At the start of a new year, we’re often compelled to make drastic changes in our diet in an effort to undo some of the damage caused by holiday overindulgence. Whether it’s opting for Drynuary, giving up sugar for a month or trying one of the ever-growing list of fad cleanse diets, the urge to reset bad habits can be tempting.
Despite warnings from health experts that our livers are perfectly capable of detoxing themselves and that juicing or cleansing won’t lead to long-term change, it’s hard to resist a quick fix. To find out which cleanse diets are worth a few days of deprivation, we asked leading health experts to weigh in on some of the most popular plans. (A good rule of thumb: If it sounds too good to be true, it is!)
What It Is: This cleanse, based on The Taco Cleanse: The Tortilla-Based Diet Proven to Change Your Life, suggests eating tacos with every meal. The book comes with a long list of taco shell and filling recipes.
Expert Insight: While this may work for the short term, this is highly unsustainable. “Healthy taco variations can be great when your body is craving a mixture of protein, carbs and fresh salads,” says health expert and author of The Earth Diet Liana Werner-Gray. “There is a lot of variety of flavor and texture in a taco meal, it’s not surprising that our bodies crave it from time to time and it’s not unusual for people to live off tacos for three days and consume that nutrition density over those days. After this time, people usually go back to their regular eating patterns.”
If you’re going for a taco, however, be mindful of your choices. Swap Greek yogurt for sour cream, try to eliminate cheese and instead keep the focus on lean protein and lots of fresh produce. Eggs also work great for breakfast (huevos rancheros, anyone?).
What It Is: The vodka cleanse was thrust into the spotlight by CleanDrinking, a brand that sells cold-pressed juice mixers (think cucumber basil). The idea is that if you’re going to drink, drink clean.
Expert Insight: If you’re going to have a drink, opting to mix your vodka with a cold-pressed green juice is naturally better than your standard cranberry, but when it comes down to it, not that much better. Juices are full of sugar and, unlike smoothies, don’t contain fiber to help mitigate blood sugar spikes (in fact, your green juice probably isn’t as healthy as you think). As for the vodka, it’s nothing but empty calories. There is zero nutritional value. That said, we all crave a little excitement from time to time. Werner-Gray suggests vodka-infused waters made with, for example, pureed strawberries (which contain fiber) and opting for vodka made from potatoes or non-GMO wheat. Anytime you’re drinking alcohol, upping your water intake is imperative.
What It Is: One of the original cleanses, it was used in 2006 by Beyoncé to shed weight for Dreamgirls, it’s currently experiencing a comeback (perhaps a backlash against pricey popular alternatives like BluePrint?). It consists of drinking nothing besides a mix of lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup.
Expert Insight: “While some believe this cleanse helps you reset your digestive system, eliminate toxins and train your body and mind to practice discipline, this diet may actually leave the body nutrient deficient and may cause muscle and bone loss, not to mention extremely low energy levels,” says certified holistic health coach Kerri Axelrod.
What It Is: Popularized by brands like Splendid Spoon, these cleanses consist of eating nothing but soup all day. Though often low in calories, many of the branded soups have a high water and sodium content, which can actually make you retain water, resulting in a bloated belly.
Expert Insight: While there’s nothing wrong with only eating soup since you can still get all the minerals, vitamins and proteins you need, it’s important to make sure there is variety and that you’re keeping salt levels low and avoiding high-fat additives like cheese as well as preservatives. Making sure you’re getting protein in your soups with things like chicken, beans or fish is also important. That said, most people tire of the monotone texture quickly and there is no reason to think that you’re actually helping your body “cleanse” by replacing solid food with soup. You also won’t be any less hungry eating a 300-calorie soup lunch versus 300 calories in solid foods (in fact, the opposite is likely true).
“When done with the right intentions, soup cleanses are less about calorie restriction and denying the body of essential nutrients for the sake of the temporary weight loss and more about consuming nutrient-dense foods that are easily digestible,” says Axelrod. “Like other cleanses, they can be a good reset button, but lack the sustainability to last long-term and most programs are not recommended for more than three days. If paired with a food-based detox program, nutrient-dense soups do have the upper hand on many other cleanses as the majority of the calories consumed do not come from sugar alone.”
Ice Cream Cleanse
What It Is: The cleanse consists of eating five pints of nondairy, raw, vegan, organic ice cream a day for five days.
Expert Insight: According to Werner-Gray, some alternatives to dairy ice cream like cashew ice cream, rice milk ice cream or almond milk ice cream actually provide the body with some nutrition, but this is by no means a sound idea for one day, let alone five. It’s also important to note that raw, vegan, nut-based ice creams are very high in calories and fat. (Check out our story on the best and worst ice creams for more insight.)
What It Is: Your blood type may make you more prone to certain diseases, which is why some have started to cleanse based on their blood type.
Expert Insight: “Blood cleansing sounds intimidating, but if properly monitored and done under professional supervision, it can be a safe addition to a healthy lifestyle that introduces foods and herbal supplements into your diet (such as garlic, beets, leafy greens and burdock root) to enhance the body’s natural systems (lungs, kidneys, skin, etc.) to cleanse toxins that build up in the bloodstream,” says Axelrod. “According to Ayurveda principles, a key component to maintaining healthy skin is regular detoxification of the blood and it is not uncommon for improperly digested food and other toxins to accumulate in the blood. I do, however, advise caution in participating in any cleanse that requires you to buy supplements unless directed by a trusted professional.”
Note, however, that while this cleanse may seem rooted in science, it doesn’t take into account your medical history, allergies or intolerances. Plus, it’s really hard to get totally behind a diet that would tell a healthy vegetarian to start going Paleo just because of her blood type.
What It Is: Charcoal has been bubbling as a trend for some time, but now people are going for full-on cleanses where, for a period of a few days, they consume a charcoal-based juice daily.
Expert Insight: “Charcoal is definitely on the scene as a trendy cleansing ingredient in supplements, beverages and even beauty products,” says New York City-based holistic health coach Solana Nolfo. “It’s like a Swiffer for the toxins in your body (or on your face!) and works like a magnet to attract toxins, which then get trapped in its little nooks and crannies. Since it can also attract beneficial vitamins and minerals, it’s not something that should be taken in large doses over a long period of time, but may help cure hangovers or other belly disturbances; just be sure to drink lots of water to help flush it — and the toxins that it absorbed — out of your system.”
Cabbage Soup Cleanse
What It Is: The cabbage soup cleanse involves eating a fat-free cabbage soup two to three times a day along with a short list of other foods (think fruits and non-starchy vegetables).
Expert Insight: “Cabbage soup can be delicious, but days of it will likely leave you giving the super nutritious cabbage some major side-eye,” says Nolfo. “There’s nothing good about limiting yourself on both a nutrition and taste front with a ‘cleanse’ that is very short-term in terms of any possible benefit.”
Like with the other cleanses, any weight you may lose will be water weight and will return as soon as the cleanse is over as these types of cleanses fail to help you adopt long-term healthy eating habits. Remember, a diet is supposed to be a long-term pattern of healthy eating, not a short-term solution.
BOTTOM LINE: “Cleanses should never be used for weight loss because as soon as you resume a normal diet, the weight will come back,” says Lauren Minchen, MPH, RDN, CDN. Cleanses are nothing but flashy quick fixes — no matter how they’re packaged or sold. “They can be helpful for a reset for the body, support healthy digestion and increase nutrient intake from fruits and veggies, but they won’t give long-term results.”
It took a lifetime to develop your addictions to sweets and fatty foods, three days of juice, ice cream, tacos or soup won’t change them. Minchen says that when she works with patients that want to cleanse, she suggests doing a liquid cleanse during the day (two to three smoothies) and then having whole foods for dinner. Ideally, you’ll opt for a high-fiber dinner to boost your gut health and help your body naturally eliminate.