Remember when juice was just juice? It has become so much more. A verb, for one thing, and, as the Wall Street Journal reports (what you already know), a status symbol. Thanks to cleansing celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, and Blake Lively, cold-pressed blends of kale, celery, lemon, chard, and ginger are the new ambrosia of the stars. Bill Clinton juices. Hip-hop ambassador Russell Simmons extolled green juice in the New York Times. Entire workplaces juice together. Bridal parties juice. Juice (the unpasteurized designer stuff, not your standard OJ) has become a $5 billion industry, projected to grow by 4 to 8 percent a year.
According to Barron’s, more than 6,200 juice bars are now churning out swamp-colored elixirs across the country. Starbucks recently spent $30 million to acquire Evolution Fresh, a cold-crafted juice operation, hoping to capitalize on what one spokesman called “a major lifestyle trend” of seeking “healthier alternatives.” Chairman Howard Schultz says he intends to glamorize juice “in the same tonality that we have reinvented, over the last 40 years, the basic commodity of coffee.” But the nutrient-rich fruit and vegetable potions may not need his help. In premium supermarkets like Whole Foods and boutique outfits like Organic Avenue and Juice Gallery, 12- to 16-ounce bottles of liquid produce already sell for around $10 apiece. If our bodies are our temples, juice is what we worship—and no form of prayer is more American than opening up our wallets.
Yet juice is a jealous god. True devotees don’t just chug it alongside their organic quinoa; they go on juice cleanses. (JC: also the initials of Jesus Christ. Coincidence?) These programs, which exclude solid food and might last anywhere from three to five days to a couple of weeks, have names like Renovation, Excavation, Glow, Clean, and LOVE Deep. They promise to flood your cells with hydration and nutrition, restore your alkaline balance, and “gently rid your body of impurities.” (A rosary of the best-known companies: Clean Program, Master Cleanse, Life Juice, BluePrint and Clean Cleanse.)
Participants quaff six or seven bottles of product a day, in a predetermined sequence. Some recipes contain cashew milk and hemp seeds (for protein), while others fuse ingredients like beets, chlorophyll, and dark leafy greens. They taste ... well, it depends on who you ask. Testimonials range from “delicious” to “incredibly delicious” to “war on everything delicious” to “like kissing a cow” to “like drinking everything bad that ever happened to me in high school.” But the payoff is supposedly great. Juice, say the websites, and your hair will shine, your skin will shimmer with vitality, you’ll have tons of energy and a clear mind, your immune and digestive systems will recover and approach an indestructibility heretofore associated with Norse gods. Those are some of the humbler claims: The BluePrint program, which charges $75 per day, also mentions that “clients who have more serious cases or are using [BluePrint Cleanse] in cancer therapy have continued on a cleanse indefinitely, until they are healed.”
One thing that actually will happen to most juicers, though of course it is not their motivation, is that they will lose weight. At around 1,000 calories a day, the cleanses resemble religious fasts—purifying rituals undertaken during Ramadan or Yom Kippur, or by medieval Christian mystics. (In the New Republic, Judith Shulevitz traces the history of holy figures starving their bodies to nourish their souls—“though they didn’t call it detox at that time.”) Juicing also has a lot in common with more terrestrial crazes like the cabbage soup diet and going Paleo. Be virtuous! Purge your body! Look hot in jeans! (For only $525 a week!) Somehow, with JC, all of these directives miraculously become one.
But juice cleanses accomplish exactly none of their physiological or medical objectives; they fetishize a weird, obsessive relationship with food, and they are part of a social shift that reduces health (mental, physical, and, sure, spiritual) to a sign of status. They’re annoying as hell.
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Someone should design a comedy routine in which nutritionists are lined up and asked to complete the sentence: Juice cleanses are ... The responses I got included “nonsense,” “unsustainable,” “bone-headed,” and “not the answer”—and I think my interlocutors were trying to be polite. We need protein and fat in our diets. We also need to consume enough calories to reassure our bodies we aren’t starving, or we risk all kinds of metabolic and electrical freak-outs. Plus, liquefying fruits and vegetables means getting rid of fiber, which aids digestion by sustaining the microflora in our gut. (LOL! Let’s obsess over how immaculate we can make our insides even though our intestines host trillions of bacteria.)
“We have cave-people bodies that are built for survival,” says Dr. Elizabeth Applegate, a senior lecturer in the nutrition department at the University of California–Davis. “We do a good job recouping our losses, but that doesn’t make juice cleanses at all healthy.” Nor are they effective at keeping off pounds. “On a cleanse diet, you shed water weight as your body breaks down its glycemic stores, but it comes back once you start eating adequately again.”
Yet the real JC sales pitch is not about microflora or nutrients or even—ostensibly—weight loss. It’s about toxins. You cleanse to flush your system of impurities, flecks of blight (some would say sin) lodged in your cells. “We live in an age of what William James called ‘medical materialism,’ so instead of fretting about a fallen world, we speak of a poisoned one,” observes Shulevitz in her New Republic article. BluePrint and Life Juice are meant to scrub away the effects of our pizza Mondays, our martini weekends, our polluted air and water. Get right with your gut, the cleanse companies urge. Get right with God.
Which is pretty vague, and perhaps explains why after days of Googling I still have no idea WTF a toxin is. “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality,” wrote Virginia Woolf, another woman with a tortured relationship to food. The juicing industry is counting on that.
“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.