The Dirt on Cleansing

June 8, 2008


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“Um, Mum, we are coming with you, aren’t we? Because (and sorry to have to tell you this), we actually have more fans than you do on this blog.” 

For those of you who read my blog regularly, you know that I’m on a cleansing diet this week, an outgrowth of the Total Health course I’ve been taking for the past month and a half.  Well, I hadn’t intended to post yet another non-recipe entry this week, but since I’ve received quite a few questions about why I’ve chosen this particular cleanse and how it works, I thought it might be useful to share a bit about cleansing in general and my own choice for this week in particular.  I’ll warn you, though: what follows is a fairly long post (word count: 2443).  If you’re simply interested in the food I’ve been eating, I’ll post that later–so feel free to come back then!

[Please note: This is a condensed and somewhat simplified account of the process, based on what I learned while studying to become a nutritionist, my own reading on the topic, and my personal experience with cleanses over the past five years.  It is by no means intended as any kind of medical or professional advice and is purely my own perspective on the topic, presented for informational purposes only. ]

Q: Why Detox at All?

Whether you use the term “fast,” “cleanse” or “detox diet,” the process focuses on a single goal: detoxifying and rebalancing the body’s internal operating systems, primarily the digestive tract (but also the liver, respiratory system, urinary system and lymphatic system).  Given the environmental factors, lifestyle, and eating habits of most of us in the modern world, I believe that everyone, no matter how thin, active or deemed “healthy,” could benefit from a cleanse once in a while.  Even the instructor for our course (who has been following a strict regimen of ultra-healthy eating coupled with cardiovascular exercise, strength training exercise, yoga, dance, nia, sports, and a daily spiritual practise for over 20 years) undergoes a cleanse twice a year. 

As denizens of the modern, industrial world, we are exposed to myriad toxins daily, both from within and without.  Just by virtue of living near the great and wonderful metropolis of Toronto, I have the pleasure of inhaling highly polluted air most days of the week.  For the first two months that we lived in this house, I could smell the distinct aroma of fresh paint gases (courtesy of the landlord, who was actually attempting to do us a favor) every time I entered the house.  I ingest all kinds of unsavory substances that leach through plastic water bottles, the plastic containers I use to transport my lunches to work, the dyed and bleached clothing I wear, or the cleansers I use (though I’ve tried to eliminate as many of those as I can).   

And that’s only the exogenous toxins.  We also take in toxins from the food we eat, whether hydrogenated oils from junk food, artificial colors or flavors, or “milk” shakes at McDonald’s or Burger King. Because these substances are not made in nature and our bodies weren’t designed to process them, the liver works overtime to detoxify them out of the body (as much as possible) to keep us healthy. 

When your liver is on overdrive neutralizing toxins that you take in, free radicals are formed.  Free radicals are basically cell-killers, and they can result in cancer and chronic diseases that are often connected to inflammation (such as arthritis, heart disease, etc.). Those of us with weak immunity or overworked filtering systems (such as myself) suffer the consequences and wander around with stuffed noses, digestive distress, joint inflammation, or other chronic conditions that are so often attributed to “aging” or simply “life in general.”

One of my natural health practitioners put it this way:  imagine a pile of bricks that’s being built into a little tower, one brick at a time. Each brick is a different toxin that your body has to deal with and try to eliminate.  As with a pile of bricks, you can add quite a few to the pile without any dire consequences at all; in fact, observed from the outside, everything appears hunky-dory, stable and unchanged. One would even infer that the extra weight being piled on top is doing no harm, making no difference whatsoever. 

But then you reach the point where the pile can no longer support even one more brick.  You place that last brick at the top of the pile and–BAM! (not to quote Emeril in such grave matters, or anything)–the pile completely collapses.  Your body works the same way.  When you were younger (or healthier), you may have been able to tolerate a huge number of toxic “bricks” in your system. But tax the system long enough and then, suddenly, it appears as if everything breaks down at once.

That’s what happened to me several years ago.  After assuming all was well for years (even though I drank up to a liter (quart) of aspartame-sweetened pop a day, had 3-5 coffees a day, imbibed wine and spirits on weekends and consumed whatever junk food, candy, cookies, cakes, or other garbage I desired on a regular basis), everything came crashing down.  I spent about a year suffering from symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, endured multiple recurrent sinus infections (one so serious that it required four–FOUR!–courses of antibiotics to eradicate), and suffered almost continuous yeast infections, coupled with fatigue, depression, and general feelings of “lousy.” At that point, I really needed a cleanse.

All this to say, if there’ are any actions we can regularly take to diminish our load of toxic “bricks,” we should do so.

Q: What Is a Cleansing or Detox Diet?

Basically, cleansing means “cleaning up the diet (and, ideally, environment) to allow the body to rest from fighting off and eliminating toxins for a while, so that it can repair and rejuvenate.”

There are many levels of detox, depending on where you find yourself to begin with. It’s recommended that people start at a level just one echelon away from (less toxic than) where they are now, because detoxing encourages the toxins to exit the body quickly (through elimination and sweating, primarily), and if too many to escape too fast, you’ll end up feeling sort of like a deflated baloon in a mud puddle–or one really sick puppy (this effect is called a “healing crisis“). 

The very first time I went on a detox diet, my naturopath–only two months into her practice–didn’t think to warn me what could happen if I changed my eating habits too drastically. She prescribed what is essentially a NAG diet, but without any animal products. After one day of the diet, I was felled by my body’s extreme healing crisis (I describe the event here).  Luckily, it passed in a couple of days.

By starting “slowly”–that is, without altering too many aspects of your diet or life at once–you avoid a severe healing crisis.  Most people feel a little bit tired or sleepy; some experience mild flu-like symptoms such as a sore throat, but these ususally disappear in a day or two. 

Q: How Do You Know What to Eat and What to Eliminate on a Cleanse?

The diet you choose should depend on the diet you eat regularly before the cleanse.  If someone enjoying a SAD (Standard American Diet) decided to embark on a water fast, it would likely spark a full-scale healing crisis and the person would feel rather sick. So decide where you are now, then move in baby steps toward a full-scale cleanse.

There are basically five or six levels of cleansing diet.  Ideally, you would work your way up to the most challenging level as you clean up your diet over the years. 

Level One: Basic non-toxic diet for everyone. (from Elson Haas, The Detox Diet)

Level one is what I often refer to as the NAG diet, the diet that, if followed regularly, should allow your body to exist with minimum toxic intake and to keep you pretty healthy. (Other versions are Anne Marie Colbin’s diet in Food and Healing, Tosca Reno’s The Eat Clean Diet; or Elson Haas’ diet in Staying Healthy with Nutrition.).  If you’re not already on this type of diet, it would be the first step.  Try this for a week and see how you feel. You could theoretically stay on this diet for the rest of your life.

Level One: The NonToxic Diet (from Elson Haas, The Detox Diet):

  • Eat organic foods whenever possible.
  • Drink filtered water.
  • Rotate foods [ie, eat each of these no more than once every four days or so], especially common allergens such as milk products, eggs, wheat, and yeasted foods.
  • Practice food combining.
  • Eat a natural, seasonal cuisine.
  • Include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and, for omnivarians, some low or non-fat dairy products, fresh fish (not shellfish) and organic poultry.
  • Cook in iron, stainless steel, glass, or porcelain cookware.
  • Avoid or minimize red meats, cured meats, organ meats, refined foods, canned foods, sugar, salt, saturated fats, coffee, alcohol, and nicotine.

And while it’s not stated in this list, Haas also prohibits anything processed or made with chemicals or artificial colorings–this should go without saying.

[“Sounds good, Mum, but do we have to do the part about avoiding meat?”]

Level Two: (this and later levels from Caroline Dupont, Enlightened Eating).

Level two is a step beyond level one, as “it eliminates all animal products and glutenous grains.”  As Dupont points out, this can be a lifelong diet rather than a detox diet if mostly organic foods are eaten and sources of protein and vitamin B12 (which can only be acquired naturally through animal products) are carefully monitored. 

For those who already eat a Level One diet as their regular fare, Level Two would be considered a mild cleanse.

Level Three: Living Foods Only

This level kicks it up a notch (seriously, WHAT is Emeril doing in this discussion?) by allowing only raw foods, effectively eliminating grains (except for sprouted grains). People at this level eat raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, freshly pressed juices, sprouts, and possibly raw dairy.

Q: Why Is Raw Supposedly Better?  Why Are There No Grains? Isn’t That a Lot of Fruit–Why is All That Sugar in the Fruit Acceptable?

RAW:  A raw diet provides the body with readily available digestive enzymes in raw, but not cooked, foods; these would otherwise need to be generated courtesy of your saliva, stomach, and pancreas.  For that reason, it is much easier to digest raw versus cooked food; raw foods give the body a bit of a break so it can concentrate on other functions, such as detoxifying, maintaining, and repairing.  People on all-raw diets have experienced incredible boosts in energy as well as healing effects. 

GRAINS:  Unsprouted grains (the kind we normally eat) are more difficult to digest than raw foods.  There is nothing inherently wrong with eating grains, especially if your digestive system is in tip-top condition; but for those of us with digestive issues, or when cleansing the system, grains are just a bit too challenging.

FRUIT SUGARS:  It’s true that a raw diet provides a large number of fruits, and fruits do contain natural sugars.  But please don’t confuse naturally-occurring sugars with refined white sugar (or even honey or maple syrup, which are both concentrated sugars).  When you eat something refined, the sugar is converted to glucose (a monosaccharide–the smallest sugar molecule, as it’s broken down by the body and passed into the bloodstream) extremely quickly, because it’s already practically in the form of glucose when you eat it. 

With fruits, the sugars are bound up with fibre and other nutrients, and the body must work to extract the different elements in the fruit and to convert the sugars to glucose in the body.  This means you won’t get the same kind of spike in blood sugar levels from eating a fresh fruit as you will from eating a piece of cake or even cup of coffee with sugar in it.  Sugar in fruits is healthy and doesn’t generate toxins in the body. (Think of diabetics, for instance–they’re allowed most fruits).  Fruits with extremely high sugar levels could be eaten in smaller quantities, but even then, they are still healthy foods.  And fruits are digested very quickly and easily in the body–they are the easiest foods for your body to break down, so they don’t tax the system.

[“Give us more fruits is what I say, Mum!’]

Level Four: Blended Foods, Smoothies and Soups

By blending foods, you render them yet more easily digestible.  Dupont suggests incorporating some of these foods into a raw foods diet; furthermore, this level is presented as an excellent “introduction to fasting for people with hypoglycemia, bowel disorders [or] constipation.”

Level Five: Juice Fast And/Or Master Cleanse

At this level, you’re basically removing the need for your bowel to process any fibre and are providing very nutrient-rich clear liquids that are processed very easily by the digestive tract. At level five, a person consumes only freshly squeezed or pressed fruit and vegetable juices, or the Master Cleanse, a mixture of filtered water, lemon juice, maple syrup and a pinch of cayenne pepper.

Level Six: Water Fast

At this point, only those who have already gone through the other five phases should attempt a water fast; drinking only pure filtered water gives the body’s internal organs the ultimate work break. According to Dupont, no one should even attempt a water fast who has not first “established a consistently healthy diet for at least 6 months first.”

[“Yes, pure water is definitely good, Mum.  Especially in summer.”]

Q:Why Did You Choose the Cleanse You Did?

When I was in nutrition school, after spending a full year following the NAG diet and trying out most of the other diets we learned about, I felt ready to complete a Level Five (Master Cleanse) diet for almost a full week.  At that point, my “regular” diet was so non-toxic that the Master Cleanse was a good step.  I felt great while on it and did reap the benefits of better digestion and more energy.

These days, however, my regular diet is more like Level Two, above.  I already don’t eat meat; I already don’t eat refined foods; I already don’t eat most gluten grains on a daily basis.  When I examined the next level–all raw–I realized that would be too challenging for me, and I was afraid I’d slip if I tried to limit myself to raw foods alone. As a compromise, I chose a diet that still eliminated the grains, but retained some cooked foods. I’m happy with the compromise and am feeling some pretty good results so far. 

Maybe next time, I’ll be ready for another raw-go-round. 

Q: Readers: What Do You Think?

If you’ve made it this far, I’d love to know: how many of you have tried detox diets or cleanses?  What was your experience?  What worked, and what would you warn against?


15 Responses to “The Dirt on Cleansing”

  1. VeggieGirl Says:

    VERY informative!! I don’t detox and won’t detox, but I eat 75% raw, so I get the benefits of “cleansing” from eating a “clean diet.” I warn people against taking in too few calories – it’s important to stay well-nourished!

  2. Romina Says:

    Wow Ricki, this is such an informative post, thank you so much! My parents would panic if I ever detoxed, but this is great for reference. =)

  3. Celine Says:

    kudos to you! I’ve never tried any of this, personally.

  4. Courtney Says:

    Great post! I guess I eat at a level 2 as well, however, I do go days at a time eating just raw, and my “normal” diet is usually between 75-85% raw on a day to day basis. In all honesty, I can say that I have not noticed/felt any difference when I do eat raw. But maybe that is just because I have not done it for a long enough period of time? In any case, I wish you the best of luck and I hope that you DO get the results you are looking for!


  5. This is great information! Thanks for sharing it. I’ve often been curious about the ins and outs of detoxing, and you’ve answered a lot of my questions.

  6. jenny Says:

    I know this is just a very small part of this awesome post, but I just had to share that my dog is crazy about watermelon, too. He’s a black lab as well, I had never heard of a dog liking something like watermelon (my border collie mix just turns her nose up at him when he eats it!)

  7. your blog post is putting my detox article to shame! My husband & I did what I consider a very easy detox for a week – while it was challenging it was great because we both felt better and it made me put the VEG back in vegan if you know what I mean. Thanks for being so informative and spelling it all out!!!!

    oh and my dogs go ape for watermelon too! I am relieved they are not just “weird” 😀

  8. Johanna Says:

    If you don’t count a ’24 hour famine’ for World Vision as a teenager, I have never done any sort of detox. But I do try and up the vegies and reduce the chocolate sometimes when I feel quite unhealthy. This post helps me see the complexities of detoxing which is helpful in understanding your omission of grains at the moment!

  9. veganhomemade Says:

    Thanks for the information! I’m interested in trying a raw cleanse one of these days, it would just take a lot of prep that I’m not up for right now. I’m glad yours is going well, keep us updated.

  10. Cakespy Says:

    Bully to you for sticking to it. I have never done this per se, but when I started college I moved from a largely fast food diet to a much healthier diet (still allowing indulgences, but “good” ones–ie, sweets without preservatives and that stuff) and lost about — get this –50 pounds without dieting, and just had so much more energy. I think that it’s important for everyone to go through their own type of cleanse and am excited to hear more about yours!

  11. shellyfish Says:

    This post is awsome, Ricki, just like you! Seriously! I’ve never done a detox, but have been thinking about it more and more. I already am vegan, don’t eat any processed foods (I make our crackers, bread, tortillas, etc.), but I do use sugar, oil, and up until June 5th, drank espresso in the morning. 🙂 I always feel like it would be really hard because I don’t have a juicer and it would be expensive to buy my juice. Am I way off? Can it be done without a juicer? I think by watching you & reading up- thanks for the links- it might be!

  12. Tinker Says:


    Good luck with your detox! Funny to hear you’re doing one right now – I was planning on doing one later this month (smoothies & juices, with a couple days of master cleanse – never tried the latter!) I’ve done the smoothie cleanse before and I do find it helps my digestive system (I normally eat a NAG diet, with some exceptions here and there) so I’m quite looking forward to it…

    Keep us updated!


  13. Ricki Says:

    Sounds as if your diet is “clean” enough w/o detoxing! I love some raw foods but do find it takes a lot of time and work to prepare. What are some of your favorites?

    I don’t think detoxing is necessary for everyone, anyway, so your parents can relax 😉 . In my own case, however, I should probably do it MORE often!

    Thanks! It’s quite the experience the first time, ifyou ever do decide. . .

    It sounds as if your diet is ALREADY very healthy, which may be why you didn’t notice a difference–there’s not a lot of detoxing required, it seems to me! 🙂

    Glad you got something of interest from it, thanks!

    Thanks so much for your comment and for visiting the blog! That’s a riot about your dog–I guess there’s something naturally appealing about “sweet and juicy” for all of us! 🙂

    happy herbivore,
    I’d be curious to know what you did during your own detox–was it just “cleaning up” the diet, like mine, or more like a juice-fast type thing? And I just love that so many other pups out there get to enjoy watermelon, too! 🙂

    Glad it provided some useful info. As I said above, I don’t think detoxing is necessary for everyone, anyway–sounds like you eat pretty healthfully as a rule.

    I have to agree–I find eating a lot of raw to be lots of work as well! (But I do like the benefits).

    That is amazing!! It sounds like your experience was much like mine when I was in nutrition school (I lost about 25 pounds by just eating whatever I wanted, as long as it was healthy), though I have gained some back since then. I agree that cleansing is a very personal endeavor and should be tailored to each individual, though.

    Sounds like you are already eating a non-toxic diet, so there may not be a huge need to detox. I think a cleansing diet can be as simple as omitting a few of the most toxic foods in the diet (or those that tax the digestive system most, such as sweetened or refined foods). Juicing isn’t essential–I am most definitely NOT juicing every day, though I could be. For me, it was a matter of eliminating the grains and any other refined foods I may have had before. The next step for me would be all raw and daily juicing–but for now, I didn’t have the time or inclination, and that would have stressed me out too much–not the intention of a cleanse!! You can start at whatever level you’re ready to tackle, even without juices.

    Thanks! I think a smoothie/Master Cleanse might be the next stage for me (or maybe the one after that. . .??). It does do wonders for digestion, though. 🙂

  14. Vegan_Noodle Says:

    Thanks for typing all of that out Ricki!! It was an interesting read. I have never tried a detox diet beyond that of level 2. I guess every once in awhile I will try to eat raw for one day, but never for a week at a time. I guess I’m not really sure I have the motivation for it at this point in my life. Maybe someday…. I do enjoy reading about your experiences though!

  15. Katy Says:

    This was such a great and informative post! I’m planning on doing the cleanse that Oprah is doing from the book Quantum Wellness starting this week. I’ve also thought about doing a smoothie/juice fast.

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