The Lemonade Diet: Master Cleanse or Master Disaster?

You have probably heard about detox diets and fasting approaches for weight loss. One very popular version of such is the Master Cleanse diet, which is based upon a book entitled The Master Cleanser (by Stanley Burroughs; published over 50 years ago). The book claims that the diet will ‘cleanse’ the body of toxins, produce rapid weight loss, and provide relief of chronic conditions such as arthritis. Sounds too good to be true! So, what exactly is the Master Cleanse diet? Is this approach to weight loss safe and effective? Is it recommended by nutrition experts?  Let’s take a closer look at the benefits and risks of the Master Cleanse.

The Master Cleanse is a strict diet that requires participants to consume 4 cups of salt water, 1 cup of herbal laxative tea, and 6-12 cups of a lemonade concoction (containing fresh lemon juice, maple sugar, cayenne pepper, and water). Participants are urged to follow the diet for at least 10 days. Those following the diet are warned of side effects associated with “detox”, including: cravings, fatigue, irritability, aches & pains, nausea, vomiting and burning sensations during bowel movements. The Master Cleanse diet has been touted by celebrities and you can find dozens of testimonials on the web proclaiming the benefits of such a dietary pattern (see for example: Master Cleanse).

So, what does nutrition science have to say about such an approach to weight loss? First off, there is no scientific evidence that the Master Cleanse rids the body of toxins (US News). This is the job of the liver; if your liver is functioning properly, it will rid the body of various toxins. Many have reported rapid weight loss on the Master Cleanse (which calls for consuming ~650 kcals/day). This is not surprising, as any form of starvation will lead to rapid weight loss. But, what is being lost during the cleanse? Experts say most of what is lost is water weight and moreover, that muscle and bone tissue can also decrease (Web MD). Doesn’t sound so positive, does it?

Slowing of the metabolism also occurs during starvation, which makes it difficult to maintain the weight loss after stopping the cleanse. Nutrition experts also warn about negative effects on the kidneys and heart, and the lack of many essential nutrients (e.g. fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber) in the Lemonade Diet. This dietary pattern can also adversely affect the microorganisms that reside in our large intestine; recent studies are showing that the so called ‘gut microbiota’ play important roles in the development of chronic disease.

Nutrition experts recommend reducing calorie intake by perhaps 20-25%, while following the basic dietary recommendations for the macro- and micro-nutrients for successful weight loss. This should be coupled with increased physical activity. Experts tell us that this is probably the only way to lose weight and keep it off in the long run. So while diets like the Master Cleanse may produce rapid weight loss, there are many associated risks and long term success is unlikely. The choice then is yours: rapid unsustainable weigh loss associated with adverse metabolic perturbations or healthy, nutrition-science recommended approaches to maintain body weight. What will you do?

(Written with the creative assistance of Emily Richter, a University of Florida undergraduate student)

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