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Spring Cleaning: What You Should Know About Dietary Cleanses

glass of beet juice with beets on the side

Our houses and apartments all need regular spring cleaning to keep organized, efficient and free of clutter—so why wouldn’t our bodies need something similar? People seek the help of dietary cleanses for a number of reasons; ranging from a temporary and fast way of losing excess weight, to trying to free the body of built-up toxins.

But before you engage in some type of cleanse, it’s important to know how cleanses operate and what risks are associated with them.

Types Available

The variety of dietary cleanses available is staggering. Some are ridiculously expensive, with specially engineered chemicals or supplements that claim to have miraculous effects. Others are cheap, and can be done with commercially available foods. Most dietary cleanses fall into one or more of several categories.

Some are based around fasting, or limiting consumption to an absolute minimum—an example of this is water fasting. Some involve targeting one particular food item or food group, with little to no flexibility on the inclusion of other foods—an example of this is the Master Cleanse, based around a combination of lemon, maple syrup, cayenne pepper and water. And some are focused around specific kinds of supplements or additives that boast a detoxifying effect. Almost all of these varieties have a commonality of encouraging bowel evacuation, either through the use of extra laxatives, or by increasing fiber intake.

The popularity of these cleanses can skyrocket overnight as a fad, or stick around for years as a steady chain of proponents continue to use it and swear by its effectiveness. Detoxification cleanses have been a focal point of infomercials for as long as infomercials have been broadcast. Word of mouth can spread the reputation of a detoxification cleanse just as quickly—especially in January, when the cleanse market is ripe with individuals seeking a fast implementation of their New Year’s resolution. But in order to determine if cleanses are all they’re hyped up to be, we have to decide whether the possible risks outweigh the possible benefits.

The Risk Of Malnutrition

The greatest risk involved with most cleanses, depending on their overall length, is malnutrition. Because many detoxification cleanses are over a very short period of time or are split up into alternating phases, many people underestimate the possibility of malnutrition. However, even a brief period of poor nutrition is enough to have both short-term and long-term consequences.

Lack of intake is usually the highest risk of a cleanse, especially those based around fasting. The body needs energy in order to perform basic functions and to continue running efficiently. Depriving your body of the food it needs will lead to weakness, fatigue and constant hunger.

There is also the risk of not receiving adequate micronutrients, or a proper balance of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Human beings need a diverse diet in order to stay healthy. Cleanses that focus exclusively on one food or group of foods do not allow for this variety, and can cause people to have an unbalanced intake. For example, some cleanses focus only on fruit juice. While fruits are very healthy and rich in micronutrients, exclusively consuming one type of juice will leave the body insufficient in nutrients not found in fruit juice. Furthermore, fruit juice has no fat content, and almost no protein—both of which are essential for bodily functions.

Chemicals And Additives

Many cleanses include supplements and other chemical additives that supposedly heighten the effects. It’s always a good idea to know what you’re putting into your body, so make sure you understand exactly what it is you’re eating or drinking before you start eating or drinking it. Some types may have additional ingredients that aren’t necessary or may negatively interfere with your day-to-day functions.

Other cleanses involve a heavy use of laxatives. These may make you extremely uncomfortable, and in combination with the switch in diet, you may put yourself in an unnecessarily painful digestive position.

Physical Stress And Mental Fatigue

The physical stress of a cleanse comes from two primary factors: First, most cleanses have an inadequate diet plan that leaves the body with far less energy than it needs to properly function. Second, the radical switch of nutritional intake forces the body into an unnatural shock, which will be followed by another shock during the switch back. This physical stress can leave muscles feeling weak and unable to take action, and the body with an overall kind of fatigue.

There is also a mental stress involved in committing to a cleanse. First, compounded with the physical exhaustion, the brain does not have access to the same levels of energy as before. You may find yourself excessively tired, even with adequate sleep, and unable to focus on complex tasks. You also may find yourself hungry and thinking about food often, daydreaming of meals that aren’t a part of the plan—this is one of the main reasons people abandon cleanses halfway through.

Back To Old Habits?

Most people who engage in a cleanse for overall health or weight loss end up right back where they started. Regardless of the possible risks and evidence of effectiveness, cleanses are designed as temporary fixes, even though the preservation of health itself should be a long-term commitment.

Our bodies’ physical conditions are a direct result of our daily habits, so if we habitually engage in unhealthy eating practices, a single cleanse will not be able to override the consequences. Long-term use of cleanses will almost certainly spell a worse fate, either due to malnutrition or other dietary imbalance. Therefore, if you decide to follow through with a dietary cleanse, you should create and commit to a series of long-term goals to accompany it.

Before you decide to go through with a cleanse, be sure to fully understand the possible repercussions, and always engage in safe nutritional habits. Be sure to examine every option available to you, and think through the positives and negatives of each before making a final decision.