Diet or 'detox': A look at the popular - but controversial - cleanse drinks

FARGO - On Day One of her 10-day "Master Cleanse," my sister emailed me: "The cat food actually smells edible." By Day Five she was dreaming about food and planning her first post-cleanse meal (salmon with rice pilaf). As a test of self-disciplin...

Glass of Master Cleanse "lemonade"
Dave Wallis / The Forum

FARGO - On Day One of her 10-day "Master Cleanse," my sister emailed me: "The cat food actually smells edible."

By Day Five she was dreaming about food and planning her first post-cleanse meal (salmon with rice pilaf).

As a test of self-discipline, she made it through the detox on nothing but Master Cleanse "lemonade."

The concoction consists of filtered water, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, lemons and sea salt.

(I took two sips of the liquid, and there's no way I could drink it for 10 days, let alone for one day.)


My sister was taking in only 800-900 calories a day, almost entirely from the syrup.

When Kimberly Ough of Fargo tried a similar cleanse, she felt like she was starving herself.

"I remember licking the maple syrup out of the jar," the 32-year-old said.

Men and women try juice diets, cleanses and detox programs in hopes of "purifying" their bodies, gaining energy or losing weight.

It's bottoms up in the name of releasing toxins, though Sanford Health dietitian Kathy Olson said there's no way to measure whether that actually occurs.

"There's really no research to support that they're beneficial," Olson said. "In fact, there's research showing that they aren't."

My sister (whose goal wasn't to lose weight) said when people use the Master Cleanse as a crash diet they tend to regain the weight immediately, "since it is, after all, extreme deprivation."

Besides, Olson said, fast weight loss may reflect water weight instead of actual body mass.


Yet she said people continue to try this or that new cleanse, or they create their own using bits and pieces from different programs and advice from others.

Olson said the word "cleanse" is misleading. "It's just a new buzz term for restricting what a person's consuming," she said.

'It's a commitment'

Ough, herself a Beachbody "coach" since 2009, will finish the 21-day Beachbody Ultimate Reset tomorrow.

Unlike the three-day program she attempted 10 years ago, the three-phase Reset is a "no-starvation cleanse."

The program promises to "Reclaim your body's natural balance, release the harmful materials you may be storing within you, and restore your system to its maximum health."

While taking supplements, you slowly eliminate red meat and dairy the first week. In week two, you transition to a vegetarian, then a completely vegan diet.

Fitness instructor Katie Seier said on Day 10 of the Reset that the biggest benefit has been learning to work through her emotions instead of eating them.


"During this cleanse you have to focus on emotions and why they're happening and why they're making you 'hungry,' " said the 20-year-old Minot State University senior.

Seier, also a Beachbody coach, said she felt satisfied but missed working out. You're not supposed to exercise on the program.

Ough said your body's going through such an "internal workout," the company's creators don't want you to tax your muscles while you're doing it.

Dietitian Olson, however, said that's a red flag.

"If your energy has dropped to the point that you can't do the healthy, consistent activity you were doing before, then the program doesn't sound like it's designed for your ultimate health," she said.

By the end of the program, Ough hopes to be "tuned up" so she can take her workouts further, and Seier's looking forward to feeling "brand new."

They'll both use their experiences to guide and support others who want to give the Reset a try.

Some people use a detox program to target food cravings, which Olson said can backfire.


"Depending on the length of restriction, when the program is completed, people may overindulge on items that were 'forbidden,' " she said.

Ough had a breakdown recently over cravings but pushed through it. "It's a commitment, but I'm glad I'm doing it," she said.

'They're oversimplified'

Short term, Olson said most cleanses or detox programs don't have negative side effects, though participants may experience low energy, slowed metabolism or dizziness.

On Day 12 of the Beachbody Ultimate Reset, Ough said she felt good but reported headaches and fatigue.

During her cleanse, my sister said she alternated between feeling "insanely good" and like a "pregnant ultramarathoner with a tapeworm."

Longer term, cleanses can interfere with the body's processes, said Olson, who's seen up to a 30-day detox program.

She said waste-eliminating processes of the kidneys, liver, lungs and gastrointestinal system aren't as efficient when they're oversimplified.


Further, cleanses interrupt the intestines' ability to absorb nutrients.

"Whenever food's moving through our system quickly, that also discourages nutrients from being absorbed," she said.

It is believed that laxatives are used in various products so that consumers feel they are actually ridding their body of "toxins," Olson said.

Many think that more waste leaving their body during a cleanse means more toxins leaving their system, but she said that's not the case.

Olson said cleanses can remove strains of "normal healthy gut bacteria."

The health benefits are dependent on each strain of "good" bacteria, but researchers are looking at their role in weight management and inflammation.

Most detox programs are low in protein and fat, which Olson said are needed for the immune system and the absorption of some vitamins.

The best way to protect the body, she said, is to eat a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products and healthy fats.

What To Read Next
Get Local