestible fiber and wastes from the colon. This “water weight” returns as soon as the individual drinks any fluids and the body rehydrates.”
The Final Word on Cleansing Diet
There are two types of cleansing diet – food and supplement. Supplements are not a safe or effective means of losing weight as they only provide temporary loss of water. Cleansing foods, on the other hand, are a good way to promote a healthy weight and that could mean moderate weight-loss if you’re using a healthy diet as part of a program that includes exercise. Cleansing foods also provide vitamins and nutrients the body needs for overall health.