THE BLOG

Juice Cleanses: The New Eating Disorder?

08/01/2013 10:25 am ET | Updated Oct 01, 2013

The not-so-new dieting fad these days is the detox diet, aka the Master Cleanse. Eat or drink too much over the weekend? Then it's lemon juice, cayenne pepper, maple syrup and maybe a smidgen of blended kale for you for the next few days (or weeks).

These juice fasts, popularized by celebrities but now part of the mainstream "What diet should I follow this year?" culture, are generating more than $5 billion per year. A quick scan of the Internet reveals numerous books, programs and companies each claiming their program to be the best way to rid the body of toxins, excess calories and biological debris from the consumption of food and alcohol. What these self-proclaimed experts on the physiology of the body don't tell their customers? The body is already outfitted with perfectly good ways of getting rid of toxins. (Otherwise how could mankind have survived all this time before the cleansing fasts were invented?)

What is worrisome about the ever-growing popularity of such regimens is that they lack nutrients essential for the normal functioning of the body and brain. And they appeal to a segment of the population that wishes to eliminate eating so they can become super-skinny.

Although a solution of lemon juice and cayenne pepper, if put on the skin, may keep away mosquitoes, it does nothing to support the work of the brain or maintain the integrity of bone mass and muscle strength. The brain needs energy in the form of glucose to function, and its many neurotransmitters that send messages among the neurons require specific nutrients such as amino acids to keep being made. Personally, I would not want to be in a plane flown by a pilot following a cleanse diet or on an operating table about to be opened up by a surgeon who spent the previous weekend drinking only lemon juice and blended wheat grass. Moreover, where is the protein, calcium and vitamin D to maintain muscle and bone strength? Too be sure, not eating for a day or so is not going to affect physiological processes. After all, many cultures observe fast days without any harmful effects. But if the fast is prolonged we usually call this famine, and hasten to provide the missing nutrients to a population living on too little food.

These cleansing fasts are generating another problem, namely a new eating disorder. According to an article in the magazine Marie Claire, a sub-group of cleanse devotees called juicerexics have surfaced. These super-skinny women follow the cleanse diets repeatedly and for long periods of time, thus enabling them to lose substantial amounts of weight. According to experts interviewed for the magazine, when some women go on a juice fast and find themselves losing weight, it awakens some sort of dormant obsession to become extremely thin. And unlike the typical anorectic who is urged to eat, these women are praised and congratulated for their discipline in following a diet that purifies their body. Interestingly, like some anorectics who go from starvation to bingeing and then starvation, these juicerexics may also go from detox to retox and back to detox. They may spend a weekend eating and drinking excessively and then return to many days of the starvation cleanse.

The cost of the nutrient-deficient cleanse diet and its associated weight loss is much more than the price of a new wardrobe. The cost can be osteoporosis and frailty, conditions we associate with elderly women confined to wheelchairs. Women in mid-life become increasingly vulnerable to fragile bones, i.e. osteoporosis, due to a menopausal decline in estrogen. Preventing osteoporosis requires eating substantial amounts of calcium from food, as well as vitamin D and exercise. Once the disease is established, drugs must be taken to slow down or stop its progress. Less well-known, but just as worrisome, is a condition known as sarcopenia or muscle wasting. Loss of muscle after prolonged inactivity, such as occurs with a broken limb or long illness, has been known for decades. But until recently, muscle loss associated with inadequate protein intake combined with a sedentary lifestyle is getting more attention. It, like osteoporosis, is a serious problem since it is associated with frailty, lack of balance, falls and difficulty living independently.

Might the chronic nutrient deficiency associated with prolonged cleanses and juice fasts lead to degenerative changes in bones and muscles two or three decades later? Is the price of the super-skinny body of the juicerexic going to be a future of broken bones and weak muscles? Will substituting lemon juice and pepper for meals lead not to a "purified" body but rather one that in the future is so frail, it must reside in a wheelchair?

Unfortunately, the message that the body requires a variety of nutrients consumed every day has neither the novelty nor the commercial pressure behind it to get much notice. Perhaps the answer is to rely on the old concept of "You are what you eat." If we want to be healthy in brain and body, we must not rely on nutrients that would not even nourish a gnat.

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.