Eating Clay: Absurd Health Trend or All-Natural Cleanse?

Photo: Pond5
Photo: Pond5

Actress Shailene Woodley recently caused a stir when she announced that she relies on a surprising ingredient to detox and cleanse her body. Yes, the 22-year-old admitted to eating clay, a habit she said she picked up from a taxi driver from Africa, who told her it was part of his native culture.

Woodley, a natural health fanatic who also practices oil pulling, claims the substance helps naturally remove contaminants, telling talk show host David Letterman, “Clay binds to other material in your body and helps your body excrete those materials that are not necessarily the best for you, like toxins and heavy metals and what not, to the best of my understanding.” The trend is rapidly spreading behind the world of celebrities, too. Recently, New York City-based juice and smoothie bar Juice Generation announced plans to add $4 clay shots to their menu in November 2014.

But experts are warning that the health claims surrounding this muddy mixture are bogus.  “With a clay cleanse there is absolutely no data showing it is effective or good for your health,” says Lisa Cimperman, a Clinical Dietician at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. “It does come with some potential dangers, too.”

If you thought a juice cleanse was a crazy trend, here’s the real scoop on this even more suspicious fad.

The claim: Clay is safe to eat.

“If there was one thing I could permanently erase form everybody’s mind, it’s this idea we need to somehow cleanse our body.”

The reality: Oftentimes, clay is not manufactured in food grade facilities, meaning it may harbor dangerous contaminants.

Woodley mentioned that she purchases her clay from a company called Mountain Rose Herbs. However, a quick glance at the company’s web site reveals that their clay products are primarily meant for external use. And Kori Rodley, public and media relations coordinator for the company, says, “The bentonite clay we currently offer has not been processed at a food grade facility and therefore is not intended for internal use. We suggest consulting a licensed health care practitioner as consuming bentonite clay can result in a variety of harmful side effects.” According to Bethany Doerfler, a Clinical Research Dietician at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, some of these may include food sickness, diarrhea, abdominal pain or potentially even bowel obstruction.

In other words, you shouldn’t eat your average clay face mask.  

The risks of dining on goods not declared fit for human consumption are numerous.

“It could have environmental toxins, for example like heavy metals; it could have other dangerous environmental contaminants…or it could also have rodent’s excrement in it,” says Doerfler. “When something is produced in a facility that is not food grade, you have absolutely no idea what you’re taking.”

The claim: Clay cleanses heavy metals out of your body.

The reality: Swallowing clay may have the opposite effect, carrying the risk of lead poisoning.

“Ingesting clay, or forms of clay, poses significant health risks for a number of reasons,” says Doerfler. “One is that clay is a medium to ingest heavy metals. So it’s easy for people to get [exposed to] lead and cadmium and other types of heavy metals that are in the environment that are often found in clay.”

Cadmium exposure has been associated with kidney dysfunction, respiratory problems and bone disease—and is also being studied as a potential carcinogen. And extensive research has shown that lead poisoning can negatively impact nearly every part of the body, causing high blood pressure, memory loss, pain, mood disorders and even death.

Furthermore, your organs shouldn’t require a special concoction to eliminate any harmful contaminants that do enter your body. “If there was one thing I could permanently erase form everybody’s mind, it’s this idea we need to somehow cleanse our body, whether it’s cleansing our [gastrointestinal] tracts or cleansing our livers,” says Cimperman. “Our bodies have very sophisticated organ systems that are responsible for eliminating toxins.”

The claim: Your body doesn’t absorb clay.


“In an effort to make yourself healthier, you’re actually doing damage.”


The reality: Drinking this earthy solution may actually interfere with your body’s natural absorption of vitamins and minerals.

“It will bind with things like iron, or nutrients like calcium and will prevent the body from absorbing these key nutrients,” Doerfler says. “In an effort to make yourself healthier, you’re actually doing damage.”

Though no studies have examined the long-term effects that clay consumption can have on a person, experts suspect that imbibing silt could eventually lead to nutrient deficiencies that could prove dangerous to your health.

Doerfler points out that those who drink clay may also become anemic or even just fatigued because they’re not able to take in the vitamin D they need for good bone health. 

The claim: It can help you lose weight.

The reality: Any weight loss associated with gulping down clay would likely be temporary (and unpleasant).

The buzz surrounding clay cleansing grew louder after actress Zoe Kravitz credited it with helping her lose 20 pounds to portray a person struggling with an eating disorder in the upcoming film, The Road Within. Kravitz, who said she turned to drinking clay because it “cleans out your body and fills you up,” said sipping the watery brew made her feel “awful,” and noted that she wouldn’t recommend it. Nutritionists agree that this type of diet is likely dangerous.

“I can’t think of a plausible way that this would result in legitimate weight loss,” says Doerfler. “What I mean by that is, perhaps it may cause diarrhea, in which case you are losing nutrients and losing fluid, but that is not the type of healthy weight loss that we like to see.” 

Doerfler says people are better off shedding pounds the old-fashioned way, rather than subjecting their body to deprivation with one of these of-the-moment diets.

“I know people want to lose weight really badly, but not at the expense of abdominal pain or nausea,” says Doerfler. Weight loss should be achieved by adopting a healthier diet and exercising. “That’s the pathway to healthy weight loss you can maintain for the rest of your life.”

To hear Woodley’s full interview with Letterman about her interest in clay cleansing, click here

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