Full transparency: I don't typically buy into cleanse culture. Juice cleanses, while incredibly trendy, have no scientific merit behind them, and programs that call for buying pre-made meals don't feel satiating and end up tasting rather bland, IMO. Besides, "detoxing" is actually just marketing jargon: A 2015 review concluded that there was little compelling research to support the use of "detox" diets for weight management or eliminating toxins from the body. In fact, the FTC and FDA have taken action against several companies whose detoxing products actually contained harmful ingredients or were backed by false claims. The body is made to naturally cleanse itself—the liver breaks down harmful substances (like alcohol) and the by-products are excreted into the bile or blood, which is later removed from the body via feces or urine, respectively. If we had a buildup of so-called "toxins" in our bodies, we'd need immediate medical attention. All this to say, the best way to "cleanse" your body is to alter your lifestyle: avoid drinking and smoking, incorporate movement, and eat nourishing, unprocessed foods.
Admittedly, my skepticism toward cleanses shifted a bit after capping off a raucous year of excessive drinking and snacking with a particularly "joyful" holiday season that left me feeling lethargic and my body yearning for some reprieve. I received an email about participating in a cleanse from The Well, a state-of-the-art wellness facility in New York and Connecticut, and my curiosity was piqued—cleanses aren't my jam, but this program, a "15-day full-body reset" read less like a gimmick and more like a revised approach to eating and drinking—with an acute focus on the microbiome and gut—designed by a doctor (Dr. Frank Lipman, chief medical officer of The Well). Through whole foods, introducing gut supporting supplements, zero alcohol, and some adjustments to your portions and eating schedule, the plan claims to improve sleep quality, energy levels, brain function, nourishment, and skin health, all areas that I'd seen a decline in this past year. And the best part: you're not depriving yourself during this period, rather rethinking common ingredients like artificial sugars and trans fats that may cause inflammation, and replacing them with good-for-you substitutes. I even coaxed my husband into joining me, which made the two-week commitment even easier.
The Well Cleanse
What it is: A 15-day gentle whole-body reset designed to optimize the health of your microbiome (aka your gut).
Who it's for: The program is for anyone looking to improve their gut health, sleep, stress, and nutrition or complete a gut reset.
Claims: Helps the user improve their gut health and function; simultaneously improves sleep quality, energy levels, brain function, nourishment, and skin health; sustained weight loss; better digestion and absorption (which means less bloating).
- Gut Complex supplements ($88 value)
- Clean Green Protein ($77 value)
- Branded blender bottle
- 30-minute health-coaching session
- Printed program guide
- Unlimited access to health coaching during program (via email)
- Centralized web page with educational content (blog articles), recipes, well-vetted brands and more.
- Maintenance guide (to help support you after the program is over).
- Access to a text support service that sends you daily gut health tips.
How It Works
Before you get started, it's best to read through the entire program guide to understand which foods are encouraged and which should be avoided. For example: low-sugar fruits like berries, green apples, lemons, and limes are allowed, where high-sugar fruits like bananas, pineapple and peaches are listed as "skips." Fish and seafood should be wild-caught and sustainably harvested (farm-raised fish can be fed antibiotics and may be contaminated with pollutants); meat should be organic and pasture-raised (these types of meats may have increased levels of essential vitamins and nutrients compared with grain-fed meat); and starchy veggies like corn and white potatoes should be avoided. The major cut-outs in this plan are alcohol; gluten and grains; refined sugars; packaged sauces, dips, and marinades; and dairy, which I know, in theory, sounds like a LOT, but take heart that there are so many amazing program-approved substitutions like dairy-free alternatives (cheeses included!) and gluten-free snacks and breads on the market that you won't feel like you're completely depriving yourself (I even made a pizza one night).
An average day of eating goes something like this:
- As soon as you wake up, drink 16 ounces of water.
- Breakfast: A smoothie or shake with a scoop of the Clean Green Protein.
- Lunch: A Cleanse-approved meal (they recommend filling your plate with 3/4 colorful, non-starchy veggies and the other 1/4 can be a healthy fat like avocado and a protein or meat-free alternative, but feel free to create meals based off of the approved foods, being mindful of portions—too heavy of a meal is overwhelming for your gut). It's here where you should also take your Gut Complex, preferably before the meal as they're full of digestive enzymes meant to help you break down your food.
- Snack: Cleanse-approved foods like a handful of almonds, a green apple with a tablespoon of almond butter, and grain-free chips with guacamole.
- Early evening: Similar to lunch, including a Gut Complex packet.
- Late evening: A cup of herbal caffeine-free tea (optional).
My Favorite Meals
My favorite breakfast shake was a mix of berries, almond milk, Clean Green Protein (which tastes like vanilla protein powder) and a sprinkle of chia seeds. For lunch, I often air-fried some chicken and placed it on a bed of greens with avocado, carrots, cucumber, and my new favorite dressing, Dreamy Italian from Primal Kitchen. For snack, I found that a handful of almonds or a green apple with almond butter was satiating enough to hold me over until dinner. My husband and I found ourselves often making wild-caught salmon marinated in coconut aminos (a wonderful soy sauce-like alternative), garlic, and ginger with cauliflower rice and broccoli for supper. We also made a yummy grass-fed short rib marinated in a similar mixture as the salmon. One night, we made roasted tomato soup from scratch with dairy-free and gluten-free grilled cheese, which was a big hit.
Pros and Cons
If you're a lazy meal-prepper, you won't love this program. Since you can't use packaged sauces and condiments, you have to make everything from total scratch. This was definitely time-consuming, but well worth it to know exactly what I was putting in my body. And because meats need to be pasture-raised and grass-fed, this made our weekly grocery bills increase pretty significantly, and on top of the all-in cost of the program, this can seem like a very expensive 15 days. While this may be true, a 30-minute health coaching session, infinite email help, and the peace of mind that you're eating clean foods that are free of unnecessary additives feel worth the cost, if you're able. Because this program is an investment, however, it's important to note it is not widely accessible, nor is it inclusive of all household incomes.
Possibly the biggest "pro" for me was that, following the 15 days, my body most definitely felt adjusted. My husband and I "celebrated" the Cleanse being over by having pizza and wine on day 16, but I felt like garbage by the end of the night. Drinking any more than one glass of wine or one beer actually made me feel sick—same with heavy foods, dairy, and sugar. These symptoms were totally welcome, though—my body had gotten so used to giving it nourishment, that introducing it back to the inflammation-inducing items I used to fill it with gave me an adverse reaction. Turns out this wasn't all in my head, either: "If you were drinking wine semi-regularly prior to the Cleanse, there may have been a candida-type situation that the sugars from the wine were feeding, which could lead to cravings," says Raj Barker, health coach at The Well. "In that case, the Gut Complex likely treated the candida and cravings would have diminished by the end of the program. The load of sugar from wine intake post-Cleanse could now be causing some nausea. It's worth keeping in mind that alcohol is addictive. The more you have, the more you crave/need it. Over time, you build up a bit of a tolerance—as with all stimulants, like sugar and caffeine—so you need more and more to feel the desired effect. After detoxing your body (from alcohol, sugar, caffeine, etc.) through the Cleanse, that tolerance will have shrunk to be much smaller."
What I Learned
I had no idea how many sugars and trans fats are hidden in condiments, sauces, and dressings, and considering I ate them quite often, it's been eye-opening how many unnecessary additives I was taking in on a daily basis. Coconut aminos have been such a great addition to my diet and add delicious flavor to meats and veggies—overall, they're far better than a packaged marinade.
I also learned how out of control my portions were. During my health coaching session, Barker told me that a typical plate should be 70% unrefined carbohydrates (fruits and vegetables) and then the other 30% should be divided between 15% healthy fats (avocado, olives, unsweetened coconut products) and 15% protein. This is a rough and generalized estimate, so Barker says that as you work through the cleanse, you might find that you're someone who needs more protein and can adjust accordingly. "The way that you'll be able to distinguish [your portions] is by how you feel," she tells me. "It's not so much a cleanse that focuses on measurements—certainly not on calories or anything like that—but more about how the meal leaves you feeling." Prior to the cleanse, I'd get seconds on a bowl of pasta even if I was on the brink of fullness, so by recalibrating my portions during the cleanse, I was able to figure out just how much my body needed to feel satisfied without over-consuming.
It also became quite evident that my schedule was really throwing off my body. It's recommended that you eat dinner around 6 or 7 p.m. on the Cleanse so that your body has time between your last meal of the day and when you settle into a rest state to digest the meal and process the food, which requires a lot of energy. "In our waking hours, most of our energy moves into digestion, and when we go to sleep, the goal is to have an empty belly and to shift out of that digestive state so that we can then start to focus on repair and restoration and healing as we're in our sleeping hours," says Barker. She explains that if we eat too close to the time we go to sleep, we're "ripping ourselves off" of the repair mode. I'd certainly fallen victim to this myself by working late and eating dinner at a ridiculous hour causing me to wake up feeling bloated and off-kilter. Forcing myself to close my laptop and eat earlier has been a definite game-changer.
Weight loss wasn't the main goal for me, but I did notice that I had more muscle definition in my core, a result of fat loss from halting refined sugar and alcohol consumption which allowed the muscles I'd gained from frequent Pilates classes to show through a bit more. "You're really focused on flooding your body with positive nutrients and minerals, and that's using food as medicine which has a pretty dramatic effect quite quickly," says Barker.
I also felt so much less run-down during the Cleanse—eating better and nixing alcohol did wonders for my body and taught me to be nicer to it. Sure, winding down with some cocktails after work and binging on sweets feels great in the moment, but the lasting effect was having major repercussions on my system.
The best lasting result has been that I've turned the Cleanse into a lifestyle: I'm so much more mindful of what I'm putting into my body and when. I now cook differently, making as many things from scratch as possible, and prepare a healthy snack instead of grabbing a box of crackers when I'm hungry. I love that I've learned so much about food, digestion, and the body's reparative processes through this program which is something I feel like you rarely (if ever) get from commercial cleanses. And while this cleanse is costly, the investment on my health paired with a true nutritional education is invaluable.
Please note: The Well Cleanse has sold out once already and there is limited inventory available.
Klein AV, Kiat H. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2015;28(6):675-686. doi:10.1111/jhn.12286