“The whole cleansing concept is silly,” Applegate told me on the phone. “The body doesn’t need any help getting rid of compounds it doesn’t want. That’s what your liver and kidneys are for.”
What about the advertised psychological benefits of cleansing? The euphoria?
“Placebo effect,” Applegate replies firmly. “Or ketosis. It’s a survival mechanism. You’re all amped up and alert because you need something to eat.”
And the popular claim that, during a fast, energy normally used in digestion flows to the brain, “enhancing one’s ability to solve problems”?
“If every time we ate, our brains shut off, there’d be no more working lunches,” Applegate says.
Obviously, cleansing acolytes use the word toxin loosely, as a metaphor for our lapsed lifestyles. Toxins are like cholesterol clogging an artery, except they block the path to woo-woo transcendence instead of the left atrium. Or, as Vanessa Grigoriadis puts it in New York magazine, “Food is the focus of an enormous amount of modern moralism ... One wants to be skinny because one wants to be healthy; one wants to be healthy because one wants to be good.” As religion declines among elite urbanites, a new scripture—“sprouting and enzymes and whatnot”—is swirling into the void.
The problem with this way of thinking is that food and weight are not matters of morality. Thin is not “good,” carbs are not “bad,” and in a world of actual pressing political and social ills, your dinner plate should not be the ground zero of your ethical renewal. Don’t call me evil—or “toxic”—because I’ve never quested after the liquid sublime. (Also, your breath smells like dandelion root.)
But the cleanse mentality is more than just judgmental and irritating: It’s dangerous. Making each meal a drama of discipline, deprivation, and control? Floating along on a superior high that isn’t really about how much weight you’re losing (but actually kind of is about how much weight you’re losing)? Seeking to express your achievements, be they moral, social, or financial, in the most visible terms you can manage? Does anyone else think this sounds a lot like an eating disorder?
“There are certainly commonalities if we consider who is likely to develop an eating disorder and who is likely to undergo a cleanse,” says Linda Antinoro, a nutrition specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “The diets seem compulsive and perhaps addictive. The restrictive tone is the same.” While Antinoro notes that “few people can sustain that level” of deprivation for long periods of time, which would be necessary for full-blown anorexia, she worries about juicers “getting hooked on the immediate gratification” of weight loss. “Suddenly you can fit into your tiny dress.”
Are cleanses a socially sanctioned way to test drive pre-anorexic or bulimic behaviors? “While refusing food for 3, 5, or 7 days at a stretch would raise eyebrows in most workplaces,” writes Jenna Sauers of Jezebel, “saying you’re on a ‘cleanse’ gives you a pass.” (Not to mention that for women already enthralled to an eating disorder, juicing offers “a great cover.”) Even the JC websites seem confused about their purpose: Is it to find Zen or to get really skinny? “This is not a diet,” insists BluePrint about its most abstemious cleanse. “However, we know what you’re going to ask next. So yes, this is the Cleanse level that contains the least amount of EVERYTHING.” In other words, while one does not cleanse to drop pounds, if one wanted to choose a program based on calories and to pursue dramatic weight loss accordingly ... well, you get the picture.
Anyway, I wasn’t surprised to read that Dr. Pauline Powers, who directs the scientific advisory committee for the Global Foundation for Eating Disorders, considers cleanses “the perfect pathway to disordered eating.” Like traditional eating disorder symptoms, cleansing has an almost magical power to structure our chaos. As Slate’s June Thomas noted on a recent DoubleX Gabfest, the “liberation” of cleansing comes from “feeling disciplined, in control, and ... able to resist temptation.” Or, as Grigoriadis put it in New York: “With juice, you can wash everything away, all the things that make you feel helpless ... You are above it all. You spent the money on the juice ... and you will be a success. There’s no reason to be anxious, because you have everything under control.”
The psychology of specialness Grigoriadis describes—a “lightheaded superiority to mortals”—is a huge part of what makes some eating disorders so hard to shake, because it becomes part of your identity. For proof, look no further than the recent commentary about Kelsey Osgood’s anorexia memoir, How to Disappear Completely. In a review for The Cut, Molly Fischer laments the “perverse glamor” suffusing our eating disorder narratives—the idea, as one columnist put it, that “there is no such thing as a ... creature whose radical self-regulation comes unaccompanied by an impressive imagination or intelligence.” Osgood herself writes in Time of anorexia’s seductions: “I wanted to catch it.” And she highlights the problem with making possibly disordered habits (like JCs) seem super trendy. “Though we don’t know yet the full biological mechanisms behind starvation, we do know that underfeeding in any human can lead to anorexic thought patterns and behaviors, which in turn can become their own addiction.”
This is not to say that everyone who cleanses has, or will soon have, an eating disorder. Nor am I suggesting that all juicers are being disingenuous about their interest in health. But both cleansers and people who struggle with disordered eating show a tendency toward enfolding their dietary choices in myths and religiosity, poetry and rapture. The author Francine du Plessix Gray discovered “mental clarity and spiritual worth” in anorexia. A quarter of a century later, Juice Press owner Marcus Antebi achieves “remarkable physical, emotional, and spiritual status” by sucking down six atomized salads a day. Maybe we’ve always sought the holy in our daily rituals, whether those small routines are good for us or not. But if juice cleanses make us feel so special, it’s worth asking why that is—and whether any of our woozy, kale-fueled enlightenment comes at a price.
Well, duh it comes at a price, you are saying. An astronomical, absurd, $10 per bottle price, not counting all the herbal tea you have to buy to cut the hunger pangs and the $125 colonic. And that’s the final piece of odiousness in juice cleanses—that their purity and excellence is inevitably tied to wealth. Unlike timeless forms of salvation, salvation by vegetable goop is only available to the well-heeled. (In this way, it resembles salvation by Soul Cycle or salvation by marked-up yoga gear.) So while the apotheosis of juice may speak to a new wave of health consciousness, trendy spirituality, and eco-activism, it also, as Noreen Malone suggests in the New Republic, owes a debt to American Puritanism—the fusion of virtue with “a sharply competitive spirit.” Virtue, in this case a Pilates-toned body or a pricey green drink, is something to flaunt. Want to really show your neighbors who’s No. 1? Pull the BMW into the garage and leave your juice in the driveway.