It's tough to address all "cleansing" programs in one short Q & A column because there are so many things that fall into this category and because the various programs, products and claims are often very different. But colon cleansing is quite specific and yes, unfortunately I'm quite familiar with the ridiculous claims.
Just about everything that falls under the umbrella term of "cleansing" is pseudo science or scam, unless you consider cutting out refined foods and increasing your fruit, vegetable and fiber intake from whole, natural foods as "cleansing."
If you want to call that "cleansing", fair enough, but I just call that "healthy eating."
A fiber supplement might be useful in some circumstances, but the products you take that cause a mass of gunk to come out of you are a scam and I daresay, a blatant deception. The gunk only comes out of the people who take the product, because the gunk is created by the product!
There is also no evidence whatsoever that "cleansing" will increase the effectiveness of a diet that follows the cleanse. Any increase in fat loss during a "cleanse" can be attributed to a huge calorie deficit, and increases in weight loss can be attributed to the normal intestinal contents clearing out, and loss of water, glycogen or lean tissue.
The health and fat reduction claims made for cleansing diets and supplements are almost 100% anecdote and testimonial, fueled in large part, by aggressive multi-level marketers and alternative health practitioners.
"Cleansing" is often used as an intro to a diet program. Claims can include detoxification, internal cleansing and increased weight loss. What is generally achieved is a large drop in body weight, much of it water weight, and if that does anything positive, it's the psychological boost the dieter gets when they see a 4-7 pound drop on the scale in the first week or even a few days.
This kind of psychological boost could be considered a potential benefit of any type of initiation or induction program, because some people give up easily with slow progress and are highly motivated with a fast start. But anyone who really understands body composition (lean body mass versus fat mass versus body water) and who has a long term perspective will not be all that excited about fast first week weight loss.
PLEASE NOTE: The contents of the digestive system add to your body weight. If you have fasted or done a light food or juice "cleanse" for any significant period of time, OF COURSE YOU WILL WEIGH LESS! And by the way, that's the normal contents of your digestive tract clearing out - not "icky stuff" that has been clinging to your insides for months or years.
Also, when you fast or go on a very low calorie "cleansing" protocol - you often generate a huge caloric deficit. A large caloric deficit will create a large weight loss. With a large enough caloric deficit, you can also get FAT loss that is above average (usually 1-2 lbs a week, but could be 3-3.5 lbs in a week with a big deficit). Combined with water weight, glycogen and lean tissue loss, (plus the clearing out of the contents of the digestive tract), the total body weight loss can be very large.
The trouble is, it's not possible to maintain such a large deficit for a prolonged period, so what you've achieved is merely a quick fix. Even if you achieved above average fat loss during this "induction" period, you'll never be able to sustain it. Consistent, long-term body fat loss seldom exceeds 2 lbs per week or 1% of total body weight per week (ie, 3 lbs if you weigh 300 lbs) and weight lost beyond that is usually not body fat.
Not only are these approaches quick fixes, the word "cleansing" is totally unscientific and generally vague and undefined. Probably the most common definition refers to colon cleansing (also known as "internal cleansing"). Millions upon millions of people have been convinced that their gastrointestinal systems are all clogged up and bogged down no thanks to bogus advertisements for cleansing products and the preachings of evangelical supporters.
Colon cleansing is based on the idea that food sticks to your insides, becomes toxic and causes disease, obesity and "the end of civilization as we know it" (one would be led to think). Colon cleansing is pseudo science that goes back to the ancient Egyptians. It enjoyed a revival during the days of the turn of the 19th century patent medicines (remember "snake oil?") "Intestinal autointoxication" as it was once called, is one of the oldest ones in the book, and now its back in full force, especially on the internet (most recently, paired with acai berry), as these things run in cycles over the decades, once the current generation forgets that it was already debunked ages ago by the scientific community.
Now, if by "cleansing," someone is referring to simply "cleaning up your diet" by eating more fruits and veggies, of course I'm all for that, or if you mean "cleansing" by increasing your fiber intake, I'm all for that too. If someone really wants to take a fiber supplement like a psyllium based product, etc., that is certainly an option and it may very well help with a constipation issue. El cheapo brands from drug store or supermarket are just fine - no need to "blow" a lot of money (bad pun intended - a few people will get it). Just realize that the optimum solution is high fiber, natural foods, unless your doctor has advised you of some other course of action.
We have no scientific evidence that anything "sticks" to your insides and causes disease or body fat gain. We have no evidence that "cleansing" before a diet makes the diet work better afterwards. It's these claims, and use of scare tactics (photos of "pounds" of "gunk" that supposedly was sticking to your insides), more than anything that are way off base and unethical.
If you want even more proof that colon cleansing is a scam, ask a gastroenterologist who has done colonoscopies or even surgeries. Seriously, who would know better than someone who looks at the insides of colons on a regular basis? Ask a medical student or medical examiner - why don't autopsies routinely find clogged up intestines and colons in the deceased? (Especially folks who died of diseases supposedly caused by the alleged "clogged up, toxic system.")
Rather than pursue "colon cleansing" schemes, I'd recommend you call it maintaining "healthy digestive processes" which is extremely important. Fiber intake plays a major role. How is your regular daily fiber intake? Are you getting 25-35 grams of fiber a day, every day, consistently? (EVERY DAY?) If not, then why look for "magic in a bottle", why not just eat better?
There's such a tremendous urge and temptation to take a pill or drink a shake as a quick fix for what should be accomplished with daily nutrition habits. Dr. John Berardi calls it "daily detox" which simply means that you eat so nutritiously and conscientiously every day that you never even need to think about reaching for the "magic pills and potions." WHOLE FOOD and a healthy lifestyle - EVERY DAY - do it best!
BEWARE of internet information on colon cleansing! You'll get the most accurate info on this subject from the peer reviewed journals, scientific data bases (such as medline), medical specialists and scientists. Here are a few examples from the literature:
American Journal of Gastroenterology: 100(1) 232-42. 2005, mueller-lissner, et al. "Myths and misconceptions about chronic constipation"
"There is no evidence to support the theory that diseases may arise via "autointoxication," whereby poisonous substances from stools within the colon are absorbed."
Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology: 1989 Aug;11(4):434-41., Chen TS, et al. "Intestinal autointoxication: a medical leitmotif"
"The idea that putrefaction of the stools causes disease, i.e., intestinal autointoxication, originated with physicians in ancient Egypt. By the 1920s, the medical doctrine fell into disrepute as scientific advances failed to give support. However, the idea persists in the public mind."
European Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. 24(4):196-8. 1997 "Colonic irrigation and the theory of autointoxication: a triumph of ignorance over science."
"Autointoxication is an ancient theory based on the belief that intestinal waste products can poison the body and are a major contributor to many, if not all, diseases. In the 19th century, it was the ruling doctrine of medicine and led "colonic quackery" in various guises. By the turn of the century, it had received some apparent backing from science. When it became clear that the scientific rationale was wrong and colonic irrigation was not merely useless but potentially dangerous, it was exposed as quackery and subsequently went into a decline. Today we are witnessing a resurgence of colonic irrigation based on little less than the old bogus claims and the impressive power of vested interests. Even today's experts on colonic irrigation can only provide theories and anecdotes in its support. It seems, therefore, that ignorance is celebrating a triumph over science."
Here are a few articles worth looking at.
These are not peer reviewed journals, and the contents reflect the opinions of the writers, but they are worth reading, because their explanations of the colon cleansing scam are correct.
Here, a skeptic "quack-buster" takes on and debunks those "icky" photos you see on web in colon cleansing advertisements:
A raw food site (proponents of high vegetable, fruit and high fiber intake) also explains the "black, long ropy mass that comes out after taking expensive cleansing formulas and why these products are TOTAL SCAMS (including an experiment you can do at home that will prove it). Their "better idea": Eat a high fiber diet.
Here's another excellent article with some medical and scientific information on dietary fiber and its role in keeping things "moving through the plumbing" smoothly (the list of the top 20 high fiber foods is worth taking note of):
Fasting or semi-fasting have also been suggested for "cleansing" and weight loss and this subject could be a whole separate article. Certain types of fasting are a topic of much discussion lately.
There is some limited scientific data that has looked at various short term, infrequent fasting protocols which suggests they should not be completely dismissed as a potential means of weight loss or health benefits. However, these protocols do not necessarily pitch the use of any "colon cleansing" supplements, they merely suggest abstaining from food for a specified (short) period of time or limiting food to things like fruit, veggies and or juice. As for "cleansing" via fasting, the claims are seldom defined, so it's difficult to evaulate.
Personally I'm not a fasting fan, especially when the goal is optimizing strength, energy, physical performance or muscle mass, but that's just my preference. Some people have strong opinions on fasting and I respect everyone's beliefs (especially as they relate to spiritual practices). To each his own, and whatever works for you and suits your lifestyle. Measurable results are what counts. Just be sure you are measuring the right thing: Permanent changes in body composition, health and performance, not temporary changes in body water, digestive contents and scale weight.
By the way, apart from the colon cleanse which refers to a specific claim, what exactly does "cleansing" mean? What specifically, are we being "cleansed" of? Heavy metals? Pesticides? They never seem to say which "toxins" are being cleansed (If they did, it would be easy to verify or refute with research). Also, how does one measure whether they are "clean" or "detoxified?" Is there a test for that, or do you just feel cleaner and enjoy a greater sense of well being? Hmmmm. Pretty vague huh? Keep in mind that it's typical for scam products to claim benefits which are subjective or not easily measured.
I would strongly caution all readers to procrastinate on buying decisions, get the facts and put on your skeptical and critical thinking caps when looking at the subject of cleansing - especially "colon cleansing, "cleansing supplements" and "cleansing for weight loss" - and consider these tips:
(1) Avoid products that claim your colon is clogged up with "prehistoric waste." Take a pass on purchasing products that claim to "cleanse" you of "impacted" "gunk" that has been building up inside you for years (because that doesn't happen). Instead, simply increase your fiber, fruit and vegetable intake from whole foods. If you have serious, chronic constipation problems, please consult a doctor, not a quack.
(2) If you buy a fiber supplement, don't pay a lot. If you ever take a fiber-based supplement product, for whatever reason, check ingredients and understand what they do, shop carefully and compare prices. Some of the Multi level marketing (MLM, aka network marketing), companies are forced to make huge mark ups in price in order for their business model to work (so they can pay commissions to their down line distributors). As a result, you sometimes pay outrageous prices for products you could get for a fraction of the cost in your local grocery, health food or drugstore.
(3) Avoid products that make unsupported weight loss claims. Some of the most false, misleading and even illegal claims for cleansing products are based on the idea that somehow a cleanse can cause more fat to be lost than what can be achieved through the calorie deficit alone. They also deceive readers into thinking that greater weight loss is the same thing as fat loss. Buyer beware.
(4) Question testimony and anecdote. Avoid colon cleansing programs which do not provide scientific support for their claims, no matter how convincing or plausible their arguments may seem or how numerous their testimonials may be. If all they can give you is, "don't knock it til you've tried (bought) it," "it worked for me" or "it just works", then your B.S. alarm should go off.
(5) Watch out for enthusiastic salespeople (who are NOT doctors or nutrition experts). This is another caveat about MLM: The distributors often provide convincing "personal testimony" to the effectiveness of their products. But of course. They are distributors, which is why you see so many evangelically enthusiastic supporters out there. How enthusiastic? The top MLM cleansing and detox company today has $400 million in sales and has created 18 millionaires in their first 5 years of business - that statistic being quoted directly from an associate after their annual meeting. Testimonials don't mean much unless they can be verified and they mean even less when they come from biased commissioned salesmen who are raking in the dough and who have no scientific background or training in nutrition.
If you've paid $60 to $90 for a simple psyllium-based colon cleansing product or more than $100 for a "detoxifying and cleansing" kit, then just look in the mirror, laugh at yourself for wasting all that money as you say, "now I know better," and put it behind you (sorry, couldn't resist another bad pun!)
And last but not least, here's an interesting postscript: Cleansing programs were featured ("de-bunked") on Penn and Teller's "Bullshit" series in early 2007 on Showtime. For whatever it's worth, I find that so very appropriate!
- Tom Venuto
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Tom Venuto is the author of the #1 best seller, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of the World's Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom is a lifetime natural bodybuilder and fat loss expert who achieved an astonishing ripped 3.7% body fat level without drugs or supplements. Discover how to increase your metabolism, burn stubborn body fat and find out which foods burn fat and which foods turn to fat by visiting the home page at: BurnTheFat.com