By Sunny Sea Gold, REDBOOK.
Cleansing's popularity may have begun in celeb-packed Los Angeles and image-obsessed New York City, but now, with fresh juice spots opening up all over the country and chains like Starbucks and Whole Foods investing hundreds of millions of dollars in popular cold-pressed juice brands, it's easier than ever to be enticed into doing a "cleanse" program no matter where you live. Some women are also sipping these veggie- and fruit-based drinks in lieu of meals and snacks, says registered dietitian and Eat to Lose, Eat to Win author Rachel Beller. While we get that green juice and berries are packed full of antioxidants, polyphenols, and other really healthy and exciting little nutrients, it got us thinking, is all this juicing and cleansing just an excuse for food- and weight-obsessed women to not eat for a few days (or weeks-Blueprint, a popular brand, has a 6- to 36-day-long bridal program!)?
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I'm not the only one who suspects. "Using juice cleanses can resemble a binge-purge cycle; someone goes on a three-day bender of eating and drinking whatever they want, followed by a 'cleanse' to counterbalance the 'damage' they did," says Rachel Dore, Psy.D., an eating disorder specialist and adjunct professor at the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology at Widener University. "It could quickly turn into a detox, then retox, then detox again pattern." How do you know if you could be at risk? "It has to do with the person's goals, coping skills, and personality factors. Cleansing, or following any kind of strict diet, gives one the illusion of control. To someone with a type-A personality, which is commonly seen in those with eating disorder symptoms, that brings about feelings of power, euphoria, and motivation to maintain this overwhelming sense of control." Beller suspects this is true of several people she knows: "In one case, this person will go to a juice shop and get a cucumber and veggie juice, which is maybe 40 calories. That'll happen twice a day, then maybe she'll eat something small for dinner. It's a way to check into a healthy location, occupy the time that would otherwise be spent eating an actual meal, and it allows her to say, 'Yes, I got something nourishing.'" At the same time, though, she's technically starving herself of fats and protein.
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The slippery slope of juicing can also be much more subtle than supporting a full-blown eating disorder. Some people try a juice cleanse and emerge a couple of pounds lighter and just as mentally healthy and stable as they were before, but others-perhaps longtime dieters or women who tend to worry about weight and shape a lot-can find themselves caught up in a new pattern of unhelpful thoughts and behavior, says Dore. By their very nature, cleanses get you thinking about food in terms of what's "clean/dirty" or "good/bad," which can set off a binge/diet cycle. "Many people finish a cleanse and, because they have deprived themselves of food for several days, will eat whatever they crave afterward," says Dore. "Then they feel guilty, like they 'undid' their cleanse, and find themselves compelled, moreso than ever, to rid themselves of their 'mistake.' Or someone may do a cleanse that sends their body into starvation mode, then they resume their normal eating habits and gain the weight back. They then think to themselves, 'Well, I thought I was going extreme by doing this intense and expensive day-long cleanse, but not even that worked, so I guess I need to go even more extreme.'"
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All of this said, both Dore and Beller believe that as long as you know yourself well enough to know that fasting won't freak you out emotionally or re-trigger a long-dead eating disorder, a short-term juice cleanse is unlikely to do any lasting damage. "But if you have struggled with disordered eating, it's probably not a good idea for you to introduce a rigid diet, which would trigger all kinds of thoughts and behaviors that aren't good for you," says Dore. As someone who's recovered from an eating disorder myself, I know better than to ever tempt fate by going food-free for a day-and honestly, it sort of sounds like hell on earth to me. But if you're pretty normal about food and aren't a yo-yo dieter, Beller maintains that there's nothing wrong with taking a break from solid foods once in a while. "Fasting can be a day of reflection to make people stop, think, re-prioritize," she says. "It can feel good. But that's basically it."
There's nothing wrong with a very short-term juice cleanse if you're sure you've got the personality for it, but if not, it might be smarter to skip it.
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