It’s 7:42 a.m., Wednesday morning. I’m starting my day with a salt water flush, which means chugging a full glass of salt water, trying desperately not to gag and brushing my teeth immediately. This will be a part of my morning routine for the next week and a half as I try the master cleanse so you don’t have to.
The master cleanse is an extreme fasting diet endorsed by numerous celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyoncé and Jared Leto. It is especially popular amongst celebrities who are trying to slim down for an event or film role. Beyoncé did it before filming Dreamgirls in order to obtain the Twiggy-like figure of the era. Leto, on the other hand, cleansed in order to lose the 60 pounds he gained to play John Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27. Its brilliance is in its simplicity; for 10 days all you can “eat” is a “lemonade cocktail” made of warm water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup. While starving yourself for roughly the extent of Oktoberfest, the cajun lemonade is supposed to evacuate your digestive tract. And this is how you lose weight.
“These ingredients (excluding the water) contain powerful antioxidants and compounds that support the body’s natural ability to cleanse and rid itself of toxins and other harmful compounds we come into contact with regularly,” Lauren Minchen, a registered dietitian in New York City told me, to put it into scientific terms.
I am Jewish enough to know that the proper way to eat latkes is with apple sauce, but not Jewish enough to have fasted on Yom Kippur. This is the first time I’ve intentionally deprived my body of food. I do not really know what to expect, but by the time lunch rolls around, I am filled with a desire for food I’ve never experienced before. It’s not so much hunger as it is a childlike need to do exactly what I’m not supposed to. The fact that my body is so strongly rejecting a decision I’ve purportedly made for my wellness is my first clue that this is not the healthiest choice.
The master cleanse lets you shed weight like an old snake (Beyoncé reportedly lost 20 pounds in two weeks). But it is not an effective diet in that you’re likely to gain all the weight you lost back the second you quit pounding cayenne lemonade. As Minchen told me: “losing weight on a liquid-only diet supports muscle and water loss, with very little fat loss. … I have not recommended the master cleanse as a means of losing weight, and I would not recommend it for that purpose.”
If the idea of drinking 1/10 a teaspoon of cayenne pepper suspended in warm lemon juice doesn’t sound appetizing, it’s because it’s not. While your throat burns from citrus-induced acid reflux, your tongue stings. And this is how you spend your entire day, for ten days. I’ve not even finished a full day before the thought of mixing another one of these monsters nauseates me. The lemonade’s taste is not something you get used to. No matter how much you’ve consumed, it remains an assault on the taste buds. It’s then I start to worry about my breath, and the damage all this lemon juice is doing to the enamel on my teeth. There is some good news though: “Lemon juice can irritate tooth enamel; however, since this fast is generally meant to be followed for 10 days maximum, severe damage is unlikely,” according to Minchen. Cavities are, at this point, just about the only thing I don’t have to worry about, though I make a note in my phone to pick up some Crest Whitestrips when I’m done, just to be safe.
The reason people eat is not just because cheese tastes magnificent, but because food provides the energy on which our entire bodies operate. Without any food, my body feels like The Little Engine That Absolutely Could Not. All I want to do is lie in bed all day. In fact, if I could just spend all day in bed, this would probably be a very easy 10 days. I imagine Gwyneth Paltrow holed up in a four-poster bed, surrounded by fresh linens and warm, damp towels. Her children have been instructed not to bother her for the next week and her home is run by a team of nannies and maids while Gwynnie craps out her weight in cayenne lemonade to prepare for the Oscars. The problem is, you and me as normal, non-famous human beings have responsibilities. We have jobs and families and friends and obligations for which “I’m drinking my weight in spiced lemonade” is not a valid excuse. At work I feel mentally exhausted. I’m slow and less productive, which I can’t imagine pleases my bosses. At this point, I would say that is the hardest part of this cleanse: having to maintain my regular schedule while starving myself.
Let me explain, the reason you lose weight on the master cleanse is not just because of its diuretic ingredients. There are no calories in water, lemon juice or cayenne pepper. This is the reason for the maple syrup. It isn’t pancake syrup you’re putting in your drink, it’s pure maple syrup which has no added sugar and very little caloric content [???]. I calculated that I’m consuming about 315 calories a day; a feast for Kate Moss, this is far below my normal daily consumption. I am not working out while on the cleanse, but living in New York City means quite a bit of walking and I’ve calculated that I’m burning approximately 210 calories per day simply walking to and from work. It’s no wonder that my entire body feels like it’s threatening to shut down.
What the master cleanse lacks in complexity it also lacks in instructions. The only guidance given as to how much lemonade one is supposed to consume in a day is to drink a glass whenever you feel hungry which is all. the. damn. time. One of the things that makes diets like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers so successful is that they make it easy for you. Eat this now, eat that later, etc. etc. ad infinitum. Being deserted on cayenne lemonade island can be sort of a confusing feeling, never knowing how much laxative lemonade is too much, and how little is too little.
It’s Saturday morning and, thanks to Seamless, there is a tuna melt and a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke on its way to my apartment. After feeling dizzy for three days and an incident in a muggy subway station where I felt close to fainting, I’ve decided its time to call it quits. Since I’m not a masochist, I don’t own a scale. This leaves me with no way of knowing how much weight I’m losing, though if I had to make a guess, it’d be somewhere between zero and one pound. My clothes don’t fit any differently and no one has told me that I look slimmer.
I may have patently failed my mission, but I have learned a few things. Mostly that the master cleanse is terrifically horrifying experience and that the importance of close proximity to a private toilet cannot be overstated.
I Try! is a new semi-regular feature in which I try the weirdest celebrity trends so you don’t have to. Feel free to email me here with suggestions.