Want to do a Juice Cleanse? Here's Why You Shouldn't - Women's Health

Want to do a Juice Cleanse? Here’s Why You Shouldn’t

The sweet health promises of juice cleanses have proven to be anything but. So why is this debunked diet method back on our social feeds? The experts remind us of the dangers.

By Lauren Clark

There’s a grainy green solution in a blender. The word ‘detox’ is being thrown around and there are before-and-after selfies comparing day one with day 10. No, you haven’t stumbled across an infomercial circa 2007, nor a dated diet page on Facebook, but on to Lizzo’s TikTok in December 2020.

The 33-year-old singer announced to her 18 million fans she was doing a smoothie detox for her health, and she’s not the only one. 

Shortly after Lizzo’s smoothies went viral, Salma Hayek’s penchant for juicing was given as the prime reason behind a series of age-defying bikini snaps the 55-year-old actress posted to Instagram. There are now millions of videos tagged #smoothiecleanse and #juicecleanse on TikTok, where 40 per cent of users are under the age of 24. 

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with sipping as part of your fruit and vegie quota, be it via a smoothie (where whole pieces of fruit and/or vegetables are blended together) or a juice (where liquid is extracted from the fruit or vegetable); it’s the ‘cleanse’ part of this trend – the idea that you substitute meals for fruit in liquid form for anything from one to 10 days – that has dietitians concerned. In an era when we really ought to know better, why are liquid cleanses doing the rounds again? 

Throwback thirsty

While the concept has been around since 1941 – when alternative health practitioner Stanley Burroughs created ‘the master cleanse’ (10 days of lemon juice mixed with maple syrup, cayenne pepper and spring water) – they hit the mainstream when Beyoncé revealed that she’d lost nine kilos in two weeks on the regime ahead of her 2006 role in Dreamgirls.

Along came Instagram in 2010, and pictures of rainbow-hued beverages through an X-Pro II filter helped liquid fruit and vegies become one of the first viral wellness trends, prompting grab-and-go versions to pop up everywhere. Throw in a handful of studies supporting the health benefits of sipping on your produce – kale, citrus and carrot-based juices were reported to potentially reduce heart disease risk, while the latter was also linked to lower oxidative stress in the cells of women treated for breast cancer – and you can begin to understand
why juices and smoothies became synonymous with optimum health.

But by the close of the noughties, the trend was beginning to leave a bitter taste. Doctors warned that it was becoming society’s most acceptable form of eating disorder, prompting the emergence of the term ‘juicerexics’. A 2015 analysis by Harvard Medical School warned of the need to differentiate between drinking juice as part of a ‘cleanse’ and consuming on the fly; even former fan Gwyneth Paltrow walked away from the trend, announcing that she had given up on cleanses on an episode of The goop Podcast in 2018

“I’ve done juice cleanses in the past, and in my twenties I did the Master Cleanse, which left me hallucinating after 10 days… Be aware: a juice detox can crash your metabolism and lead to future weight gain.”

Gwyneth Paltrow

 In recent years, cleanses have fallen firmly out of favour, replaced instead by more evidence-based approaches: eating a variety of fruit, vegetables and pulses to support gut health and canning the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods to eat much more intuitively. 

Or so we thought. Fast forward to 2021 and the basic principle – that you exclusively, or mostly, sip on liquid fruit and vegetables for anything from one day up to 10 – has barely changed. While you can do the blending or juicing yourself, you can also pay a premium for someone else to do it, with companies delivering pre-made drinks to your doorstep. There’s an exclusive vibe amped up by lifestyle photographs featuring dumbbells and jade rollers alongside endorsements from nutritionists. And the same sweet promises are doing the rounds. Primarily, that’s weight loss, closely followed by ‘detoxing’ your body, alongside assurances of brighter skin, better sleep and boosted energy. If cleansing has had the equivalent of an iOS update, it’s in the adoption of trending health terms; ones like ‘boosted immunity’, ‘nourishing’ and ‘health promoting’.

Squeezed out

So, is there a health case to be made for the cleansing revival? The short answer is no. Every dietitian WH contacted for this piece described the trend of forgoing meals in favour of liquidised fruit and vegetables for days at a time as a negative one. “You risk nausea, tiredness, headaches, irritability…” says dietitian Marcela Fiuza, reeling off the side effects that you can expect to endure on a cleanse. She explains that while smoothies are healthier than juices – since the former involves the whole fruit as opposed to the extracted liquid – when you begin to consume them as a substitute for meals, you put your nutrition at risk. The idea that a fruit-focused cleanse will provide you with many essential micronutrients is ironic, she points out, since they also deprive you of key macronutrients. “Protein, carbs and fats are just as important as micronutrients for your body to function optimally, and they’re vital for your brain as well as your energy levels.” 

As for those essential nutrients, if you opt for juicing – which removes the fruit/vegie skin, remember – the process can also downgrade the proven health benefits of certain produce. Apples, for one, are stripped of much of their vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content when liquidised. And you can forget fibre – the gut microbiome-supporting, blood sugar-stabilising and bowel movement-regulating benefits of which go out in the compost. That’s before you consider the sugar content – a single serving of juice contains somewhere between 5g and 20g of sugar per 200ml, which makes up much of the 50g daily limit recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Claims that cleanses of all kinds – be that juices, smoothies or lemon water – have the power to ‘detox’ your body also wither under the microscope. Humans already have the most efficient in-built system to get rid of toxins, notes Fiuza – the kidneys and liver. What’s more, without adequate fuel, they won’t be able to do their job – and there have been very rare instances of organ failure. “Never mind that there’s no research showing cleanses are effective,” she warns. “There’s no evidence to suggest they’re safe.” As for ‘boosting immunity’, a health goal that, for obvious reasons, has rocketed up the priority list over the past year and a half: “The gut is one of the main components of your immune system, so the idea that you would want to give it a ‘break’ is counterintuitive,” she adds, noting that you’d be terrified if someone suggested you give your brain or heart a time out. “These cleanses are promoted with clever, enticing language but they’re not grounded in science at all.”

If that’s not enough to put you off, the central paradox with cleanses is that they often sabotage the very health goal they purport to help you attain, as it’s neither a healthy nor sustainable way to lose weight. “While protein powder is often added to smoothies, which is crucial for weight loss because it preserves your muscle mass and keeps your metabolism working optimally, a juice cleanse sees protein cut out completely,” says Fiuza. “Instead, your body goes into starvation mode through [kilojoule] restriction – as part of an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect you during periods of famine. Your metabolism slows in order to reduce the number of [kilojoules] your body burns, causing weight loss to stall. Once you resume eating, weight regain tends to occur.” 

So, after you’ve completed what is, essentially, a crash diet by another name, your system will be actively working against your aim. Wrapped up in this, adds dietitian Roslyn Gray – who specialises in helping people with disordered eating – is that cleanses could exacerbate pre-existing conditions, such as anorexia or bulimia, or provide a gateway into a problematic relationship with food.

Toxic a-peel

It adds up to a compelling case for giving this particular trend a wide berth. So if there’s no evidence that cleanses are healthy – and plenty to suggest they aren’t – what’s prompted their revival? Dr Christy Fergusson, a chartered health psychologist and nutritional therapist, believes they never went away. “The mindset hasn’t changed, it’s just that the ‘remedy’ has evolved over time into a different guise,” she explains, of how Atkins, keto and juice and smoothie cleanses are essentially the same. “Whether it’s restricting [kilojoules] or restricting food groups, it’s diet culture in a fresh guise.” 

The resurgence of cleanses comes at a time when experts have already warned about a tsunami of eating disorders due to the pressures of the pandemic. Recent research, published in the journal Appetite, linked such psychological distress to being more preoccupied with food, with women thought to be particularly at risk. “Eating disorders thrive on isolation,” Gray says, noting that recovery can be hard without the usual support systems in place, such as family or friends, while being away from the workplace or place of education means it can be easier to hide if there’s a problem. “But what I’ve seen from sitting in on assessments of those in their teens and 20s, in particular, is the rise of TikTok,” she notes, pointing to the ‘what I eat in a day’ style videos. “People don’t realise how influential they are actually being online – particularly celebrities,” she adds, of how emotive music and can’t-look-away images that play to the platform’s algorithm can hook people in.

The approx billion-dollar value of the global market for fruit and vegetable juices in 2020.

A better blend

Our experts are unequivocal: if you enjoy a juice or smoothie now and again to help you reach your fruit and vegetable target, go for it. A recent Harvard study concluded that eating two fruit and three vegies each day is the most longevity-boosting combo. Using a blender to create a smoothie is preferable to juicing (less faff, more fibre); and making your juice 75 per cent vegies, instead of fruit, will help limit sugar content. Just don’t, warns Fiuza, substitute your whole diet for them. 

“Steer clear of content containing language such as ‘quick fix’ and ‘detox’, as well as anything that promises that you’ll lose a certain amount of weight over a period of days or weeks,” says Gray, advising caution around diets that involve cutting out whole food groups. Be mindful of where you’re getting your nutrition advice, too. “Is it a celebrity or influencer – someone recommending a product or way of eating for monetary gain?” You can get qualified advice from dietitians – a protected job title. While many nutritionists are also properly trained, the title itself isn’t regulated so anyone can call themselves one.

Calls for moderation might be less ripe for Insta likes than a rainbow-hued liquid. But, the nutrition advice that helps you become – bit by bit – the healthiest version of you; the stuff that’s truly rooted in science? It rarely is. Let’s sip on that.

If you or someone you know needs help or support for an eating disorder or body image issue, call Butterfly’s National Helpline on 1800 334 673 or email support@butterfly.org.au.

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