‘Drink to health’ is a saying that is centuries old. Yet for some they are no longer clink glasses filled with wine, but freshly squeezed organic juice. These vegetable and fruit juice concoctions are believed to promote good health through cleansing and stimulating healing in the body. As a result, there has been an ever-increasing interest in juice cleanses, with companies and online enthusiasts sharing recipes, or providing juice delivery, to assist individuals in embarking on their own juice cleanse.
Yet, how valid are the claims of the cleansing properties of juice? Should we all be reaching for a glass of juice each day or embracing a regular practice of juice cleansing?
Let’s explore the ins and outs of juices, the proclaimed benefits of juice cleansing, and specifically whether a juice cleanse is right for you if you desire to lose weight or absolve your sins of poor eating, smoking or excessive alcohol intake. Let’s spill it…
What is a juice cleanse?
A juice cleanse is a short-term diet where only juice, freshly squeezed from organic fruits and vegetables with a cold pressed juicer, are consumed. Essentially, a juice cleanse is a type of fast that can last one, three or seven days, or even up to several weeks. Unlike a fast, drinking juices ensures that the body is still obtaining some nutrition. The purported purpose is to clean out the digestive tract and promote detoxification.
Fresh juice is incorporated in cleanses because it is believed that you will acquire a concentrated dose of vitamins and minerals that will promote detoxification and healing of the body. While it is true that through juicing you can concentrate the vitamins and minerals of more fruit and vegetables than you could ever imagine eating in one sitting into a single glass, juice is devoid of some vitamins and minerals, not to mention proteins and essential fatty acids that are vital for proper functioning of the body. Because juice cleanses are adopted for a short period of time proponents of juice cleansing suggest that this is not a concern, which may be true for most healthy individuals.
Is it necessary to cleanse with juice?
Our bodies are engineered to cleanse and detoxify toxins every day through our kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract, skin, lungs and lymphatic system. It is believe that by juice cleansing and reducing toxin input by way of alcohol, caffeine, additives and processed foods you are giving your elimination organs a rest, providing them with essential nutrients by way of the vitamins and minerals in the juices, and clearing out your digestive system of wastes and built up toxins.
However, is it necessary to go to the extreme of depriving yourself of food? Could it possibly cause more harm than good?
A diet by another name is still a diet
Although many proclaim to embark on a juice cleanse for good health, often it is a guise for desired weight loss. You don’t have to spend much time Googling to be exposed to declarations of the weight loss potential of juice cleansing. There is no shortage of inspiring stories of other people’s weight loss successes on juice cleanses.
The thing is, you are incredibly likely to lose weight on a juice cleanse. I won’t guarantee it as many websites do, but the likelihood you will is high. What I can say with certainty, however, is that the weight you lose isn’t the weight you want to lose. The weight lost is mostly water, glycogen (sugar) stores in the liver and muscles and intestinal bulk. This is not at all what you want if weight loss is your goal.
To add insult to injury, the reduced calories you consume and the loss of water, glycogen and subsequent muscle wastage, will cause your metabolism to slow; as your body’s starvation response will have kicked in. This is the exact opposite of what you want to do to your metabolism when your desire is to lose weight.
Some declare you will become a fat burning machine on a juice cleanse, yet you will be burning fat at the expense of muscle.
Some declare you will become a fat burning machine on a juice cleanse, since once your body is starved of its sugar stores and isn’t acquiring sufficient energy through your diet, it will start to break down fat cells for energy. While this is true, your body breaks down fat cells at the expense of your muscle, as the body breaks down muscle to release sugars for the process of converting fat into sugars that can be used by your brain and body. Hence, if you aren’t eating sufficient carbohydrates or protein, such as when juice cleansing or fasting, your fat burning will come at the expense of muscle wastage. Thus, although you are burning fat your metabolism hasn’t kicked into a higher gear as you have been led to believe.
A juice cleanse, especially one that is intended for longer than 24 hrs, would need to be carefully structured to ensure your brain and body receive sufficient glucose to minimise muscle wastage. Many proponents argue that on a juice cleanse you are supplying your brain with sufficient energy because you are obtaining natural sugars, vitamins and minerals from the juices. However, because the total energy consumed is often very low, there is still not sufficient energy for all your bodies function. Your body is still being deprived of energy. From a scientific standpoint, there really isn't a good enough understanding of whether the glucose in juices would be sufficient to ensure healthy brain function during a cleanse.
Juice cleansing as deprivation
Just like any other diet for weight loss, on a juice cleanse, the deprivation of your body of calories is a contributor to weight loss. However, just like when you are on a diet, this deprivation leads to immense hunger.
Experienced juice cleansers will tell you that this hunger will dissipate if you push through it; and in many respects you can. Your body has the ability to survive through feast and famine. In times of famine, your body sends signals to the brain of hunger that let you know that obtaining food is a priority. However, these signals are not always on 'high-pitch' as energy and concentration is required to obtain food. Therefore, it is possible for you to push through the hunger pains experienced on a cleanse.
However, like when on a diet, it requires considerable mental and emotional effort not to think or give into thoughts about foods. When you begin eating again, the immense hunger can drive overeating and rapid weight gain; and in some cases additional weight as the body re-calibrates itself. This can spur you to embrace yet again another diet or cleanse, and begin a cycle of yo-yo dieting or weight cycling.
Yo-yo dieting contributes to low esteem and self-worth, and has been shown to raise blood cortisol (stress hormone), promote inflammation throughout the body and increase the risk of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases (Strohacher et al., 2009). Furthermore, juice cleanses, detox, fasts and diets can stimulate disordered and unhealthy eating behaviours such as binge and compulsive eating.
Some declare that going on a juice cleanse or fast has helped them overcome their food ‘additions’ or fear of hunger.
Although this may be the result of juice cleansing for some people, if you have issues with overeating, binge eating, or compulsive eating, adopting intuitive eating principles such as honouring your hunger, eating mindfully and listening to your body is a far more nurturing approach to help you to achieve a balanced diet and healthy relationship with food.
If your motivation for embarking on a juice cleanse is to lose weight it is unlikely to yield lasting results, and is likely to cause more harm than good.
Juice cleansing for health
What if you do really want to juice cleanse for health?
Unfortunately, research demonstrating the benefits of juice cleansing to detoxify or heal the body is lacking. Many of the proclaimed benefits are extrapolated from research on the health benefits of various vitamins and minerals, and fasting, but are not specific to juice cleansing itself. For example, scientific research has been conducted on various methods of fasting, such as intermittent fasting, and has demonstrated benefits such as improving insulin sensitivity and cardiovascular risk, reducing oxidative stress and inflammation and increasing longevity in animal studies (Mesalhy, 2014). However, these benefits can’t be extrapolated for juice fasting, and fasting with juice may be more harmful than good.
Not only are you depriving your body of essential vitamins, minerals, proteins, essential fatty acids and energy to support your detoxification organs, juice cleansing may reduce your body’s ability to cleanse.
Juice cleansing may be harmful because you are depriving your body of foods, such as fibre, resistant starches, fermented foods and probiotics, which have been demonstrated to cleanse and promote the functioning of the digestive system. Eating food is important for stimulating the release of stomach acid, digestive enzymes, bile salts, protective mucus and promoting microorganisms that nourish the intestinal cells. Unfortunately, juice does not contain components to stimulate all these functions, and thus does not promote the functioning of your digestive system. If you truly want to give your digestive system a rest a 12 or 24 hour fast may be a better way to go.
The other issue with juice is that it contains simple sugars that are rapidly absorbed by the body. Because there is no requirement for the body to breakdown complex carbohydrates or other foods when on a juice cleanse, drinking juices can result in a dramatic spike in blood glucose. This can affect the energy and concentration of healthy individuals. For those with chronic illness or on medications caution should be taken, and juice cleansing should only be undertaken after seeking medical advice. Juice cleanses should be avoided for children and pregnant or breastfeeding women, as they have specific nutritional requirements for growth that can only be obtained through regular eating.
By now you are probably getting the idea that juice cleansing is not all it’s cracked up to be. But you might be thinking, what do I do; I like the idea of cleansing my digestive system and I enjoy that feeling of lightness that a cleanse creates. Instead, you may want to adopt eating behaviours that do promote cleansing of the digestive tract – aka foods.
What’s the best way to clean out your digestive tract?
Quite simply, the best way to cleanse your digestive tract is the same way you clean your floors, with water and a broom!
Water supports detoxification through the liver, kidneys and lymphatic system. Adequate water intake can assist in reducing constipation, thus promoting the removal of waste from your body. So often people are inspired to embark on a juice cleanse or detox, yet don’t drink sufficient water. Drinking sufficient water is the first place to start to cleanse your body.
AND THE BROOM?
Fibre promotes regularity of bowel movements and is important for removing wastes from the large intestine. It is your best intestinal cleanser. Eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables provide many vitamins and minerals, and help to keep things moving in our digestive tract.
Simple, right? But nowhere as exciting and Instagram worthy as those colourful juices!
"The best way out is always through." — Robert Frost
Reduce your toxin burden
If you want to rid yourself of those toxins you have consumed over the year, you don’t need to juice cleanse, fast or detox. You could try cutting out or substantially reducing your intake of alcohol, fried foods, transfats, charred meats, soft drinks, artificial flavours and colours. You could try this for one month a year, cut out one thing a month over the year, or embrace meat-free Mondays. The approach you take is very personal and depends on the 'worst offenders' in your diet.
You are unlikely to undo a year of unhealthy eating with a few days of juice cleansing. The belief you can have a yearly spring clean or hit the reset button of your digestive system or health is flawed, and is unlikely to have a noticeable impact on your overall health. Changing your eating habits is a far better approach to improving your long-term health.
“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while”
– Gretchen Rubin
I recommend learning to listen to your body and creating dietary changes one change at a time, so that you are not overwhelmed by the change, and can determine for yourself what provides the greatest benefit to your body. A great place to start is to swap a food that you know doesn't feel great to your body with a wholefood equivalent and notice the changes in your body.
Taking a more balanced approach to your eating, rather than swaying from one extreme to another is a much better way to foster a healthy relationship with food and maintain long-term health. Check out my blog on restriction and embracing wholefoods here – PART I & PART II to read further on why restriction doesn’t work and how to embrace eating more wholefoods.
Fresh juices can be a great supplement to a healthy diet. However, they are not a meal substitute, nor will they absolve your dietary sins.
Strohacker K., Carpenter K.C., McFarlin B.K. Consequences of Weight Cycling: An Increase in Disease Risk? Int J Exerc Sci. 2009; 2(3): 191–201.
Aly S.M. Role of Intermittent Fasting on Improving Health and Reducing Diseases. Int J Health Sci (Qassim). 2014 Jul; 8(3): V–VI.