Fasting, Cleansing, and Detoxing: Pain for Very Little Gain (May 25, 2013)

To read my May 18th article on cleansing, fasting, and detoxing, Fasting, Cleansing, and Detoxing: Pain for Very Little Gain, click here or read below. 


An old friend reached out to me on Facebook the other day, asking a very interesting question that I, rather surprisingly, haven’t given very much thought to in quite a long time.

“What do you think of IF — Intermittent Fasting?”

As a person recovering from, living with, and managing anorexia, even just the idea of fasting is strictly off-limits for me. Like a recovering alcoholic falling off the wagon with the first sip of a cocktail, any amount of fasting would be too much for my brain to handle.

That doesn’t change the fact, though, that intermittent fasting and/or “cleansing” periods are a very hot topic right now. Everyone from Nicole Richie to Jared Leto to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit models laude the physical benefits of planned, occasional fasts. The trend has even grown to the point of several books and websites promoting a “fasting lifestyle;” a diet based on staying permanently in the fast-eat-fast again cycle.

Though these days fasting is a favourite of the celebrity set, Hollywood certainly isn’t the first to endorse it. The Bible speaks of Moses fasting for 40 days and nights, Benjamin Franklin described it as “the best medicine,” and Mark Twain wrote that fasting does more good than a doctor for a sick man. Moreover, it is difficult to find a religion that doesn’t at some point encourage fasting, one way or another.

But forget spiritual devotion, now it’s Gwyneth Paltrow encouraging us to periodically ditch the solid food. The most famous and celebrity-approved of these cleanses is the BluePrint Cleanse, clocking in at just over $65 a day. Who knew eating nothing could be so expensive?

Expense aside, should we fast? Do these cleanses really work?

It depends on what you’d like to get out of it.

If you’re contemplating intermittent fasting or a “cleanse” of some sort, the first thing you have to do is ask yourself a question. “Why am I going to do this, and what results would I like?”

Reasons will likely range from spiritual to religious to dietary to just plain curiosity, and everything in between. More times than not, though (and even if the would-be faster brings up the “amazing” health benefits of fasting), people are looking to drop a quick five pounds.

Normally, dropping that five pounds involves about two weeks of reduced calorie consumption and exercise. But with a fast or a juice cleanse, that two weeks magically turns into three days. Who wouldn’t find that appealing?

It is important to note that these “cleanses” (which usually last anywhere from three to 14 days) aren’t only about weight loss. Their advocates claim that you’ll not only lose weight, but cleanse and reboot your system and rid your body of toxins, waste and other general nastiness.

Let’s get one thing straight. You are not going to heal your liver with a five-day cleanse. You are not going to rid yourself of diabetes with a three-day fast. You aren’t going to expel eight pounds of waste that has been clinging to your intestines, and you most certainly are not going to detoxify your internal organs by abstaining from solid food for the better part of a week.

But don’t just take it from me. When asked if cleanses or fasts are healthy, Dr. Michael Gershon, a professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University, had this to say; “No. Liquid cleanses, or severely calorie-restricted detox diets, are based on quack science, and the only weight you lose is water weight. They can even do your body a lot of harm: Because many cleanses cause you to go to the bathroom more than usual, you may flush out important electrolytes that help your heart function and maintain fluid balance in your body. That’s why some people experience muscle weakness and mental fogginess. Your colon isn’t dirty, and juice cleanses wouldn’t clean’ it anyway, since they don’t contain much fiber, which is what actually ‘scrubs’ the colon. Plus, the idea that your body is better able to digest liquids is nonsense. Your stomach is built to cope with solid food, and it doesn’t need a break! If you really want to slim down, fill your plate with leafy green vegetables, fiber, whole grains and good fats in your everyday life.”

Will you lose weight? As with any drastically calorie-reduced plan, yes. Will a lot of it be water weight and/or temporary weight loss? Yes. Will you feel better after the cleanse or fast? Maybe.

Eating disorder aside, I have done a juice cleanse. In the first days I felt headaches, dizziness, and intense cravings. I enjoyed the feeling of control the cleanse gave me, and there was something of a feeling of spiritual cleanliness that came along with being quite so empty. By the end of the process, I felt very weak and hated that I couldn’t work out. I won’t be doing it again.

If you’re looking into intermittent fasting as a more permanent weight-loss solution, my advice is far more definite.

Run, don’t walk.

Just don’t do it, period. I cannot recommend it, nor should any other qualified nutritionist, let alone doctor, recommend it. If you maintain a healthy diet, there is absolutely no reason incorporate fasting into your lifestyle. It isn’t pleasant, it is difficult to maintain, and it wrecks havoc on your blood glucose levels. Fasting one day encourages binging the next, and though you may lose fat, you’ll also lose muscle mass.

More to the point, there is absolutely no scientific consensus surrounding the supposed health benefits of “the fasting lifestyle.” Far from it. For every study showing the positive effects of intermittent fasting, there is a study showing that it makes absolutely no difference in overall health. In fact, proponents of ‘if’ rely heavily on the results of a study conducted on rats in 1945.

I prefer to trust research more current than the days of Winston Churchill.

If you feel bloated, sluggish and heavy, think you’re consuming too much processed food, or do just want to drop those stubborn five pounds, don’t rush to a fast. Clean up your diet, add loads of fresh produce and leafy greens, and cut down on the animal fats and starchy carbs. Exercise, cut down on alcohol, and drink water. It’s healthy, sustainable, and far less torturous than days filled with dizziness and intense hunger. Not only that, but the weight you lose will stay off.

Just think of it as a fast from junk.

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