Look Good Feel Great (Or Not)

I’ve talked and written about detoxes, cleanses, and eating challenges before, but a friend recently asked me my thoughts on one particular plan. Without specifically focusing on that eating challenge, I thought I’d use her inquiry as a jumping-off point to revisit this subject. 

It seems like every month there is a new 10, 14, 21, 28, or 30 day eating plan or challenge being promoted on social media and talk-shows. Each one of them will have its own specific dietary rules and exclusions ranging from no added sugar, to no eating after a certain time of day and each one while not promising specific results will allude to improved health and appearance for its adherents.  

Of course I’ve both led, and participated in many of these types of challenges over the years. In  general most of them are not harmful in the short amount of time they are designed to be used. And most are somewhat effective in helping participants drop some body weight, although body composition is another matter. 

But are they helpful in the long-term? Do they help people identify and correct unhealthy eating patterns and behaviors? Can they be useful on the path to achieving improved health and wellness? Those questions are difficult to definitively answer, and what I’m giving you now is my educated opinion based on my experiences as both a participant and a leader/educator/coach in this field. 

Let’s start with 10 and 14 day cleanses/detoxes. In my opinion unless your motivation is to lose a quick 5 pounds of water weight to be able to fit into a special occasion outfit, or rock your hot new swimwear on your tropical vacation, these are fairly useless. I know that sounds harsh, but realistically in that amount of time that is all you’ll accomplish. These aren’t long enough to establish healthy habits or break a food addiction, and they are generally overly restrictive and unsustainable beyond that short period of a week or two. And once you start eating real food again whatever changes you experienced will disappear. 

If you strongly suspect that you have an unhealthy relationship with a particular food or food group (hello Sugar Demon, I’m looking at you), then a 30 day eating plan which excludes your ‘trigger’ food can absolutely help you take back control over your eating. That length of time gives you the space to go through whatever withdrawal symptoms you may experience, and to then develop new healthier habits and tastes to replace your previous unhealthy ones. It takes your body time to deal with changing your diet, and sometimes you will feel worse before you feel better. That’s why I specifically mentioned 30 days. 

Especially if you are cutting back or eliminating processed foods and refined carbohydrates, you will often experience flu-like symptoms. During the first two weeks of a whole-food, non-refined carb eating plan you can expect to feel groggy, achey, fatigued, fuzzy-headed, aggravated, stuffy-nosed, and may have trouble sleeping. Very similar symptoms often crop up when eliminating caffeine or alcohol. The 30 day period of time gives you a chance to move through the ‘feeling worse’ phase and come out the other side with a feeling of renewed health and vibrancy. It also gives you time to actually develop new habits and get a handle on incorporating them into your life. Anyone can isolate themselves for 10 or 14 days and live on lemon water and air, but we need to be able to handle social situations, work environments, and live a normal life! 

But again, overly restrictive programs aren’t really necessary or even effective. Programs that require you to eliminate long lists of foods, often for dubious reasons, aren’t really helping you develop sustainable habits. If you think you may be allergic to a food, you can do an elimination test and see if you react to it when you reintroduce it, or you can consult your doctor for an allergist referral. But going on a very restrictive eating plan which eliminates many foods at once won’t really tell you which food you may be allergic to unless you then reintroduce each food individually over time, while maintaining impeccable detailed notes to cross-check for combinations of foods or other environmental factors that may cause a reaction. Sounds easy, right?  If your goal is to look and feel better, learning how to eat more healthfully and how to incorporate more exercise and movement into your daily life are much more effective, and less work in the long term. 

Ultimately, whether these eating plans call themselves a challenge, a detox, a cleanse, or a reboot, they are essentially Diets—and we all know Diets don’t work. The only thing that works is making healthy eating choices based on whole foods, and incorporating reasonable amounts of strength training coupled with moderate exertion movement on a long-term basis. Or in simpler terms, Eat Right, Move More. 

Are you a fan of detoxes or 'clean eating' programs? Have you done them previously? What were your experiences? Share your stories below in the comments... I'd love to hear what you learned and what results you saw.