Do Juice Cleanses Work? 10 Truths About The Fad

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The juice cleanse business is drawing in customers like fruit flies, promising weight loss, body detoxification and the treatment and prevention of everything from the common cold to cancer.

A nutritious juice here and there can be beneficial for your health, but when it’s taken to the extreme -- limiting your diet to strictly juices for weeks -- it not only fails to be the magic solution the fanatics are claiming it to be; it can also do more harm than good.

WHAT IS A JUICE CLEANSE/FAST?
During a juice fast or cleanse, a person limits their diet to only fresh vegetable and fruit juices and water for anywhere from a few days to several weeks. The fast focuses on freshly made, unpasteurized juice, so the usual bottles of OJ that you would pick up at the corner store wouldn’t be allowed.

People generally either buy the juices from a manufacturer of juice cleanse products or purchase a juicer and make their own concoctions at home. According to the New York Times, the new cleanses contain about 1,000 to 1,200 calories a day and often include a nut-milk component to provide a small amount of fat and protein.

Pathogens can live on all raw food, but packaged juices go through a pasteurization process that kills them. If you do make your own juices at home, make sure to only make enough for one serving so you don’t give dangerous organisms a chance to develop. And, as always, scrub that produce clean!

THE CLAIMS
1. It’s an easy way to add servings of vegetables and fruits to your diet.
The latest dietary guidelines recommend five to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables a day (2.5 to 6.5 cups per day), depending on a person’s caloric intake. The average American requires 2,000 calories a day to maintain weight and health, so the average person’s goal is nine servings, or 4.5 cups, of fruits and veggies per day. (By the way, potatoes don’t count.)

Don’t eat that much produce? Neither does anyone else. That’s one reason fans of the juice cleanse say the diet is so healthy: You can fit a lot of fruit and veggie servings into one big glass of juice.

2. We get more health benefits from fruits and veggies in juice form.
You’ll find the following sentence, or something very similar, on almost every juice cleanse website: “Although eating fruits and vegetables in their natural state does provide us with a substantial amount of vitamins and minerals, we only obtain the maximum benefits from them when they are juiced.” Proponents of the cleanses will even tell you that drinking juice “gives the digestive system a break” from breaking down fiber. In reality, fiber helps with digestion.

3. Overweight? We guarantee you’ll lose weight!
Cleanse fanatics claim the diet is great for weight loss.

4. Everything else you want a magic pill for.
Juice cleanse websites tout the diet’s ability to make you feel more energized, boost your immune system, strengthen your bones, make your skin glow and reduce your risk of illness and disease.

10 Truths About Juice Cleanses (story continues below)

10 Truths About Juice Cleanses
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1. It’s dangerous for some people.
People undergoing chemotherapy, diabetics, people with nutritional deficiencies and people with kidney disease should not try a juice fast. The high sugar consumption involved in juice fasts can skyrocket blood-sugar levels in diabetics, which can result in fatigue, unexplained weight loss, blurry vision, excessive hunger and thirst, and wounds or infections that heal more slowly than usual.

According to LiveStrong, the high levels of potassium and minerals from excessive juice consumption can build up in the blood to hazardous levels in those with kidney disease. And the high levels of antioxidants and low levels of protein can be dangerous for those undergoing chemo.

2. Juicing is not better than whole fruits and vegetables. In fact, it removes some nutrients.
While the juice form does hydrate and supply nutrients, registered dietitian Jennifer Nelson says there’s no reliable scientific research to support claims that juicing your produce is healthier than eating it whole. Actually, the fiber and some of the antioxidants found in the skins and seeds of fruits and vegetables are often eliminated in the juicing process. For example, the white pulp in an orange provides flavonoids, but that’s usually left behind.

Because juice doesn’t offer the fiber contained in fruits and veggies, the body absorbs fructose sugar more easily, which can affect blood-sugar levels, according to Food Republic. If you do decide to try a juice cleanse, drink more veggie juices (carrots and beets not included) and limit fruit juice to one glass a day in order to avoid this potential side effect.

None of this means you shouldn’t drink juice. It simply means, instead of drinking only juice for weeks, a healthier route might just be including juices in a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains.

3. Juices are less filling than whole fruits and vegetables.
You’re not going to feel as satisfied and full if you drink your meals instead of chewing them, Livestrong.com explains. Additionally, the fiber that’s been left out of the juice would have helped slow consumption and make you feel more sated.

4. Juice fasts can leave out critical nutrients your body needs to function properly.
You should always be skeptical when a diet requires extreme restrictions and cuts out entire food groups. There’s a reason dietary guidelines include various categories of food: You can’t get all of your essential vitamins and minerals out of just one.

Livestrong.com explains that juice fasts frequently lack substantial amounts of protein and fat. “Few fruits contain significant amounts of fat and protein, and vegetables that contain these macronutrients — such as avocados, beans and lentils — do not lend themselves to juicing,” Livestrong says. “Without sufficient protein, your body has no raw materials with which to build new tissue. A lack of fat leaves your skin and hair in poor shape and contributes to malabsorption of fat-soluble vitamins.”

Extend your juice fast, and you might just cause serious damage. Dr. Glenn D. Braunstein, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Cedars-Sinai, says that longer fasts could result in electrolyte imbalances. Additionally, if you’re not getting enough calories, your body could start using muscle tissue instead of fat for energy.

5. Like most fad diets, a juice fast is not an effective way to lose weight and keep it off.
Will you lose weight? Probably — you’re cutting out all of the fat from your diet and drastically lowering your caloric intake. But you’ll most likely put it right back on after the fast.

“There’s nothing wrong with going on a juice fast for a few days,” said Dr. James Dillard, assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, on WebMD. “But it’s not a great way to lose weight, because you’ll gain it all back — you yo-yo. It’s just like the Atkins diet. The weight you lose is water weight.” And Dr. Braunstein (of Cedars-Sinai) says this type of deprivation can also result in dizziness, nausea, constipation, fatigue and irritability.

Additionally, if you do this to your body enough, you could permanently lower your metabolism — as if it’s not tough enough to lose weight as it is. New York Times writer Judith Newman tried a juice cleanse and wrote about her experience: “This kind of cleansing puts a lot of stress on your body,” she wrote. “Your body wants and expects food. And as with most crash diets, which is really what this is, your body thinks it’s starving. It doesn’t know it’s going to get more food. So it lowers your metabolism, and if you do this enough, it can lower your metabolism permanently.”

6. There isn’t really anything to detox.
Don’t get me wrong: A “detox diet” to rid my body of all the crap I’ve recently put in it sounds convincing, even to me. Who wouldn’t want to “cleanse” their body of all the chemicals, fat and alcohol they’ve consumed? The fact is, though, our body does an excellent job of this already; our liver, kidneys and intestines filter the unwanted things we ingest and expel them through urine, bowel movements, breath and sweat. We don’t need to punish ourselves with strict juice-only diets to eliminate the bad stuff.

People were talking about detoxification back in the early 1900s, according to QuackWatch. Supporters of the process claimed that “intestinal sluggishness causes intestinal contents to putrefy, toxins are absorbed and chronic poisoning of the body results.” Scientists abandoned this theory, though, in the 1930s, and these mysterious “toxins” that everyone keeps trying to get rid of have never been discovered.

“Our bodies are very good at eliminating all the nasties that we might ingest over the festive season,” said Dr. John Emsley, a chemical scientist quoted in the Washington Times in a story about the potential of detox diets to get rid of all the junk we put in our bodies over the holidays. The idea of detoxing our bodies by “drinking fancy bottled water or sipping herbal teas is just nonsense.”

7. It’s not cheap.
The weight loss industry is a business -- a booming one at that. As of February 2011, the weight loss market was valued at almost $60 billion, including bariatric surgery, diet soft drinks, health club revenues and more by Marketdata Enterprises. BluePrintCleanse, a popular New York-based manufacturer, will charge you $65 a day for its cleansing package of juices. Los Angeles-based Pressed Juicery offers three different cleanse packages, each providing five juices and one almond milk for a total cost of $70 a day.

Want to juice at home? Get ready to put down some money. Juicers range from $30 to $300. And since you shouldn’t be saving unpasteurized juice for later, you might want to buy one for the office while you’re at it.

8. “But my friend did it and said she felt amazing!”
It’s true. Many people who try these detox diets report having more energy and feeling more focused. However, as Mayo Clinic explains, this could be due to the belief that they’re doing something good for their bodies.

That said, you could also argue that there’s nothing wrong with a placebo effect if it does the job. As the NYT writer who tried one of these cleanses wrote, “What’s so bad about feeling a little better, even if there’s no demonstrable proof that you actually are better?”

9. It’s not going to cure cancer.
Proponents of the juice fast claim it will cure your case of the sniffles and even treat cancer. There has been no scientific evidence suggesting it will do anything but help increase your vitamin intake -- which, yes, could benefit your health, but the calorie restriction and lack of protein might actually slow healing. Your body needs all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients it can get to heal. The best thing you can do with your diet is to make sure you’re not depriving it of an essential nutrient and eat balanced, well-portioned meals.

As for cancer, the American Cancer Society states that current scientific research does not support fasting (including juice fasting) to treat it. Additionally, as previously stated, those undergoing chemotherapy should not attempt a juice fast because of the risk posed by the high levels of antioxidants and low levels of protein.

TO JUICE OR NOT TO JUICE
Look, there are some benefits to juice cleanses. If you follow it all the way through, you’ll probably feel a sense of accomplishment. You might feel like you’ve freed yourself from the control cravings had over you. Some people say it helps them break their unhealthy eating habits. And yes, for once, you’re probably getting the recommended servings of fruits and veggies, if not more, per day. But if you’re going to try a juice cleanse, make it short. It’s not healthy to restrict your body for weeks from the other nutritious foods it needs.

If you were considering doing a juice fast to lose weight, this isn’t the way to go. Moderation is key to any diet, and the best way to lose weight and keep it off is to make healthy lifestyle changes that you’ll be able to maintain throughout your life. USA Today does suggest, however, that replacing one meal with a juice in order to aid weight loss could benefit people without health concerns, as long as it’s supported with a balanced diet.

Registered dietitian Katherine Zeratsky said it best on Mayo Clinic’s website: “The best diet is a healthy diet based on fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean sources of protein.”

CORRECTION: Formerly this post incorrectly stated that Marketdata valued the boutique cleanse segment at $60 billion; we have adjusted it to to show that this number reflects the weight loss market. This article also originally quoted USA Today on high potassium levels, but as that link was outdated, we've updated it with information from LiveStrong.