TORONTO - Nicole Wilson began the new year resolving to live a healthier life. The slim 29-year-old with a self-confessed penchant for junk food wasn't looking to lose weight, but she really wanted to improve her eating habits.
That’s when she and her husband thought of going on a juice cleanse.
“I always think I need to go for that snack, or I crave chocolate or chips,” says the Toronto-based marketing manager. “We decided as a new year’s resolution that we would kick-start a healthier outlook and a healthier regime with a juice cleanse.”
Juice cleanses have created some division among those in the nutritional field — some see them as false promises of fast fixes to unhealthy lifestyles, while others view them as experiences which can promote healthier living.
The latter emphasize support for short cleanses geared toward better overall health and reject extreme fads focused primarily on weight loss. One such example is the Master Cleanse, where a type of lemonade appears to be all that is consumed in the hopes of shedding pounds.
Wilson opted for a regime that involved three days of consuming nothing but six to eight bottles of organic fresh fruit and vegetable juices as well as teas that were delivered to her door every morning by a company specializing in “juice feasting.”
The toughest part was knowing she wouldn't be having any of her favourite foods.
“The hardest part for me was the mental hurdle,” she says. “I never felt hungry. The biggest challenge was just beating that craving. I missed chewing.”
While she enjoyed the experience, the lasting effect of the cleanse was how much more aware Wilson became of what she consumed.
“I still like my junk food, but we try to inject more healthy nutrition into our lifestyle, and this cleanse was a catalyst for that,” she says. “We look forward to having fruits and veggies way more than we ever have before.”
That kind of shift in thinking is one of the reasons why registered dietician Susan Fyshe doesn’t discourage her clients from trying a short juice cleanse if they want to.
“From a weight-loss standpoint, it’s not the most effective way to lose weight. From a health standpoint, though, there are benefits to juicing,” says Fyshe, who also teaches a course on the latest in the science of weight loss at the University of Toronto.
“It is easily absorbed and it’s concentrated nutrition. It also rests the GI tract.”
Longer juice cleanses — between five and 10 days — veer into more tricky territory, says Fyshe, and ought to be tried only under medical supervision. Diabetics and those with blood sugar issues should steer clear of the cleanses, she adds.
Rather than routinely opting for cleanses, however, Fyshe encourages her clients to add “juicing” — the practice of pressing fresh juice out of fruits and vegetables with specialized equipment — to a healthy diet.
“Just going on a juice cleanse for a couple of days is not going to make that much difference because it depends what you’re putting into your body every day,” she says. “I think people can look at juicing as a healthy add-on to a healthy way of living.”
The idea of embarking on a juice-only diet or any sort of dietary cleanse, however, doesn’t sit well with at least one doctor.
“These to me suggest that people are still desperately hoping for shortcuts to health, and if there were such things then we would all be a lot healthier than we actually are,” says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa.
“When it comes to the concept of detoxification or toxins, it’s a completely made-up concept. Our body really does already have incredibly, wonderfully powerful systems to help keep ourselves healthy — our livers and our kidneys do a remarkably good job.”
According to Freedhoff, cleanses offer a tantalizingly easy promise of improving one’s health to a certain extent, but he contends that meaningful results can only be obtained by making significant lifestyle changes. He recommends getting 20 minutes of exercise multiple times a week, preparing meals from fresh ingredients, getting enough sleep and nurturing one’s relationships as the means to achieving better health.
“If there were such a thing as health in a bottle, we’d have a very healthy population,” he says. “If you want to consume more fruits and vegetables for your health, that is a great plan, but you have to actually eat them.”
The founder of a company specializing in juice cleanses argues, however, that people simply do not end up consuming as many whole fruits and vegetables as they should, making a cleanse a simple way to achieve that target for at least a few days.
“It helps kick-start lifestyle change,” says Eliane Seyfaie, founder of Raw Juice Guru in Toronto.
The 36-year-old makes it a point to emphasize that her cleanses are not aimed at helping people lose weight. Instead, she encourages her clients to learn more about their nutritional patterns and how their dietary choices impact their bodies.
While many of her customers report higher energy levels during a cleanse, Seyfaie also believes her juice regimes help clients break bad habits.
“A lot of it is mental, you end up learning a lot about your cravings when you’re on the cleanse,” she says. “You’re going to say ‘it’s not worth it’ and hopefully it won’t happen as much.”
Seyfaie makes it clear that a juice cleanse isn’t an immediate solution to an unhealthy lifestyle. But she hopes the experience helps people make better dietary choices going forward.
“Whether you do a juice cleanse or whether you include (juicing) in everyday life, it’s a good thing,” she says. “Your food is either your medicine or your poison, you have to pick which one.”