Your Best Body: Juice Cleansing: Smart Detox or Drastic Diet?

What drinking every meal in liquid form does to a dancer’s body
Published in the August/September 2013 issue.

Photo iStock

Like many dancers, New York City Ballet soloist Antonio Carmena is constantly looking for ways to help his body run more efficiently. After watching a documentary about juice cleansing this March, Carmena decided to try his own three-day version during the last week of the company’s season. “I wasn’t trying to lose weight,” he says. “I just wanted to restart my body.”

Attempting to be as healthy as possible, Carmena created his own juices from spinach, kale, cucumbers and squash, occasionally throwing in berries, ginger or grapefruit. On the first day, he felt hungry but also more hydrated. By day two, though, he’d become stressed-out, and noticed that he had far less energy in rehearsal. “I felt weak, and couldn’t push as hard,” he says. “I realized a juice cleanse isn’t good while you’re dancing.”

Juice cleansing or fasting—where people drink only fruit and vegetable juice while avoiding solid foods—has been used in religious and cultural rituals since the Old Testament days. Dieters have co-opted the practice because it offers a quick way to drop pounds on a short-term basis, and some alternative-medicine practitioners believe that giving the body a break from solid foods allows it to focus on healing. Today, the fresh juice business, including premade juice cleanses, has become a $5 billion industry.

Dancing on the Diet
Juicing has gained traction among dancers. Some view it as an opportunity to get in top aesthetic form before an audition or performance. Others, like Carmena, see it as a chance to detox, although few scientific studies have tested that idea. The deluge of fluids, vitamins and minerals is also appealing to health-conscious perfectionists: All of those berries, citrus fruits and leafy greens can load the body up on antioxidants.

But an all-juice diet has serious consequences. Juices lack protein, digestion-enhancing fiber and healthy fat, and don’t include the combinations of elements that help your body take advantage of the health benefits of fruits and veggies. “Nutrients need to be in certain forms to be digested and enter the bloodstream,” explains Rebecca Dietzel, a biochemist in private practice in nutritional counseling. “Calcium from kale, for example, can’t get into its ionized form when it’s put through the juicer.”

What’s more, juice cleanses rarely offer substantial calories, causing a host of problems. Within 48 hours of starting a juice cleanse, your body is forced to burn muscle mass for energy, says Joy Dubost, PhD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You’re losing essential nutrients and electrolytes,” she says, “which over time can affect the rhythm of your heart and cause muscle cramps.” Thinking it’s experiencing a famine, your body goes into a state of panic, and inflammation increases, making chronic injuries like tendonitis worse. “Your brain also says, ‘Let’s turn down any nonessential processes so we can conserve fuel,’ ” says Dietzel. “That includes hormone production and healing processes, both essential to dancers.”

Then why do so many dancers say that juicing makes them feel great? “It’s often because dancers are usually dehydrated, and during a juice cleanse they finally get the fluids their bodies crave,” says Dietzel, who adds that you can get the same effect by drinking adequate water. Some cleansers even feel euphoric after a few days. But this isn’t the result of improved health; it’s because the body has started dumping opiate-like hormones into the system to protect you from noticing that you’re “starving.”

The aftereffects of a juice cleanse can also backfire. Most dancers gain weight when they return to solid foods because they’ve slowed down their metabolism. “You’ve programmed your body to store fat; it thinks it needs to save fuel,” says Dietzel. Because your body has turned down the production of digestive enzymes, it also takes a few days to restart that process, making you feel sluggish and tired after eating.

A Smarter Cleanse
Not all of the principles of a juice cleanse are inherently misguided. Cutting out artificially processed foods in favor of fresh produce can be a healthy choice. If you’re interested in the idea of rebooting your diet, Dietzel suggests spending one day drinking lots of water and eating only fruits and veggies (a large variety). “You’ll get more hydrated, give your liver a break from fat metabolism and get a wide range of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds,” she says. “Plus, all that fiber supports intestinal and colon health by absorbing toxic compounds in the intestine and helping to create a healthy bowel movement.” However, she warns, just like a juice fast, this one-day diet doesn’t offer enough energy to fuel a full day of dance rehearsals. Only try it on a day off.

For the long term, incorporating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains with high fiber into your diet and drinking more water will keep your body on track. That way, you won’t need to resort to drastic cleanses in order to hit a risky “reset” button.

Take a Hike
To become a professional ballet dancer, you have to put in countless hours at the studio. But you should also get outside once in a while, too. Why?

You need sunlight:
Researchers recently found that ballet dancers have a high risk of vitamin D deficiency because they spend so much time indoors. This has been linked to impaired muscular performance and an increased risk of injuries.

If you get injured, nature can help:
Simply having a view of trees has been shown to help patients heal significantly faster, and experience less depression and pain during recovery.

You’ll be able to focus on choreography better:
Studies have shown that regularly spending time in nature improves our attention, and helps us handle stress.

Psychologists believe these benefits come from the absence of stressful man-made demands, such as traffic jams and loud construction noises. Rather than bombarding your attention, nature lets you think as much or as little as you like. A simple hike or day at the beach gives you a chance to replenish your mental resources—making you that much more prepared to tackle technical challenges once you’re back in the studio.

The Early Bird Wins Again
Looking to shed vacation pounds before the fall season? Try eating your meals earlier. A recent study found that dieters who ate their lunch before 3 pm lost significantly more weight than those who ate it after, even though there was little difference in the overall calories. Researchers think glucose (sugar) may be processed differently later in the day, or the timing of our meals may impact our circadian rhythms, disrupting our metabolism. Either way, it’s a simple strategy to slim down while still getting the calories your body needs.

Watch Out: Dance Injuries On the Rise

As dance grows more popular—, injuries are becoming more common. A recent study found that the annual number of dance injuries in children and teenagers increased 37 percent from 1991 to 2007. Researchers suspect that increased competition has created a greater demand for impressive technique, leading to a heightened risk of chronic and acute injuries.

But there’’s a solution. A separate recent study done at Birmingham Royal Ballet’’s Jerwood Centre for the Prevention and Treatment of Dance Injuries found that by developing individual conditioning programs for the company’s dancers, researchers were able to decrease injuries by more than half. “Dancers move incredibly efficiently,”” explains lead researcher Nick Allen. ““But they also need strength so that, by the hundredth time they do a grand jeté, they won’’t have to start compensating.”” He points out that all other sports use cross-training not only to reduce injury risk, but also to maximize athletic potential. “It’s time the ballet world realizes that dancers need strength training, too,”” he says. Before you get injured, make an appointment with a physical therapist who works with dancers to assess your body’’s unique weaknesses, and create a conditioning plan to build the strength you need.

The Sweet Spot
The sugar aisle can feel overwhelming. With so many options, which is the healthiest? Jan Hangen, Boston Ballet School’s consulting nutritionist, helps break down your choices:

Sugar: Whether it’s brown or white, added sugar should only be consumed in moderation. Nutritionists recommend no more than 20 to 25 grams a day, or roughly four to five teaspoons. Eating more could wreak havoc with your blood glucose and elevate your insulin, which makes and stores fat.

Aspartame, Sucralose & Saccharin:
These non-caloric substitutes are 200 to 600 times sweeter than sugar. Experts think that intensity might rewire your taste receptors to dislike less sweet foods, such as natural fruits. And because the sweetness prepares your gut for fuel that never arrives, you might be driven to overeat afterward. Also, the chemicals might predispose you to metabolic syndrome, which includes weight gain and type-2 diabetes.

Stevia: This recently popularized substitute is billed as natural, but although it comes from a plant, in extract form it’s actually a chemical. There is currently no data on its long-term use.
Best Choice: Agave Nectar. It has the same baking properties as sugar, but a lower glycemic index, so it won’t raise your blood glucose as much. And although it comes with slightly more calories than sugar, it’s 40 percent sweeter, so you’ll use less. Most importantly, agave nectar provides small amounts of calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium. As Hangen explains, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch. You’re safer with calories—we know how the body uses them.”