Should People in Recovery from Eating Disorders do Cleanses?

Should People in Recovery from Eating Disorders do Cleanses?

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This post was originally published on March 9, 2015.

So you’re thinking about doing a cleanse.

You have had a long spree of eating unhealthy food, and have been drinking too much. You’ve been going to meetings for your eating disorder, and your bottom line is no bingeing and no purging. Even though you don’t have a sponsor yet, and can’t seem to find a food plan that works for you, you feel like you’re getting it. But you’re not seeing the physical recovery that other people in the meetings experience. Some people are really thin, and it doesn’t even seem like they need to be there. You can’t stop eating your favorite binge foods. Your jeans are too tight, your skin seems puffy.

You’ve read one cleanse book (or at least part of it) (or at least heard a lot about it) and you know the deal. In fact, you’ve done it before. A bunch of times, but never quite perfectly. You know it works, and even though it’s extreme, you love the high it gives you. It’s not really a diet, it’s a cleanse. It’s good for you. Right? You’re ridding your body of toxins. Your body needs a purification.

So, should you do a cleanse? First, a few questions:

  1. Are you someone who goes to extremes to try to control your body?
  2. Is food something you rely upon for energy, sustenance and to stay alive?
  3. Are you a human person?

If you answered yes to one or all of these questions, then cleansing is not for you.

As someone in recovery from an eating disorder, I have always said that I’m just one cleanse away from relapse. Cleanses have always called to me. A cleanse, in my sick mind, is the solution to all of my problems—with my “problems” being my body. Cleanses are an attractive extreme that will give me extreme results. They are, by all appearances, scientific and well-researched, and are common, healthy and sound. Everyone’s doing them.

They’re also complete bullshit.

Let the actual experts weigh in; The Guardian recently ran an article on detoxing and cleansing, and in it, Edzard Ernst—a professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University—reminds us that our bodies have “kidneys, a liver, skin, even lungs that are detoxifying as we speak.” He further explains that there is no way to “make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body, work better.”

The only real type of detox is the kind that addicts do when they’re trying to rid their bodies of drugs and alcohol. A “cleanse” is a clever marketing invention that leads us to believe that our bodies are dirty and, just like bleach on a stain, their product or process will clean it effortlessly and effectively.

Bottom line is this: unless you’re in a hospital with kidney, liver or lung failure, your body is doing its job. It is detoxing naturally on its own, and there’s no need to go to extremes. But my sick mind doesn’t want to hear that; it also doesn’t want to hear that if I want to be healthy, I have to eat more vegetables and get a reasonable amount of exercise. That, however, is the sane solution.

In recovery rooms, I’ve heard the phrase “the food is the last thing to go.” To me this means that there is a lot of thinking, behavior and subtle steps that I take towards losing my abstinence before I actually lose my abstinence.

Here’s how I think on my way to a cleanse:

-I have anxiety about looking good for an occasion; a party, a trip to the beach, a visit home.

-I spend too much time looking at over-styled, airbrushed pictures in magazines, or watching people with “perfect bodies” on TV shows while thinking, “That’s how I’m supposed to look.”

-I want to get from here (the couch, my size, my life) to there (a smaller body, successful) as fast as possible. To do that, all I need is the will power and determination.

-I don’t have to tell anyone I’m doing it.

-I browse the cleanse/detox items at the “healthy” store. Teas, elixirs, juices, books, supplements.

-I am in full research mode; my disease voice is drowning out all the other voices of reason. I am convinced that this is a healthy, informed and necessary decision that will empower me.

The real problem is not the way I eat. It’s not the way I look or feel or the size of clothing I’m wearing. It’s not a week of drinking too much wine, or eating too much red meat. The problem isn’t even that they’re selling a lie—that is, that their product will fix me and correct my mistakes.

The problem is that I’m the perfect candidate for their product. They know me, they know how I think.

The problem is that I believe them.

There is an entire industry built on the lie that my body isn’t functioning properly because of my terrible mistakes, and they offer every type of solution, from gentle teas to extreme liquid fasts, to fix these mistakes. Or maybe their angle is that I’m the victim—I try my best to be healthy, but my toxic environment is the problem.

The most popular cleanse, the grand dragon of quick fix, starve-yourself-for-health-and-weight-loss, is the Master Cleanse. If you do it as recommended, for about two weeks, you will barely survive on a liquid diet, drinking a lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper concoction which promises “a lifetime of freedom from disease” as well as extreme weight loss. If you’ve ever seen people walking around with bottles of what looks like their own piss, they’re probably on the MC.

I think the most telling (and terrifying) promise of this self-inflicted torture is that we’re told that every day of the Master Cleanse helps you to overcome the psychological need to eat and gain a sense of control that motivates you to complete the process.

This is fucked up in so many ways I don’t know where to begin.

Let’s first look at the “psychological need to eat.” Needing to eat is not psychological. It is biological. It is basic survival of the species. The very idea that we eat because of some imaginary, fixable trick our mind plays on our body is laughable.

The idea of growing a sense of control is triggering for anyone who has struggled with restriction or anorexia. It is ultimately what every disordered individual is seeking through harmful food behaviors. We love the high we get from starvation, from not needing food like the pathetic mortals around us. We love to look at food with disdain, telling it we have conquered it. And whether we’re talking about food or life, we love control.

This is also triggering on a spiritual level; people in recovery know that we can only get well once we realize that we are not in control, and we accept that there is something bigger than us—a Higher Power—to guide us in every area of our lives, including our food. We don’t ever have control over the substances we abuse and the self-harming behaviors we practice; that is why we need help.

Cleanses are music to a disordered person’s ears, rife with the quick-fix, cure-all benefits of snake oils and love potions and youth elixirs. But just FYI: in tiny print at the bottom of every product and cleanse is the note that individual results may vary. So just in case drinking lemon juice all day every day for 10 or more days doesn’t cure your cancer…that’s just your individual result!

If you want to rid your body of toxins and chemicals and you want to find a way to feel great, talk to a medical professional or a knowledgeable person about the best, most sane food plan for you. Follow that food plan, one day at a time. Know that there will be days where your food is imperfect. Life is like that—imperfect. But drinking something that looks like piss, may cause you to shit your pants at work (again, DIARRHETICS!) and—like any crash diet—will result in you gaining back way more than the weight you lost (not to mention the long-term adverse effects on your heart-health) is far worse than just imperfect. It’s insane.

Be sane. Eat food.

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Halina Newberry Grant has written for Cosmo, The Next Family, The Hairpin and The Huffington Post, among others. She lives in Culver City, CA with her husband, daughters and dog, Mr. Manfred.