Michelle Obama's 'cleanse': Would it work for you?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, August 26, 2010; PG13

In an interview in September's Ladies' Home Journal, first lady Michelle Obama mentions that she occasionally takes part in a cleanse. She meant, according to her press office, that she eats as much fruit and vegetables as possible and cuts out fats and oils, dairy, meat, caffeine, sugar and starch for a short period of time.

Doing so, she told the magazine, helps "clean out my palate."

Such a cleanse isn't something I considered for my Me Minus 10 weight-loss project, but I wondered whether it could be beneficial to others.

Temporarily restricting one's food can be a useful way to kick off a weight-loss diet or transition to better long-term eating habits, says Jim White, a Virginia Beach-based registered dietitian and spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. Obama's mix of foods, though limited, should provide enough nutrients to maintain her metabolism and blood-sugar levels, at least in the short run, he says.

Keri Gans, also a registered dietitian and ADA spokeswoman, is not a fan, however. "It's setting up that the only way to eat healthy is to restrict," she says. "She should be learning to eat from all food groups correctly."

If you do want to embark on such a cleanse, consider these tips from registered dietitian Sari Greaves, a New York City-based spokeswoman for the ADA:

Focus on portion control, eating smaller amounts of a broad range of foods.

Choose the best foods from each of the food groups; substitute whole-grain items for those made from refined flour, for instance. Include lean protein (meat, fish, legumes and nuts) plus small amounts of healthful fats and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Recognize that it takes time to get used to eating less salt, especially if you've been brought up consuming a lot.

Change the way you cook. Learn to add sweetness without sugar by experimenting with spices such as cinnamon and ginger.

Finally, remember to keep it short. As Obama told Ladies' Home Journal: "I can't live my life on a cleanse. . . . So maybe I'll do a cleanse for two days. It isn't a way of life, because I like food too much. But it is good to break your mind-set."

A type of cleanse you should avoid is a cleanse diet, also known as detoxifying or detox diets, which involve not just cutting back on food but expelling stuff from your system with an aim to rid your body of impurities.

The long-popular Master Cleanse, for instance, involves consuming nothing but a concoction of fresh lemon (or lime) juice, real maple syrup, cayenne pepper and water for 10 days or more; followers also take laxatives twice a day.

Created in the mid-20th century by controversial alternative medicine practitioner Stanley Burroughs, the Master Cleanse has had unusual staying power in the fickle world of fad diets. Though many now use it to lose weight quickly, its original promise was to rid your body of toxins. Experts say there's no need to do that.

"Our bodies are big toxin flushers," says Patricia Raymond, a gastroenterologist practicing in the Norfolk area, who notes that the lungs, kidneys, liver, digestive tract and even skin are adept at processing substances our bodies don't need and expelling them swiftly.

Moreover, Raymond says, the frequent and increasingly liquid bowel movements that characterize many cleanse programs may upset the balance of flora in your gut, wiping out a community of beneficial organisms that your body has been nurturing since childhood and that's hard to rebuild. "There's a whole universe [of beneficial bacteria] living in the bowel. Who am I to send a tsunami" to clear it out?

With such famous adherents as Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Naomi Campbell and Beyoncé, detox diets may have a certain allure. But Greaves is wary of any weight-loss approach that eliminates whole categories of food and promises there's no need to exercise.

On top of that, Greaves says, the Master Cleanse supplies only 600 to 1,200 calories per day (that's six to 12 100-calorie servings of "lemonade"), which is not enough for most men and women, even if they're trying to lose weight. Men need at least 1,600 calories a day, she says, and women shouldn't go below 1,200.

"Essentially this regimen . . . puts the body in a state of starvation," Greaves says.

If you feel the need to "cleanse," Keri Gans advises, emulate the first lady's approach and do it the natural way: Eat plenty of fiber, found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

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