At the start of 2011, countless men and women vowed not to budget better or volunteer more, but to shed the last of their holiday pounds and start the new year off on a healthier note. And in an attempt to fulfill that resolution more quickly, many of them will turn to extreme dieting methods like juice fasts and cleanses, which drastically cut out entire food groups—or, in some cases, food altogether.
When Beyoncé credited the Master Cleanse with her weight loss for the movie Dreamgirls a few years ago, everyone and her mother (and at least one guy I know) jumped onboard, too, eschewing whole foods for cayenne-spiked water. This new year will likely usher in a whole new group of converts. But are plans like this actually worth the trouble? I asked nutritionist and wellness coach Rania Batayneh  to weigh in on the trendiest programs.
The Master Cleanse
The Plan: Mix eight ounces of water with fresh lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne powder and drink the concoction at least six times a day (more if you’re hungrier). Take laxatives in the morning and at night to stay regular. The only other thing you can have is herbal tea for the next ten to fourteen days.
“This is just enough sugar to keep your mind, brain, and muscles working before your body shuts down,” Batayneh says. Because this plan is severely deficient in protein, fat, and other essential nutrients, any weight fluctuation will come from water or muscle loss. Muscle loss slows down the metabolism, meaning that participants are that much more likely to gain back the weight they lost and then some once they go back to eating again.
Oprah’s 21-Day Cleanse
The Plan: Give up sugar, gluten products, dairy, meat, alcohol, and caffeine for twenty-one days.
Batayneh quickly pointed out that the mastermind behind this gluten-free, vegan diet, Kathy Freston, doesn’t actually have any accreditation or a professional background in nutrition. But she does have Oprah’s backing, which will probably lead more than a few people out there to adopt this plan without considering its possible drawbacks. While the 21-Day Cleanse focuses on wholesome, balanced eating (permitted menu items include quinoa, tempeh, and lots of veggies), it also incorporates a lot of soy into the mix, which could be problematic for some. Plus, by cutting out certain foods, it teaches people to demonize them, rather than tweak their eating habits to make them healthier and more manageable. “With an elimination diet, what happens after twenty-one days? Now what?” Batayneh asks. Instead, she recommends a “limit, but don’t eliminate” mantra for weight loss and maintenance.
The Plan: To detoxify the liver and “restore its fat-burning power,” stick to a 1,200-calorie diet without caffeine or alcohol. Don’t mix meat and milk or fruits and vegetables in the same meal, and don’t drink water while eating. Eventually, you transition to more calories (up to 1,500) and reintroduce good carbs, like brown rice, into your diet.
“I’m 100 percent against detox diets because the body naturally detoxifies itself; the liver naturally detoxifies itself,” Batayneh says. There’s little need for a specialized diet to do the same thing. She says that consuming a balance of protein, healthy carbs, and good fats is really the best way to help your liver. She also takes issue with the plan’s odder rules, such as keeping some food groups separate or not drinking water during a meal. “You can hydrate throughout the meal; it’ll actually help keep you full,” she says.
The Plan: Consume nothing but raw fruit and vegetable juices. Use fresh ingredients, including herbs and spices. Approved ingredients include carrots, beets, ginger, cilantro, cayenne pepper, and wheatgrass, to name a few. Follow the diet for three to ten days.
One of the biggest problems with this cleanse, according to Batayneh, is that you lose much of the natural fiber found in fruits and vegetables by juicing them. That’s why juice fasts typically recommend a nighttime laxative tea as part of the regimen. But as with any deprivation diet, the results will be temporary and possibly harmful in the long run. “Sometimes people who are diabetic and undiagnosed could be in danger, or if they have irritable bowel syndrome and go on that fat flush, they would be miserable,” Batayneh says.
Juice fasts also force a connection between weight loss and extreme measures, rather than working on changes that can last beyond a three-to-ten-day period—what Rania calls lifestyle management. “No one thinks about moderation, especially with weight loss. They expect a lot with every program,” she explains. “But there has to be some re-education going on.”
What Batayneh Recommends
“With cleanses, people think they’ll have clean slates afterward, but actually, they have modified slates,” Batayneh says. Rather than punishing your body with extreme, dangerous dieting methods that leave your metabolism shot and your energy and nutrient levels at rock bottom, she offers healthier tips.
- Focus on good carbs that help regulate mood and energy, such as whole-grain breads, beans and legumes, and other high-fiber foods.
- Don’t think of caffeine as evil. If you’re trying to limit your intake, focus more on getting enough sleep and staying hydrated throughout the day.
- “Think care, not calories,” Batayneh says. “If you start eating the foods you know are good for you, versus how low-cal or low-carb they are, you’re more likely to keep them in your diet.” That goes along with her advice about lifestyle management—making changes you can stick with in the long-term, instead of seeking out temporary plans. Start small by analyzing your eating patterns, seeing what needs work, and going from there.
As for “detoxifying,” the body does it naturally, but you can help the process by giving it healthy foods to work with and working out regularly to sweat out your toxins. “If you’re looking to lose weight, have more energy, and have more mental clarity, which are what attract people to cleanses, you can achieve that by lifestyle management,” Batayneh advises. “There’s no reason to try something like a diet cleanse.”