A Contrary Viewpoint on Juice Cleansing
Words: Tansy Boggon, Nutritional Therapist
Strohacker K., Carpenter K.C., McFarlin B.K. Consequences of Weight Cycling: An Increase in Disease Risk? Int J Exerc Sci. 2009; 2(3): 191–201.
Aly S.M. Role of Intermittent Fasting on Improving Health and Reducing Diseases. Int J Health Sci (Qassim). 2014 Jul; 8(3): V–VI.
Although many proclaim to embark on a juice cleanse for good health, often it is a guise for desired weight loss, often within a very short timeframe. You don’t have to spend much time Googling to be exposed to declarations of the weight loss potential of juice cleansing – it is true that there is no shortage of inspiring stories of other people’s juice cleanse weight loss successes.
A diet by another name is still a diet
The thing is, you are incredibly likely to lose weight on a juice cleanse. I won’t guarantee it like other nutritionists do, but what I can say is that the likelihood you will, is high. However, the truth is that the weight you will be losing isn’t the weight you want to lose. The weight loss will mostly be of water, glycogen (sugar) stores in the liver and muscles and intestinal bulk. This is not at all what you want if weight loss is your goal.
To add insult to injury, the reduced calories you are consuming and this loss of water, glycogen and subsequent muscle wastage will cause your metabolism to slow, as your body’s starvation response will most likely also start kicking in. This is the exact opposite of what we want to do to our metabolism when our desire is to lose weight.
Some declare you will become a fat burning machine on a juice cleanse since once your body is starved of its sugar stores and isn’t acquiring sufficient energy through your diet, it will start to break down fat cells for energy. Whilst this is true, your body breaks down fat cells at the expense of your muscle, as the body breaks down muscle to release sugars for the process of converting fat into sugars that can be used by your brain and body. Hence, if we aren’t eating sufficient carbohydrates or protein, such as when juice cleansing or fasting, our fat burning will come at the expense of muscle wastage. Thus, although we are burning fat our metabolism hasn’t kicked into a higher gear as we have been led to believe.
Juice cleanses, especially one that was going to be undertaken for an extended period of time, would need to be carefully structured to ensure the brain and body receive sufficient glucose to minimise muscle wastage. Many proponents argue that on a juice cleanse we are supplying our brain with sufficient energy because we are obtaining natural sugars, vitamins and minerals from our juices. However, because the total energy consumed is often very low, there is still not sufficient energy for all our bodies function. Our body is still being deprived of energy. From a scientific standpoint, we really don’t have a good understanding of whether the glucose in juices would be sufficient to ensure healthy brain function during a cleanse.
Juice cleansing as deprivation
Like any other diet for weight loss, on a juice cleanse, the deprivation of our body of calories is a contributor to weight loss. Just like when we are on a diet, this deprivation leads to immense hunger.
We are told by experienced juice cleansers that this hunger will dissipate if we push through it – and in many respects, we can. Our body has the ability to survive through feast and famine. In times of famine, our body sends our brain signals of hunger in waves that let us know that obtaining food is a priority, but these signals are not always on a high pitch as we need energy and concentration to obtain food. Therefore, we can push through the hunger pains we experience on a cleanse.
However, like when on a diet, it requires considerable mental and emotional effort not to think about, or give into thoughts about foods. When we begin eating again this hunger can drive us to overeat and gain the weight back rapidly, and in some cases additional weight as our body recalibrates itself. This can spur us to embrace yet again another diet or cleanse, and begin a cycle of yo-yo dieting or weight cycling.
If your motivation for embarking on a juice cleanse is to lose weight, it is unlikely to yield lasting results and is likely to cause more harm than good.
Yo-yo dieting contributes to low esteem and self-worth and has been shown to raise blood cortisol (stress hormone), promote inflammation throughout the body and increase the risk of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases (Strohacher et al., 2009). Furthermore, juice cleanses, detox, fasts and diets can stimulate disordered and unhealthy eating behaviours such as binge and compulsive eating.
Some declare that going on a juice cleanse or fast has helped them overcome their food addictions or fear of hunger. Although this may be the result of juice cleansing for some people, if you have issues with overeating, binge eating, or compulsive eating, adopting intuitive eating principles such as honouring your hunger, eating mindfully and listening to your body is a far more nurturing approach to help you to achieve a balanced diet and healthy relationship with food.
What if you do really want to juice cleanse for health?
Unfortunately, research to demonstrate the benefits of juice cleansing to detoxify or heal the body is lacking. Many of the proclaimed benefits are extrapolated from research on the health benefits of various vitamins and minerals, and fasting, but are not specific to juice cleansing itself. For example, scientific research has been conducted on various methods of fasting such as intermittent fasting and has demonstrated benefits such as improving insulin sensitivity and cardiovascular risk, reducing oxidative stress and inflammation and increasing longevity in animal studies (Mesalhy, 2014).
However, these benefits can’t be extrapolated for juice fasting, and fasting with juice may be more harmful than good. Not only are we depriving our body of essential vitamins, minerals, proteins, essential fatty acids and energy to support our detoxification organs, juice cleansing may reduce our body to cleanse. This is because we are depriving our body of foods, such as fibre, resistant starches, fermented foods and probiotics, which have been demonstrated to cleanse and promote the functioning of our digestive system. Eating food is important for stimulating the release of stomach acid, digestive enzymes, bile salts, protective mucus and promoting microorganisms that nourish our intestinal cells. Unfortunately, juice does not contain components to stimulate all these functions, and thus does not promote the functioning of our digestive system. If we truly want to give our digestive system a rest a 12 or 24 hour fast may be a better way to go.
The other issue with juice is that it contains simple sugars that are rapidly absorbed by the body. Because there is no requirement for our body to break down complex carbohydrates or other foods when on a juice cleanse, drinking juices can result in a dramatic spike in blood glucose. This can affect the energy and concentration of healthy individuals. For those with chronic illness or on medications, caution should be taken, and juice cleansing should only be undertaken after seeking medical advice. Juice cleanses should be avoided for children and pregnant or breastfeeding women, as they have specific nutritional requirements for growth that can only be obtained through regular eating.
By now you are probably getting the idea that juice cleansing is not all it’s cracked up to be. But you might be thinking, "what do I do? I like the idea of cleansing my digestive system and I enjoy that feeling of lightness that a cleanse creates!" What you can do: adopt eating behaviours that are efficient at promoting the cleansing of the digestive tract – a.k.a fibre rich foods.
What’s the best way to clean out your digestive tract?
Quite simply, the best way to cleanse your digestive tract is the same way you clean your floors, with water and a broom!
Water – Water supports detoxification through the kidneys, lymphatic system and blood. Adequate water intake can assist in reducing constipation, thus promoting the removal of waste from your body. So often people are inspired to embark on a juice cleanse or detox, yet don’t drink sufficient water. Drinking sufficient filtered water is the first place to start to cleanse your body.
And the broom? – Fibre promotes regularity of bowel movements and is important for removing wastes from the large intestine. It is your best intestinal cleanser. Eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables provide many vitamins and minerals and help to keep things moving in our digestive tract.
Simple, right? But nowhere as exciting and Instagram worthy as those colourful juices!
Reduce your toxin burden
If you want to rid yourself of those toxins you have consumed over the year, you don’t need to juice cleanse, fast or detox. You could try cutting out or substantially reducing your intake of alcohol, fried foods, trans fats, charred meats, soft drinks, artificial flavours and colours. You could try this for one month / a year, or cut out one thing a month over the year, or even embrace meat-free Mondays. The approach you take is very personal and depends on what the worst offenders in your diet are.
You are unlikely to undo a year of unhealthy eating with a few days of juice cleansing. The belief we can have a yearly spring clean or hit the reset button on our digestive system or health is flawed and is unlikely to have a noticeable impact on our health. Changing your eating habits is a far better approach to improving your long-term health.
I recommend learning to listen to your body and creating dietary changes one change at a time, so that you are not overwhelmed by the change, and can determine for yourself what provides the greatest benefit to your body. A great place to start is to swap a food that you know isn’t great for you with a whole food equivalent and notice the changes in your body. Taking a more balanced approach to your eating, rather than swaying from one extreme to another is a much better way to foster a healthy relationship with food and maintain long-term health.
As part of a whole foods diet you can enjoy juices and occasionally embark on a short juice cleanse if you so desire. Fresh juices can be a great supplement to a healthy diet, however, they are not a meal substitute, nor will they absolve you of your sins. If your diet needs an overhaul I’d recommend you start there, rather than with a juice cleanse.
If you do want to do a juice cleanse, fast or eat to support detoxification of your body for spiritual practice, I encourage you to seek support from an appropriately qualified nutrition professional to provide guidance throughout and to assist you with your diet once you begin eating solids again.