By Jesse McLean
My face is numb. Cold aches gnaw at my bones, forcing me deeper under the covers. I’m wearing wool socks in bed, but I’m too hungry to care. I’ve gone nearly a day without eating, and I’m losing myself. As I squeeze my eyes closed, I find the only solace in the situation. “At least I don’t have to floss.”
I already know my friends have broken the pact: three of us planned to follow the Master Cleanse diet for two days. Two days of warding off food. Two days of voluntary starvation to cleanse our bodies. And now I am the only one left to face the side effects.
The Eyeopener plotted the experiment with the same expectations as a scientist who sets fire to his subjects. As the three men will burn, the three men will get hungry. We would fast starting Wednesday at 11 p.m. for 48 hours. But with every sip of my detox cocktail evolving from gross to relieving to wretched, the expectations changed. And they changed until the question became not what is this diet doing to my body, but what is this cleansing doing to my mind?
Stanley Burroughs, an American alternative-health advocate, created the Master Cleanse diet in 1941. In 10 years, his book The Master Cleanser spread across the United States, and citizens embraced his promise of a better life by cleansing the toxins from their systems. The diet was simple: by replacing meals for three to 10 days with a concoction of water, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper (along with a laxative tea and a glass of salt water), people would flush any ailment out of their body.
Burroughs was the answer for a health-conscious nation for 40 years. But in 1984, he was convicted of second-degree felony murder after a man died on the Master Cleanse. Under Burroughs’s recommendation, the man fasted for 30 days on the lemonade diet to cure cancer. The charge was later reversed.
Yet the detox is experiencing a resurgence in popular culture. Burroughs’s book is ranked second in the bestselling “diet therapy” books on Amazon. More notably, Beyoncé Knowles admitted last November that she lost 20 pounds in 10 days for her role in Dreamgirls by drinking six to 12 cleanser-cocktails daily. And hundreds of dieting websites quote the opening lines of Burroughs’s book, igniting the rhetoric of dietary catharsis: “Man’s mastery of disease will only be final when ignorance and fear are overcome by proper observance of all laws pertaining to the creation of bones, flesh and blood.”
As each site promised, by adopting the diet, I would not just lose weight, but I would connect with the mastery that makes man.
But mastering humanity wasn’t on my mind when my best friend and I enter Dominion on Thursday afternoon. Neither of us have eaten for more than 15 hours, and we were hungry. Somewhere in the long, sterile aisles, we find the ingredients. We can now curb our cravings. I reach for the cheapest maple syrup.
“What are you doing?” my friend stammers. His jaw hangs open. “If I’m going to starve myself, I at least want the expensive maple syrup.”
He’s right. After all, a brew that will lead us to physical and spiritual clarity is worth the extra change. We add the $7.99 organic syrup to our groceries and head for the cashier. In 15 minutes, we mix our drinks and cheers.
It tastes horrible — just like you imagine spicy lemonade would taste. But after a few more sips, my stomach whimpers. The drink becomes relieving. By this time, the third dieter has shown up and within the hour we drink three glasses apiece. Our hunger abates, for now.
According to Master Cleanse supporters, each ingredient is essential in a successful detox. The lemon juice produces bile that traps fat molecules to be easily secreted; maple syrup contains the necessary vitamins and minerals to keep the body moving; and the cayenne peppers, supposedly rich in vitamins and potassium, help digestion.
But it may not be that simple, says registered dietitian Deborah Cohen. “It’s a pepper. You’re not going to get the vitamins you need in a day from a couple of pinches.”
“You’re simply starving yourself.”
Cohen, a Ryerson graduate student who studies health sciences, says that the problems with the Master Cleanse are deeper than its unsubstantial nutritional claims. Perhaps the most damning is that, “it’s not a realistic way to lose weight.” While, in my case, avoiding food for two days might result in losing a couple pounds, the bulk of that weight is in liquid. As soon as old eating habits replace the diet, the weight returns.
The diet also has a potential placebo effect. While the body starves, and the organs desperately convert excess fat and muscle into energy (the diet is only 600 to 1,200 calories a day, while the average adult demands about double that), the digestive tract works to “detox” the body. The liver, kidneys and gastrointestinal tract eliminate toxins within hours of the body consuming them — and the acids they use to digest are much stronger than either lemon juice or cayenne peppers.
“The body is a complex machine,” says Cohen, “and sometimes people forget to trust it.”
I’m now 31 hours into my detox, and I can no longer trust my body. Like a callous volcano, my stomach keeps quiet, only occasionally shooting aches of hunger through my body. Like Burroughs predicted, I’ve woken up new. But unlike his pledge, I have no mastery, no evolved control over my body: The chills have passed, only to be replaced by tingles in my joints.
I have no urge to drink; my body’s begun ketosis, in which my liver converts fat into fatty acids and ketone bodies — valuable sources of energy when the body’s starving. I’ve begun to eat myself.
“You look terrible,” my girlfriend tells me. I lie and say I’m fine. The cold chills return. I force down a drink and head to campus.
As I approach hot dog valley outside Jorgenson Hall, my body flashes with vitality. I feel energetic, but plagued with a sense of superiority — like I’m above food. I’m on my way to weight loss and enlightenment, says Burroughs, to “the construction and reconstruction of a more perfect body.” But the conversion is skewed. Boosts in energy and a sense of euphoria and betterment are commonly reported among detox dieters and people who are fasting — and like the culling of appetite, it’s another reaction to starvation. A report on MedicineNet.com credits the sensation to an evolutionary trait that helps a person evade threats while locating food.
So, I’m not moving forward, like Burroughs promises; in fact, with two hours left until I can eat, I’m regressing. And it’s embarrassing. My girlfriend plays her turn in Scrabble: Lawn, 28 points. I bite my lip. Like a child, I want to scream. I can no longer control my feelings. I bite my lip harder and go silent, hoping she won’t notice.
She notices. She rubs her face, dragging her cheeks down until I can only see the whites of her eyes. “You’re getting worse,” she says, staring at me — pleading me to eat something to regain control.
I think of Burroughs’s book: “When we finally become sick of being sick, then we are ready to learn the truth and the truth shall set us free.” I feel sick now, I tell myself. I want to give in and eat.
I shake my head and tell her I’m fine. I’ve lost myself, and I feel like crying.
After 48 hours, I eat. Over the course of two days, I’ve lost six pounds, half of which I’ve already regained. As I scoop a spoonful of raspberry yogurt, the chills start to fade. My neck muscles loosen. I eat a bit more. My head feel less clouded. I feel normal.
As I scrape the one of the final mouthfuls out of the bowl, there’s a dull throb in my stomach. I start to feel neauseous. But I keep eating, hoping that this feeling of sickness will overcome the one I felt just hours before.