If juice cleanses don’t really work, why are we hooked?

Juice-only detoxes are a growing trend — much to the alarm of health practitioners

Photograph by Liam Mogan

On day two of her three-day juice cleanse, Lindsay Grange cracked open a kale, celery and cucumber cocktail that smelled like a salad and looked like a swamp. With a sigh, she chugged it back. “I went through a period of too much prepackaged food and not enough sleep. I wanted to kick-start healthy habits and lose some weight,” says the 32-year-old, on what attracted her to a juice-only detox. She’s not alone: the start of the year finds bloggers and reporters turning their detox diaries into articles, and juice cleanses are this year’s choice. Celebrities like Blake Lively and Gwyneth Paltrow have been photographed with designer bag in one hand and juice-cleanse bottle in the other. Salma Hayek’s company, Cooler Cleanse, delivers juice regimes across America.

Companies offering juice-only diets have been popping up across Canada, too. For about $50 a day, for three to seven days, businesses like Bava Juice in Calgary and the Juice Cleanse in Vancouver drop off bottles containing fruit, nut and vegetable juices on your doorstep, with promises to rest and detoxify the digestive system. Some, like Raw Raw in Burlington, Ont., and Total Cleanse in Toronto, claim they’ve had a 20 to 40 per cent jump in clients within the past 12 months.

Grange perused the Total Cleanse website and was sold by the modern, uncluttered label design, the photos of dew-laden produce. This was not the juicing of late-night Jack LaLanne infomercials—it was a hip, urban liquid accessory. “I liked that I didn’t have to cook or make any food decisions,” says Grange. But there was one problem. “I just could not function on the cleanse,” she says. “I was dizzy, nauseous, tired and couldn’t do my work.” By the end of day two, she’d tossed the juice in favour of a solid meal.

Grange could have saved herself the trouble, suggests Michael D. Gershon, professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University. “The inside of the gastrointestinal tract is simply not dirty in the sense that it needs cleansing,” he says. In other words, trying to clean out your digestive system as if it were a closet is misplaced effort.

But some experts say a placebo effect can be effective: believing you’re doing something good for your body, regardless of health benefits, is a powerful motivator. “We focus on resetting the system,” says Carol Belmonte of Belmonte Raw in Toronto. “Not just physically but spiritually and emotionally. We have a lot of repeat customers.”

Kathleen Martin Ginis, a professor of health and exercise psychology at McMaster University, says it’s no surprise juice diets are popular after the holidays. “It’s psychologically uncomfortable to think badly of ourselves. Society says a good person takes care of their body and it’s hard to reconcile that against the knowledge that you’ve willingly gone through a period of excess.” Most people use juice-only cleanses for weight loss, she points out, even though the claims are otherwise.

Psychologists use the term “licensing effect” to describe making a virtuous choice, then using that as license to make an indulgent choice. A juice-only cleanse after a binge works in reverse. But, says Gershon, if you torture your body one way, it’s not good to torture it in another. And a short period of purging may be more harmful than a short period of bingeing. “The gastrointestinal tract has a normal flora, healthy bacteria that is an intrinsic part of the gut, and when it gets disturbed we can invite bad bacteria to live there. When you do things like taking only juice, you risk changing the balance of the flora,” he says. He notes the body is wired to detoxify during overindulgence; a cleanse can damage that system.

“There’s a story we repeat when teaching statistics,” he says. “There’s a guy with one foot in a pail of ice water and one foot in a pail of boiling water and you ask him, ‘How do you feel?’ and he jokes, ‘On average, fine’. That’s what you’re doing: two extremes you’re convinced will level out. But they just don’t.”

After two days of juice, Grange was grateful for food and aimed not to take her body for granted. “I went back to healthy eating choices after the cleanse so, in that way, it worked.”




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If juice cleanses don’t really work, why are we hooked?

  1. I had a colonoscopy and was able to see my colon as the camera snaked up the tube. the walls were pink and clean. they gave me a chemical liquid cocktail and laxatives to evacuate the digestive system. you dont need a special mixture of whatever to do the same. or you should fast a day. dont waste your money.

    • “evacuate the digestive system”
      Evacuate?? In our moment of triumph? I thing you overestimate their chances.

  2. Whoever wrote this article must have worked in the propaganda deparment of a communist country. First all in the title, ” If juice cleanses don’t really work, why are we hooked?”, who are the ‘we’ the writer is referring to. Certianly not me. The photo used in the article makes juicing look dirty and messy. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. It never is for me. I never go on a juice fast without knowing how to do it properly. And a juice fast is never done to clean out the digestive sysem. The colon yes. And my mixture does smell like salad but never looks like a swamp. What kind of image does a swamp cnnjure up? No I love juice fasting. That;s why at age 68 I’m still young and fit.

    • Tian, great response. this article seems assumptive and not well researched.

  3. A clean diet (clean eating), is the best to lose weight and be healthy.

  4. Apart from a title that begs the question of whether juice cleansing “works”, intermittent fasting has been proven to have numerous health benefits and nobody is going to die of starvation or trash their gut flora by drinking freshly made vegetable juice for a few days.
    As far a trashing good gut flora is concerned, antibiotic use takes the cake in that department. Where in the world did the author dig up a supposed “expert” to make silly claims that vegetable juice damages healthy gut flora? Now that’s crap.
    The real problem with statistics is that they’re grossly manipulated by the medical industry. Mainstream medicine is famous for denying patient individuality in favor of a onesizefitsall paradigm. It’s about 10 years behind holistic medicine in knowledge/use of probiotics for example.
    If mainstream medicine had its way we’d all be wearing a single shoe size based on an 8 week survey of 200 people’s feet.

  5. Juice Cleansing–what a bunch of nonsense!
    “A fool and his money are soon separated”

    • You have no idea what you are talking about – done properly, under the supervision of a nutritionist, people can (I have seen this) shrink cancer tumours before surgery. Progressive hospitals often suggest and supervise a fast for these purposes, because it is far less invasive/painful than chemotherapy. You are ignorant and misinformed.

  6. Much to the alarm of health practitioners?
    I am a physician and I am relieved that more and more of the people I care for are making healthy choices like juicing, adding more raw foods to their diet and avoiding processed foods.
    Your article doesn’t speak for me.

  7. In stupidity there is cash.

  8. In my opinion, it’s the cutting out of the processed foods that makes them eventually feel better. You don’t need juice. Just start cooking your own food from wholesome ingredients and it’ll have the same impact.

  9. its stupid to buy the belmonte raw . first of all its risky to substitute juice for food. second a fifty dollar juicer will make u a healthy juice at home. you substitute one meal for juice and eat all the five food groups. foolish women pay a lot for belmonte raw as they watch too much kadarshian type fake shows and want to be self made celebrities. belmonting themselves is just a boastful way to present themselves as living healthy. i even read recently about a breast feeding mom doing the juice detox , this is entirely stupid and dangerous. juicing is good but not an alternative to eating, and be wise produce is cheap, juice at home dont be bottlefed with juice and no cranium ideas. eat healthy stay healthy

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