Cleanses are Bad for Your Mind, Too
No, you're not going to "detox your way to happiness."
Last night I dreamt of grilled cheese. The perfectly toasted bread combined with gooey cheddar cheese was verging on pornographic. During the day I fantasize about pasta, I yearn to add salt to my meals, and I would kill for a cup of coffee in the morning. I’ve started to think about food in the same way I used to think about my high school crush: obsessively.
No, I’m not pregnant or high. Normally my food cravings aren’t all consuming but I’m mid- two-week cleanse and I’m so fucking miserable. Ironic, since so many of these cleanses claim that you can “detox your way to happiness.”
If wellness bloggers and influencers are to be believed, detoxing can help one feel more energetic, relaxed, and revitalized as well as give people a positive outlook on life. I feel none of this and despite my prolific research, I found virtually no scientific evidence that remotely suggests detoxes, cleanses, or clean eating diets make you a happier human.
The closest I came was a 2013 study that looked at the various side effects of detox diets. When looking at mood, results showed that people were equally likely to report their mood improved as they were to report it worsened during the detox. Almost everyone said they were happier after the detox was done, but it’s unclear if this was due to the actual detox or because they could eat real food again. Also the study only surveyed 26 people and the surveys were retrospective, so how accurately the participants remember their mood is questionable.
That said, there is a growing of body of evidence that suggests if you eat like trash, you will feel like trash. Julia Rucklidge, nutrition researcher and clinical psychologist at the University of Canterbury in new Zealand, explains that if your body is being deprived of essential nutrients then your mental health is likely to suffer.
“If you’re not getting those nutrients out of your food because you eat a diet that is nutrient poor…then you’re not going to get the nutrients that your brain requires for it to carry out its normal everyday functioning,” she says, “And as a consequence that’s going to have an effect on how you think, how you feel, your overall mood, whether or not you have excess amounts of anxiety,” she says.
Theoretically then, if your detox diet is loading you up with good nutrients you should feel better. Research has consistently shown that diets that are rich in fruits and vegetables, legumes, fish, nuts, olive oil, and low in processed food are associated with better mental health and now there’s early evidence that switching to a healthier diet can help improve mental illness symptoms. For example, one study showed depression symptoms were alleviated after a dietary change for 12 weeks. But how many detoxes are actually pushing healthier food choices instead of no food choices?
Nutritional psychiatry researcher at Deakin University, Sarah Dash, cautions that this research is still very much in its infancy. “More research is required to understand how this may relate to other mental disorders,” she says. “Additionally, most of the research on the mood-food relationship has been observational, where we simply measure what people eat and track their health over time. [This] doesn’t allow us to investigate the causal relationship between diet and depression.”
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So while there are many benefits, both physically and mentally, to not eating like you’re a starving college student, there’s still the problem of how long do you need to stick to these diets in order to see any benefits. “If the changes are only short term, the benefits are likely to be as well,” Dash says.
Most of the studies that show improved mood are done over extended periods of time, yet most cleanses and detoxes usually don’t last more than a week. So any benefit you might have gotten from a dietary switch will disappear the second you go back to shoving McDonald’s in your face.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that says restrictive diets wreak havoc on your mental health. Some of the most famous lies in study that was conducted during World War II that looked at the effects of human starvation. The experiment had 36 young men lose 25 percent of their body weight over the course of six months by eating around 1600 calories a day, or about how much you should be eating if you want to lose one pound a week.
The men in the study described lethargy, irritability, and anxiety. They became obsessed with food, eating with elaborate rituals, and adding water to their plates to make the food last longer. Many collected cookbooks and recipes. (Side note: These are all signs of disordered eating.) Two men actually had to be committed to a psychiatric institute after the study, one tried to commit suicide and the other cut off his fingers in an act of self-mutilation.
While this experiment lasted for quite some time, even shorter term restrictive eating can be risky for one’s mental health. “Generally what we do know is that dieting is a big risk factor for the development of disordered eating. If detoxes include restriction of food that can be a risk factor, especially if done on a regular basis,” says Kelly Johnston, the National Eating Disorder Information Centre’s outreach and education coordinator. Johnston also notes how similar detoxes and cleanses are to the concerning psychological condition orthorexia nervosa, which is an unhealthy fixation on healthy eating.
The clean eating trend has been slammed by a number of experts on how dangerous it is for people as it can easily lead to eating disorders. But it’s not just the restrictive nature of detoxes and cleanses that makes you miserable. “Failure to stick to a strict dietary regimen may be linked with feelings of failure or guilt, which may negatively impact our mental health,” Dash says. “Additionally, detoxes can be extremely low calorie, which may leave us feeling low on energy and motivation.”
Johnston also points out that doing detoxes can hurt your social life which can negatively impact your mood. “Period of restriction can also be socially isolating. In our culture, social interaction revolves around food,” she says.
My roommate and I decided to do a detox because she was having digestive issues and I was having fitting-into-my-jeans issues. We started with a 24-hour juice cleanse that, according to the lady at the juice shop, “stripped my body of toxins” (read: had mild diarrhea for a day). This apparently gave our bodies a clean slate to start our healthier diets from. After starving and shitting ourselves for a day we began a two-week diet free of sugar, salt, dairy, meat, gluten, caffeine and alcohol. The food is all measured out as to limit calorie intake, which means I spend most of my day chugging water in hopes it fills the gnawing feeling inside my stomach. I haven’t gone out once because I don’t want to stare longingly at my friends as they eat and drink whatever they want while I casually sip tap water and wish I was dead.
But if nothing else convinces you to not doing a terrible detox this post-holiday season, a recent study found that clean eating makes people think you kinda suck. The researchers found that people evaluated someone more negatively if they found she or he was a clean eater compared to someone whose diet wasn’t mentioned.
So do everyone a favor, save yourself the food torture, the endless misery and hunger and just eat the fucking cake.
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