Taking Out Toxins

'Detox' diets that 'cleanse' the body are attracting stars and other converts -- and some skeptics, too.

January 19, 2009|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,Special to The Baltimore Sun

In the cheery kitchen of her Windsor Hills home, Jennifer Douglass is playing mixologist and creating a special beverage.

Organic lemons? Check. Maple syrup? Check. Cayenne pepper? Got that, too.

If these ingredients, to be blended with spring or purified water, sound an awful lot like the recipe for a special lemonade, they are - well, sort of. Douglass is making a drink known as the Master Cleanse, often nicknamed the Lemonade Diet.

The potion is among a string of so-called "detox" diets or "cleanses" that are sweeping the country, causing Internet buzz and yielding testimonials from everyday folks to celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. Oprah Winfrey blogged about her 21-day vegan cleanse, while singer-actress Beyonce Knowles reportedly detoxed away 20 pounds for the movie Dreamgirls.

While the plans vary, many of them consist of some variation on vegetable or fruit juice fasts for a specific period, often coupled with supplements, laxatives or enemas. The plans purport to rid the body of toxins, boost the immune system and help the user drop pounds quickly in the process.

"I was introduced to the Master Cleanse by a friend, who gave it great reviews," says Douglass, 43, a public relations professional who says she has spent years struggling with her weight. "I woke up one morning feeling weighed down, my body was hurting. I was thinking that I had to make a change."

Douglass read up on the plan after buying a book at a Whole Foods Market, and decided to give it a try.

The Master Cleanse is said to work by prompting detoxification and elimination. The lemonade drink and the lack of solid food are designed to encourage the body to detoxify and to physically loosen toxins, defined as such things as pesticides, secondhand smoke, bleach fumes, artificial flavors and preservatives.

People on the plan are also advised to drink an herbal laxative tea in the evening and do a (sea) salt water flush by drinking a quart of water in the morning, ostensibly to push and wash the loosened toxins out of the body.

Douglass dutifully drank six to 12 glasses of lemonade a day for 10 days, although she skipped the salt water flush, because it was impractical before work. Other than that, she stuck to the program.

"I liked the drink; it tasted like spicy lemonade," she says. "I drank it cold and hot."

As her energy soared and her clothes felt loose, Douglass became a believer.

"I lost 16 pounds in 10 days. I saw it and I felt it," she says, adding that she didn't feel hungry after the first few days. "My skin was glowing, my hair was glossy, everything was aglow. It gave me a new feeling of energy and boosted my spirits."

Books that detail these programs and Web sites selling kits with ingredients are popular locally and nationwide. The GNC vitamin chain has all sorts of detox products on its shelves, and OK Natural, a small, locally owned and operated health food store on West Preston Street, does, too.

Groups like the American Dietetic Association and others in the medical community have been largely skeptical or critical of such diets. Concerns cited include vitamin deficiencies, fluctuating blood sugar, loss of muscle mass, prolonged diarrhea and more. Moreover, some experts say attempting to flush out "bad stuff" from one's intestines, for instance, also removes "good" bacteria.

"I don't like them. Maybe I am a traditionalist but in my opinion, there's not been enough research," says Kelly A. O'Connor, a registered and licensed dietitian at Mercy Medical Center.

With more than 20 years' experience in all aspects of nutrition care, including assessment, education, documentation and management of clinical nutrition services in a hospital setting, she says the body's own organs, the liver and kidneys, for instance, help it to "detox" on its own.

"The best diet is one that has fruit, vegetables and small servings of lean meats and fish," she says. "Some of the detox programs don't provide enough protein, others don't have adequate calories. The best way to lose weight is to eat in moderation and exercise."

Nevertheless, converts like Peter Glickman, a former software executive-turned-health guru, claim the detox regimen known as the Master Cleanse changed his life.

The late Stanley Burroughs is credited with developing the plan in the 1940s. In the 1970s, Burroughs published a book called The Master Cleanser and referred to his plan as The Master Cleanser and as The Lemonade Diet. It has become something of a cult favorite in holistic health and diet circles.

"I was having all sorts of health issues, including mercury poison," says Glickman, 62, speaking by phone from his home in Florida. "My wife was doing a raw vegan diet, and she looked fantastic. Eventually, I figured I would see what it might do for me. I felt like a new person.... So some 30 years after the original book, I decided to update it for modern audiences."

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