Depending on who you ask, some say juice cleanses will leave you feeling healthier and clear headed, while others contend they’ll just make you feel hungry and irritable. So are we shelling out for fresh-pressed goodness or a dangerous, pulp-free fad?
The trend is so popular that Beverage Industry magazine predicts sales of juice smoothies and yogurt drinks will grow four percent a year through 2015, reaching annual revenue of $1.1 billion. “Detoxes and cleanses have become so mainstream, many of my clients feel like they’re doing something wrong if they haven’t tried at least one,” says Cynthia Sass, R.D., author of S.A.S.S.! Yourself Slim and sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays.
Despite this popularity, there’s very little research to support (or condemn) the health claims made by juice cleanse companies. One small German study found an eight percent decrease in cholesterol among five men after an eight-day juice fast. But the results were short lived — their cholesterol levels went back to normal a week later.
So do juice cleanses live up to the hype? And are they safe?
The juices that are receiving the most hype are cold-pressed, a process that entails pulverizing fruits and vegetables and then pressing them with enough force to remove all the nutrients and juice, leaving behind a pulp, explains Kelly Boyer, founder and executive chef at PALETA, a company offering farm-to-table meal delivery and cold-pressed juices. It’s different from raw juicing, where blenders and juicers create centrifugal force, which could raise the heat of produce slightly and potentially cause nutrients to begin to deplete, she says.
The process completely removes the healthy fiber from the produce, on purpose. “Fiber is great for us, but the reason for these cold-pressed detoxes is to remove the fiber so your body can rest,” says Boyer. “Eighty percent of our energy is spent on digestion, but by taking that away it allows those vital nutrients in the drinks to hyper-absorb into your body.”
Research shows that whole fruits are more beneficial than juices for preventing diabetes, helping you to feel full, and satisfying daily fiber requirements, and even cleanse proponents would never recommend permanently replacing whole fruits and vegetables with juices.
In Favor of Fruit Juice
Without as much fiber, your body can get a fast blast of nutrients, while giving the digestive system a chance to relax, says Boyer. “[A cleanse] is a great metabolism reset. The only way it messes with your metabolism is if you’re on it for an extended period of time.”
Boyer’s detoxes are positioned as three days, but she says even a oneday cleanse is a good way to reward the body and reset your metabolism. Boyer also points out that it’s important to follow the guidelines and properly time consumption, or your metabolism will bounce all over the place.
Cleanses can also serve as a fresh start and a transition into a long-term, health way of eating, says Sass.
“Detoxes and cleanses prevent you from being able to act on your usual emotional, social, environmental and habitual eating triggers, which can be the first step to breaking unhealthy patterns,” she says.
The Downside of Juicing
While they can be a good way to press the “restart button,” it isn’t scientifically proven that your body actually needs to be cleansed. “Your body is pretty high tech, and if you think about it, it cleanses itself pretty frequently,” says Leslie Schilling, R.D., Memphis-based nutrition counselor.
A day or two is likely safe, she says, but if you’re on a cleanse for an extended period of time, you could end up hypocaloric, and your body is going to start tapping into fat stores, forcing the liver to releasing glucose and eventually breaking down muscle tissue.
“It really depends on the person and how much extra storage they have lying around,” says Schilling. “But within three or four days you’re going to see somebody potentially tap into other stores once their body realizes it’s not getting the energy it needs from sources like fat and protein.”
So while a cleanse could result in some fat burned, it’s a bad idea to try a cleanse with the intention of losing weight, says Boyer, since any weight loss comes at the expense of muscle loss.
If you do opt for a cleanse, it’s important to take some precautions. For example, with limited calories and an empty-feeling stomach, exercising on a cleanse will feel different than when you’re fully fueled, to say the least. On top of limited calories, without the pulp, juices don’t provide the raw materials required for healing and recovering, says Sass.
“As a result, doing both exercise and a cleanse can leave you feeling tired, dizzy and nauseous,” she says. “It can also result in breaking down muscle mass, which can up your injury risk and lower your metabolic rate, the exact opposite result than what you’re aiming for.”
If you are going to exercise, workouts need to be less intense and properly timed, says Boyer. Instead of running your normal 10 miles, run five during cleanse days, or try something a little less intense, like a yoga or Pilates class, she recommends. And if you truly feel the need to do something more intense, the workout should be timed so it falls close to your last juice, and you should refuel with another immediately afterward.
When to Stay Away
Juices made by reputable companies are raw, unpasteurized and organic, which creates a slight risk for carrying bacteria, says Boyer. That means women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and anyone with an autoimmune disease should probably avoid these cleanses. People who are on medications that need to be taken with a meal should also consult with their doctor before trying a juice cleanse.
Of course, health condition or not, cleanses aren’t for everyone.
“While some people rave about how amazing they feel physically and emotionally during a cleanse, I’ve seen others struggle with moodiness, irritability, depression, fatigue, constipation, constant thoughts of food and rebound binge eating,” says Sass. “Listen to your body and mind. If either one or both don’t react well to limiting your diet, don’t put yourself through it.”
Super strict cold-pressed regimens may be incredibly popular, but Sass says most of her clients feel more energized and satiated—and get better long-term results—when they include lean protein, healthy fats, and raw veggies and fruits they can chew, rather than juices that are gone in a few gulps.
The Final Squeeze
Since there’s not one standard definition of a cleanse, there isn’t a body of research backing or attacking juice cleanses. As long as your goal isn’t weight loss, some experts suggest a one to three day cleanse can be a safe and effective way to give your digestive system a rest. But don’t feel like you need to jump on the juice bandwagon to be healthy—a well-balanced diet will also do the trick.