Is going foodless a path to health?
by Christie Chisholm, Santa Fe Reporter, September 1, 2010
Part of the Santa Fe Reporter's "Sweat" issue
I’m not sure why I wanted to starve myself.
I like my body, and I take fairly good care of it. Granted, walking my dog is the only exercise I get these days, and the svelte, yogic physique I had once carved for myself has settled back into its natural, softer state, but I’m no body-hater. And, even though most of my meals involve a waiter and the word “smothered,” I don’t gorge myself on anything that comes in a plastic wrapper or a box. So while I’m not the model of antioxidant-charged, gluten-free health, I also don’t feel like a walking pile of trans fats.
Yet while not in dire need of a fast, I found myself wanting to do one anyway in order to recharge, restart and detox. If my hot pants were a little less snug at the end of it—all the better.
I initially looked into the Master Cleanse, which involves nothing but water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and grade D maple syrup for approximately 10 days. Especially popular a few years back, its proponents claim the cleanse will flush the body of toxins it’s been holding for years, resulting in clear skin, lots of energy and a couple less inches on the waistline.
I was on the verge of buying myself a bushel of lemons when I spoke to a nurse friend of mine. She looked at me sideways as soon as I mentioned the cleanse, and then proceeded to scare me straight with a string of words such as “starvation,” “sick” and “unnatural.”
Then I thought I’d have better luck with juice cleanses. Many juice cleanses tout the same benefits as the Master Cleanse and other forms of fasting but, instead of lemon water, include nutrient-rich smoothies. Being the somewhat lazy takeout eater I am, I looked into well-regarded juice cleanses from Organic Avenue and BluePrintCleanse, which offer salivation-worthy concoctions such as cashew milk and goji berry smoothies. But ordering a five-day cleanse costs approximately $350, and I still wasn’t sure they would make me any healthier. So I decided to ask the experts.
First, I called Gretchen Scott. A registered and licensed dietitian, Scott teaches nutrition at Santa Fe Community College.
“I don’t see any wonderful benefits to fasting,” she says, adding, “I think if you fast for a long period, it can be potentially dangerous.” To Scott, “a long period” is just a couple of days.
During a fast, she explains, the body breaks into its stores of fat and protein so it has enough energy to get through the day. From a weight loss perspective, this means some pounds will be lost while fasting, but some of that lost weight will come from muscle as well as fat, and a lot of it will come from water weight. As soon as one’s diet returns to normal, the numbers on the scale will rise again once the water weight returns, but the muscle will have been burned away. And because the metabolism slows to conserve energy during a fast, Scott warns that repeated fasting runs the risk of making it harder to lose weight. But the really frightening aspect of fasting, she says, is that when the body breaks down fat rapidly to make energy, it can go into ketosis, which can overburden the kidneys and, in an extreme case, cause death.
Scott also clarified the difference between fasts and cleanses, terms that are often—and incorrectly, it turns out—used interchangeably. Fasts refer to periods of time in which one consumes nothing other than water, she says, while cleanses include short-term, restrictive diets in which one still consumes some form of nutrients.
Juice cleanses still provide the body with minerals, nutrients and calories, so the dangers that exist for fasts generally don’t exist for them, she says. But she also says she can’t find any research that supports the view that cleanses (or fasts, for that matter) detox the body. Scott says the body does a remarkable job of detoxifying itself through the skin, liver, kidneys and gastrointestinal tract. The real answer to a healthy, clean body, she says, is via an unsurprising method: eating more whole and organic foods and exercising regularly.
What Scott said made sense, but I felt like there was still a missing side to the story. There are so many health-conscious people heralding the benefits of fasts and cleanses (including a number of my friends), it’s hard to believe they hold no benefits. Maybe I was just looking for an excuse to splurge on an expensive, Manhattan-based juice diet, but I wanted someone to tell me that cleanses can live up to their name. And then I found Dr. Deborah Keller.
Keller is a naturopath and midwife with the Santa Fe-based practice High Desert Naturopathic Care and Midwifery Services. Her long list of accolades includes a doctorate in naturopathic medicine from Bastyr University, two years studying with curanderos in the Peace Corps and five weeks delivering babies in a women’s free hospital in the Philippines. I figured she would be able to provide me with a counter to the Western mindset.
Keller identifies the same differences between fasts and cleanses as Scott does. She says pure, unsupervised fasting can put a person in danger of dehydration, nutrient deficiencies, hypoglycemia, poor insulin regulation, cardiac events, kidney disorders, acute gallbladder problems and a host of other scary issues. In her practice, she says she rarely uses it and, when she does, only for short periods of time (three days tops). But when it comes to cleansing, Keller has the mindset I was looking for: A cleanse can be healthy for anyone, as long as it’s the right one.
This is where Keller’s big disclaimer comes in. She says to only fast or cleanse under the guidance of a practitioner. Don’t buy a kit online; get a program that’s personalized. Also, there are some people who should never venture into the fasting/cleansing realm, and that’s anyone who is pregnant, nursing, diabetic or hypoglycemic.
Who should cleanse? Just about anyone else, but Keller usually treats people who are trying to assuage specific conditions, which include everything from allergies to autoimmune disorders.
The benefits the average person can reap from cleansing include detoxifying. While Keller agrees the body is adept at eliminating toxins, she also says it can be nice to give it a break from toxins and an opportunity to cleanse itself. The biggest benefit, Keller says, is energy and clarity of mind.
For those interested in cleansing, Keller offers a few starting points. The best time to begin, she says, is when there is the opportunity to relax and self-reflect (Keller is a proponent of some sort of meditative act during cleansing).
“Our bodies need time to stop and reflect in order to fully heal,” she says.
She also recommends her clients not watch TV during a cleanse and, if possible, have a friend or someone else around who can help. For seasonal rhythms, Keller recommends cleansing in the spring, when winter’s stores are ready to be shed.
Immediately before jumping into a cleanse, it’s wise to spend three days to a week eating an exceptionally clean diet (whole foods and such) and exercising, and then coming out of a cleanse in the same way. In Keller’s practice, she usually has clients cleanse anywhere from a week to three weeks (remember, we’re talking cleansing, not fasting).
As always, it’s important to drink the recommended daily intake of water (approximately 0.5 ounce per pound of body weight).
If one experiences dizziness, headaches, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, severe abdominal pains or severe allergic reactions while cleansing or fasting, stop.
Where does it all leave me? My pricey juice spending spree is out the window. But Keller may soon find me walking in her door.
To learn more about diet and nutrition, Gretchen Scott recommends finding a registered and licensed dietitian, many of which can be found at eatright.org.
Dr. Deborah Keller’s practice, High Desert Naturopathic Care and Midwifery Services, is situated at 2019 Galisteo St., Ste. E2, 505-670-9042, naturecure.net.