Dieting, Gwyneth, and My Cleanse
Donna Karan and Demi Moore are just two among many celebrities who have raved about the diet regime that just about everyone associates with Gwyneth Paltrow. Indeed, if celebrity endorsements were proof of a product’s effectiveness, the Clean Cleanse that Gwyneth is always talking about would be beyond criticism. So it seems to me that the obvious place to start my investigation of the cleanse is in London, home of Gwyneth’s booming e-commerce company, Goop. I figure I will ask the employees of Goop about the Gwyneth-inspired cleanse experience before I try it myself. Gwyneth often writes about it in her Goop blogs. She has said, “This thing is amazing,” that it “worked wonders,” and that it made her feel “pure and happy and much lighter.” She has also noted that it is something that she does with the whole “Goop team.”
I’d love to feel pure, happy, and lighter. OK, I’m not sure what that would feel like, but it sounds better than I usually feel. Who wouldn’t want to feel like that? Given the warm and friendly vibe on the Goop website—it was, after all, to quote the website, “created to celebrate all life’s positives”—I am expecting a warm and happy vibe at Goop HQ.
I am mistaken. Apparently, I am not one of life’s positives.
I ring the buzzer to request entry to the second-floor office. No response. I try again and then again. Still no response. I implement Plan B. As a courier is buzzed up, I do the classic foot-in-the-door move. I feel like Jason Bourne.
I confidently walk up to the Goop receptionist and give her a friendly hello. She does not say, “May I help you?” or even “Do you have an appointment?” Instead I get a blank Goopless stare. Undaunted, I ask to see someone about the cleanse, trying my best to give the impression that I am here for a prearranged meeting. She looks at me as if I am a homeless man asking for spare change. In other words, she doesn’t look at me. She picks up the phone still not a word to me—to tell someone about my presence in the office. Then I wait. And wait. Just when I start to fear a Goop security guard will appear, doubtless wearing a tasteful Stella McCartney-inspired ensemble, a young woman approaches me. “You’re here to talk about the Clean Cleanse?” she says brightly.
Finally! I think. This is more like it. My dogged journalistic persistence has paid off. “That’s right,” I say. “I’d really like to know more about what actually takes place in the cleanse. I want to get some details about the process and the science behind it.”
She smiles. “What a good idea.”
This is unfolding precisely as I’d hoped it would. “Thank you,” I say. “Who would you suggest I speak with?” I imagine Gwyneth herself now cooperating with my investigation.
“I would say Dhru Purohit,” says the charming young lady.
I take out my notebook, expecting her to lead me down the hall to the office of said person. “And where would I find him?”
“Santa Monica, I believe.” Her smile now is accompanied by an arched eyebrow. “Which is where the Clean Program is based. You know that, right? That they’re the company that makes the Clean Cleanse?”
I close my notebook. Jason Bourne did not have to implement Plan B to exit the building.
After a few phone calls and e-mails about my desire to do the cleanse, Dhru Purohit has a kit sent to my house (the usual price is $425). He also invites me to the Santa Monica office to obtain some precleanse advice and to meet the guru himself, Dr. Alejandro Junger.
The building is inconspicuous. It is not the type of structure you would expect for the head office of a wildly successful diet company. The Clean Program has produced several international best-selling books and tens of thousands of Clean Cleanses, which the company website heralds as “the most endorsed, supported and effective cleanse in the world.”
And yet its offices, just a block off Los Angeles’s often-sung-about Santa Monica Boulevard, look like a modest walk-up apartment. “Do they live here?” I wonder as I approach the door. There is no sign announcing the name of the company. There isn’t even a nameplate. There is just a buzzer.
But if the building is understated, its occupants are not. When it comes to life’s positives, the Goop team in London could learn a thing or two from Dhru Purohit. This guy is fun. He is all energy, enthusiasm, and commitment. “Hey, Tim!” Purohit says with a big, welcoming smile as soon as the door swings open. He invites me into the company’s modern work space, which looks more like an open-concept home than a business. No offices, cubicles, or desks in sight—just a large kitchen and several comfy-looking sofas and chairs. Purohit tells me he is “a Sherpa of sorts.” He’s a guy who “enjoys guiding people and communities through the world of holistic healing and spiritual living.” And he believes in the cleanse product the way Napoleon believed in the flexible use of artillery. It may not be easy to implement, but it can change the world.
Dr. Junger is scheduled to arrive in a few minutes, so I take the time to ask Purohit about what I view as the biggest challenge associated with the cleanse: no coffee. “I am a coffee addict,” I tell him. “I love coffee. I cannot stress this enough. It is central to my very existence. Are you sure I must give it up?”
“You must give your adrenals a rest,” he explains. “And you must remove the dependency. The idea that you need coffee to function, long term, stresses your adrenals. Your adrenals are your energy bank account.” I will hear the word adrenal—which, I assume, is a reference to the hormones secreted by the adrenal glands—approximately nine thousand times during my interactions with the Clean Program teams. Adrenal glands. Adrenal fatigue. Adrenal stress. Adrenal rest.
Moments later Junger arrives. I will say this about the man: he projects a relaxed energy. He’s got his adrenals in check, obviously. His posture is relaxed, his voice is relaxed, and his outfit is relaxed. I’m pretty sure he is wearing hand-knitted slipper shoes. I can see why Gwyneth likes hanging with him. I feel more Zen-like just being in his presence.
Purohit tells Junger about my cleanse plan. “It. Will. Blow. Your. Mind,” Junger tells me as he settles into one of the comfy chairs, legs crossed as if he is about to meditate.
Junger is a physician from Uruguay. He is the inventor of the Clean Cleanse and is often described in the popular press as Gwyneth Paltrow’s doctor, though “spiritual leader” would probably be more accurate. Indeed, Gwyneth’s best-selling cookbook, It’s All Good, is dedicated to, among others, Junger, whom she describes as “my good friend.” The book contains recipes inspired by Junger’s diet and health philosophy. In the preface, she credits him, and the Clean Cleanse, with curing her of a variety of ailments, including an intestinal parasite that went undetected by Gwyneth’s conventional physicians, the adjustment of her “sky-high” adrenals, and the unclogging of her horribly clogged liver. If you believe Gwyneth, the cleanse reduced her levels of stress and improved her looks. Given all this Gwyneth-attention, it is no surprise that Junger is a bit of a celebrity himself, appearing on programs such as The Dr. Oz Show, where Junger provides detoxing and cleansing advice.
He explains to me how the cleanse works and why it is so important. There are many references to detoxification, our body’s energy systems, our body’s natural ability to heal, the evils of gluten, and, naturally, adrenals. He also compares our world to a dirty fish tank filled with “toxic triggers” such as plastic, pollution, and drugs. “The dirty fish tank is, for us, the city. It is unnatural. The more industrialized, the more chemicalized, the more diseases there are.” I am not sure that a medieval serf would agree with his analysis, but I get the idea.
At the risk of sounding unconcerned for other Earth dwellers, I tell him that my biggest concern is whether I can hack it. “I’m worried it’s going to be too tough,” I tell him, my thoughts centered on the coffee ban. “I don’t think I can do it.”
“Don’t declare something you don’t know,” Junger says. “Keep an open mind. Go with it. You should be thinking, ‘I wonder how this is going to transform me?’”
I am three days into my cleanse, and my family is not impressed. They are ready to cleanse me from their lives. My sanity is questioned, my company avoided. My eating habits are characterized as revolting. And, to add insult to self-inflicted injury, they tell me my breath stinks. At this stage I do not feel clean or pure or happy. I feel and behave like a miserable bastard. The combination of caffeine withdrawal and hunger pangs has transformed me into a feral beast with a fuse as short as one of Gwyneth’s fabulous dresses. (Specifically, I’m thinking of that minimalist number she wore to the opening of her fitness studio in Hollywood. The dress is a Victoria Beckham design, I believe. But the lack of coffee has left me pretty confused, so I can’t be sure. Perhaps it was an Alexander Wang.)
You are probably wondering what the cleanse involves. What is the magic formula that will transform me? Here are the basics. For breakfast I suck back a shake made out of a prepackaged powder that looks but does not taste like the chocolate milk mix I loved as a kid.
It is neither appetizing nor satisfying. I must use almond or coconut milk because no dairy products are allowed. This concoction is also my evening meal. Every evening. Needless to say, I go to bed hungry. For lunch I can have real food, but the selection is greatly restricted. Apples are OK but not bananas. Lemons yes, oranges no. No raisins. I can have organic chicken and wild fish but no beef or pork. No wheat or gluten, naturally. Sugar is verboten (though the fact that many foods have naturally occurring sugar in them is never addressed by the Clean Program team). No eggs. And, sadly, because I really feel like I could use some, no alcohol. I must also consume a variety of supplements, including a boatload of probiotics.
I showed my colleague, Professor Linda McCarger, a renowned clinical nutritionist and metabolism researcher, the ingredients of the Clean Cleanse shake mix and supplements. “Looks like they are simply trying to remove everything often associated with an allergic response. They seem to be working off the gluten-free, allergy-free trend,” is her initial reaction to the information sheet provided by the Clean Program. I was curious about some of the specific ingredients in the chocolaty powder; in general, she saw nothing unique in them. “They have components like rice syrup. But there is nothing special about that. It is just not made from wheat . . . but it is still a sweetener, used by the body like other syrups. No magic.”
This spartan, not-magic existence lasts for twenty-one days. I’ve got seventeen to go. I have serious doubts about whether I can make it. I keep reminding myself that Gwyneth does this on a regular basis. She is tougher than I thought.
Cleansing, driven largely by celebrity endorsements, has become an extraordinarily popular trend. It now involves the sale of special detoxifying juices (currently estimated to be a $5 billion market), cleansing programs (such as the one I am on), and colon cleanses (yep, exactly what it sounds like). There is also a baffling array of books on cleansing and detoxification. Here is a far-from-comprehensive list of just the books that have duration as their primary theme, in descending order of urgency: The One Month Carb Detox, The 4-Week Ultimate Body Detox Plan, The 21-Day Sugar Detox, The 14-Day Detox Diet, The 12-Day Detox Guide, The 10-Day Detox Diet, The 9-Day Liver Detox Diet, The 8-Day Detox Breakthrough, The 7-Day Detox Miracle, The 6-Day Detox Drop, The 5-Day Kidney Detox, The 4-Day Detox (not to be confused with the Detox 4 Women), The 3-Day Green Smoothie Detox, The Food Combining 2-Day Detox, and, for those in a real hurry, The Fast Track One-Day Detox Diet.
The concept of cleansing and detoxifying rests on the idea that because of all the toxins in the modern world and all the crap we eat, our bodies need to be scrubbed clean. By doing this, or so the theory goes, we will promote natural healing, reduce stress (the adrenals thing), and reset (a word often associated with cleanses) our system. Cleanses are also presented as a way to look healthier and lose weight. For example, Katy Perry told the world, again and again, that she went on a three-month cleanse that included vitamins and supplements in preparation for the photo shoot she did for her July 2013 cover of Vogue. This was because, as Perry told Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, she “just wanted to be glowing for that cover.”
Cleansing and Detoxifying
Let’s start with the central idea. Do our bodies need to be detoxified and will cleansing do the trick?
No and no.
Despite the remarkable popularity of the practice, there is absolutely no evidence to support the idea that we need to detoxify our bodies in the manner suggested by the cleansing industry. The proponents of cleansing often sell the idea by using colorful metaphors that make it all seem so darn logical. The manual for the Clean Cleanse puts it this way: “If you don’t take out the trash at your house, it will pile up, attract pests, and quickly become a problem. Having daily bowel movements will help make sure that toxins aren’t re-absorbed into your system.”
Who wants trash and pests in their colon?
Do not be fooled by these rhetorical games. The idea of detoxing is faulty on so many levels that it borders on the absurd. First, the human body has organs, including the kidneys, liver, skin, and colon, that take care of the detoxification process. When you pee, you are detoxifying. Toxins don’t build up, waiting to be cleansed by supplements and special foods. (And, just in case you are wondering, you don’t reabsorb toxins by not having your regular bowel movement. Sigh.) There is no evidence that we need to assist our detoxifying organs by ingesting specific foods or supplements. As summarized in a 2005 academic article, “Detox Diets Provide Empty Promises”: “These approaches are contrary to scientific consensus and medical evidence and are not consistent with the principle that diets should reflect balance, moderation, and variety.”
Second, and more important, there is no evidence that the products and diets sold by the cleansing industry—whether juices, supplements, or specific diet regimens—do anything to help clear toxins, parasites, or bad karma in a manner beneficial to our health. There does not appear to be even a single scientific study to back up the theory behind this massive industry. (OK, I found one study, published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine, which involved seven individuals and no comparison group. The methods are so poor that I am not sure it qualifies as a study.) The British Broadcasting Company did a fun and somewhat scientific-ish experiment involving ten “party animal” young adults. Five got a balanced diet that included, in moderation, stuff usually viewed as “toxic triggers” (coffee, chocolate, fries, and the like), and five were put on a detox regimen. After a week they ran a bunch of tests, including testing for antioxidants and kidney and liver function. The result? No difference. The detoxing didn’t do anything.
An interesting analysis done by thirty-six young scientists for an independent organization called the Voice of Young Science (where do I send my check?) looked at the science behind fifteen popular detox products. Among other things, they contacted the manufacturers and asked them for evidence. (Alas, the Clean Cleanse was not studied.) What did they find? No one was able to provide any solid evidence to support the detox claims. Remember, they asked the people who made the products! You’d think they’d have a bit of real evidence handy. Also, they found that there wasn’t even a consistent or comprehensive definition of detox, and, as the study reports, “many of the claims about how the body works were wrong and some were even dangerous.” As a result, the thirty-six young scientists concluded: “‘Detox’ as used in product marketing is a myth.”
The reality is that a good study on the efficacy of cleanses would, from a methodological perspective, be fairly complicated, requiring large long-term trials that have individuals on a variety of different cleansing programs and diets. And, ideally, the research method would also elucidate the mechanism of action. So we need to take care not to read too much into experiments such as the one conducted by the BBC. But you simply can’t assert, as so many detox sales pitches do, that certain foods magically flush evil toxins out of the system. What toxins? Where do they reside? How do the foods, supplements, vitamins, and so on work?
Many cleansing and detox programs also refer to the idea of creating a healthy gut. Again, this is a big theme for Gwyneth and Dr. Junger. Interesting studies have shown how gut bacteria affect a range of health topics, from psychological well-being to obesity. However, this science, which is still in its early stages, gives cause for caution in the context of cleanses. Before we fiddle with our feces, so to speak, we should recognize that the bacteria that live in our gut play a complex and important role in our health. At the current time, no one (seriously, no one) knows if and how we can adjust our diet to alter these microbes in a manner that will maximize health.
“Existing research tells us it is very difficult to reset your [gut bacteria]. You can’t easily control what goes on. Even if you can change it, it will just go back to exactly where it was before,” Karen Madsen tells me. “Gut bacteria is pretty resilient.” Madsen is a professor of gastroenterology at the University of Alberta and codirector of its Centre of Excellence for Gastrointestinal Inflammation and Immunity Research. She is intrigued by my cleansing experiment and suggests that I get my gut material—which is, basically, my feces—tested during and after my cleanse. The process of collecting samples and bringing them to her lab in a (thankfully) opaque plastic container is not fun. But the results are instructive.
Even the idea that we have toxins floating around our bodies is sketchy. Beyond fuzzy references to our dirty environment, the evils of pesticides and pharmaceuticals (for some reason, supplements are OK), rarely do the advocates of cleanses explain what is meant by toxins. It is one of those nebulous pseudoscientific terms rolled out by people deliberately avoiding the specificity required for a science-based analysis. It’s the modern-day equivalent of “evil spirits,” vague enough to mean just about anything while retaining the ring of scientific legitimacy. Every common health complaint—low energy, fatigue, amorphous pain, insomnia, anxiety, general malaise—can be attributed to the existence of toxins. But what, exactly, do the detoxification experts mean? Do they mean the natural poisons that reside in the environment? Do they mean only human-made chemicals? If so, which ones and why? Do they mean junk food? Do they mean all of the above? If so, how are their magical treatments designed to address such vastly different compounds and conditions?
As Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, told me when I asked him to sum up the detox fad: “What really needs to be detoxified is the concept of detox.”
I can’t resist commenting on Junger’s city-as-a-dirty-fish-tank analogy. The idea that many of us live in toxin-filled, disease-ridden urban bogs is often a core part of the we-must-cleanse narrative. You see it reflected in the images found in Gwyneth’s cookbook: Gwyneth sitting in a field in the country. Gwyneth hanging with a friend at a picnic table in the country. Gwyneth riding a red scooter in the country. The whole book has an old-timey country feel. But despite the long-held belief that living in the (allegedly) toxin-free fresh air and wide-open spaces of our rural regions is intrinsically healthy, the available evidence does not support this cliché. While there are certainly health risks associated with both urban and rural settings—and, if you had a time machine, hanging out in pre-sewerage-system London would not be a health-promoting decision—research has consistently shown contemporary cities are healthier than rural retreats, particularly if you are lucky enough to reside in the middle to upper socioeconomic strata (where, I am pretty sure, most “detoxifiers” are found). City dwellers, on average, are slimmer, smoke less, and are more active. Rural dwellers are, on the other hand, more likely to have health issues such as strokes, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer.
A review article published in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that “premature mortality (dying before the age of 75) is greater among rural residents than among urban residents.” Another article, published in 2014, found that “life expectancy was inversely related to levels of rurality.” While much of this difference can be attributed to socioeconomic status, this isn’t the whole story. A study published in 2013, for example, found that “youth in rural areas had significantly higher mortality rates than their urban counterparts regardless of deprivation levels [i.e., socioeconomic status].” And other studies have found that the urban poor fare better, from a health perspective, than the nonurban poor. Cities have problems too, of course. There is some evidence that there are higher levels of sexually transmitted disease in urban areas. Also, a 2011 study from Canada found that people living in rural settings had a lower risk of depression, likely because of a stronger sense of community. But contrary to the claims made by many of the detoxification prophets, cities should not be viewed as dirty, disease-causing fish tanks. Indeed, “urbanization appears to be a force for better health,” as noted by Christopher Dye, the director of health information at the World Health Organization, in an oft-cited article from the journal Science.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not a fan of pollution, which cities usually (but not always) have at higher concentrations than in other regions. Pollution is not good for our health. There is even tentative evidence that, for instance, prenatal exposure to a specific pollutant—polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the by-product of burning fossil fuels—can increase the risk of obesity. And I have no objection to the fresh food and active lifestyle so often associated (erroneously, as it turns out) with country life. But there is no evidence that, in the aggregate, cities are inherently unhealthy. There is also no evidence to suggest that living in a city is a reason to cleanse. We urbanites aren’t fish in a dirty tank.
So what were the results from my gut test?
The cleanse had absolutely no impact. The Gwyneth cleanse, which is darned extreme, did not change the makeup of the bacteria in my colon. Remember, fixing or “resetting” your gut is one of the alleged goals of cleansing. Madsen’s conclusion regarding the condition of my fecal matter is definitive: “Pretty healthy-looking, I would say, and the cleanse did nothing at the phylum level! Your microbes appear to be pretty resilient, which is a good thing.”
Inexplicably, I feel a small burst of excreta pride, as if Madsen’s assessment of the vast community of microorganisms living in my intestine is a tribute to my character. “Why, thank you . . .”
Excerpted from "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty, and Happiness" by Timothy Caulfield. (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. All rights reserved.