Not So Fast

Whether the Goal is to Detox or Get Spiritual, Here’s What You Need to Know About Fasting



Saige Roberts

With kale, green apple, cucumber and lemon, the “Green Almighty” smoothie can be part
of a detox diet.

In today’s world, fasts and cleanses form a part of a massive body of diets and health plans presented as ways to do things like “clear out and regulate the digestive system” and “detoxify the body.” Even Dr. Oz now has a 48-hour weekend cleanse he claims will “revitalize you from the inside out.”

However enticing they might sound on the surface, some experts worry they could be dangerous.

If you want to undertake a fast or cleanse, you should know what you’re getting into. For starters, there are important differences between fasting and cleansing. Some of the new cleanses closely imitate fasts, but the most significant difference between the two is the mentality.

Fasting primarily focuses on gaining control over one’s corporeal urges, spirituality and purifying the body’s systems through abstinence from most foods. Cleansing, on the other hand, is meant to clear the body of toxins. Some cleanses allow solid foods, while others limit food consumption to various liquid concoctions.

 With kale, green apple, cucumber and lemon, the “Green Almighty” smoothie can be part of a detox diet. Photo by Saige Roberts

The bottom line is that fasts focus more on the mental progress granted by brief abstinence, as well as its health benefits, while cleansing is focused on detoxifying the body through a variety of means, some of which might not even be dietary.

Juice Fasts

Our diets today can be very off-balance — many of us eat far more carbohydrates, fat and animal protein than we need and fall short when it comes to vegetables. This imbalance can negatively impact digestion and other bodily functions. A juice fast can be a simple and delicious solution.

A juice fast usually entails consuming a lot of juiced organic vegetables, as well as some fruits. While the majority of the juices should come from vegetables for nutrients, some fruit juices mixed in can supply the body with glucose for energy. A juicer is required to make the juice, because most store-bought juices contain added sugar and chemicals and also are not as fresh. They also tend to be more fruit and sugar-based because they are meant to be consumed in addition to a balanced diet, not as a diet.

Dr. William Morse, Family and Integrative Family Medicine physician for Tallahassee Primary Care Associates, sees potential in juice fasting, saying, “I think for a short period of time this would probably not be a bad thing.” He warns that fasters should make sure to drink a lot of juice to keep calorie intake at a reasonable level, and also that the fast should not be carried out for more than a few days lest the body exhaust its stores of glucose and begin to act as though it is starving.

Another concern for those who might undertake juice fasting is the lack of fiber provided by a liquid diet. Dr. Henry Hall, licensed nutritionist with Personalized Health, points out, “It’s good that (juice fasting) eliminates bad stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily add good stuff in there that needs to be there, including fiber to bind to different toxins that are coming out of the gallbladder, and also keeping the gallbladder active.” The gallbladder processes bile from the liver, and fiber is what binds to toxins to eliminate them from the body. If toxins cease to leave the gallbladder, they stagnate and can begin to form gallstones.

“Essentially what all those things do, what any type of fast does, is it stops people from putting the bad things in,” Hall says. It also helps many people up their consumption of vegetables, one of the more neglected food groups in the average American diet.

Rather than fasting, he suggests people simply eat healthier.

Pepper, Syrup and Lemon Juice

The Master Cleanse has recently gained notoriety. Even Beyonce Knowles used it in order to get in shape for her role in the movie “Dreamgirls.” This liquid diet consists of one drink: two teaspoons of fresh lemon juice, two teaspoons of grade B maple syrup, a cup of water and a tenth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Cleansers drink this “lemonade” six to 12 times a day, along with plenty of water — and nothing else — for at least 10 days.

The philosophy behind the Master Cleanse is that live enzymes in fresh lemon juice proactively attack toxins. The maple syrup provides calories for energy and also acts as a preservative to keep the enzymes from the lemon juice active longer. Cayenne pepper is said to raise metabolism, increase circulation, thin and purify blood, and break up toxic mucous said to induce sickness.

Morse is not impressed. The diet, he says, can pose many problems with caloric deficiencies, causing the metabolism to actually slow down and begin to consume muscle tissue for energy, breaking apart its amino acids into glucose. The body reserves about 24-hours’ worth of glucose, and once this supply is exhausted, the muscles are next.

After three days the body enters a phase called ketosis in which it begins breaking down ketones from fat stores to supply half its energy needs and continues breaking muscle tissue for the other half. While this means there is fat loss, there is muscle loss along with it, and the body continues to store as much fat as it can to sustain itself as it starves.

The body’s digestive tract should not take more than a few days to clear out, according to Morse, and the need to detoxify the rest of the body has been a subject of debate. Hall explains that fat can hold anywhere between 80 and 120 different toxins at any given time, so losing weight is always desirable in order to eliminate toxins, but he questions the legitimacy of the Master Cleanse. “I don’t think there’s any particular magic about the Master Cleanse formula,” he says, although he does add that lemons’ Vitamin C might help a little since it can bind to toxins. He says there is no evidence supporting the idea that the juice contains live enzymes that will be helpful in detoxification.

Fasting and Spirituality

Fasting’s abstinence from food and corporeal urges has its roots far back in history. Most religions contain some sort of fasting tradition. The attention to the spiritual self and its importance in comparison to the bodily self is regarded by many to be fasting’s primary benefit.

Fasting for spiritual purposes can be a very rewarding process to “put your physical body at bay,” Morse says. As long as it is kept at or under 24 hours, even a water fast or complete fast can be successfully completed without any worrisome complications.

Proper preparations should be taken before fasting, Hall advises. Our bodies are “now more toxic, way too toxic,” he says, to undertake a severe fast without some proper considerations. Processed foods and additives collect in the body, he warns, and fasting will push them out of stores and into the bloodstream. Prior to fasting, he says it is of the utmost importance to eat a very healthy, balanced diet to ensure that the body is prepared to handle the toxicity and push it out rather than making us sick.

Those who are sick, diabetic, pregnant or breastfeeding should not undertake a fast, Morse and Hall agree. Pregnancy and breastfeeding are especially key, not only for the mother’s health, but for the baby’s as well. Ketosis causes the release of ketones into the baby’s body, and they have been found to be toxic to infant brains.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of what sort of fast or cleanse you are considering, Morse advises that you ask yourself what your goals are. Why are you doing it? If your answer is weight loss, you are headed in the wrong direction. “Universally, fasting is a bad idea if you want to lose weight,” he says. “If it’s you against your body, your body will win every time."

IF YOU’RE CONSIDERING A JUICE FAST OR CLEANSE …

» Relax. Make sure to pick a period of time with little activity or stress. The body will be devoting a lot of energy to regularizing and clearing toxins.

» Buy Organic. Be very careful where your produce comes from. Produce that is chemically treated or genetically altered are not beneficial substances for a fast and can be hazardous. Buy organic and local if possible.

» Don’t Be Stingy. Be prepared to drink a lot of juice, lemonade or designated formula. Juice fasting and cleansing should not entail severe hunger.

» Hydrate Often. Be sure to stay hydrated. Constant water consumption is of the utmost importance. A good rule of thumb is to consume as much water as liquid diet components.

» Pay Attention. If something does not feel right or you begin feeling sick, do not ignore it. Stop your fast or consult a doctor. 

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