The Master Cleanse rose to popularity about a decade ago, thanks in part to the ever-trendsetting Beyoncé, who used the cleanse to slim down before appearing in the film Dream Girls. Marked by its hallmark mix of cayenne pepper, maple syrup and lemon juice, this liquid-based diet has long been the detox of choice for those looking to slim down and rid the body of toxins fast.
To many, the Master Cleanse is considered a fresh start; a means of lightening the load that toxins have on your body. But there’s more to the Master Cleanse than the watery lemonade it’s known for. Here’s a quick primer on the science behind the Master Cleanse, as well as a look at whether it’s actually a safe way to lose weight.
A brief history of the Master Cleanse
Beyoncé might have spurred its mainstream popularity, but the Master Cleanse isn’t really all that new. This liquid diet was developed in the 1940s by Stanley Burroughs, a self-taught alternative medicine practitioner. In 1976, Burroughs wrote a book titled The Master Cleanser. In it, he claims that a cleansing diet is necessary for optimal health, as it helps the body rid itself of chemicals and toxins we encounter in our daily lives.
Detoxing itself has been a part of wellness philosophies for thousands of years. In Ayurveda, for instance, ridding the bodies of toxins is key to achieving a balanced, healthful life. This practice is still in use widely across India today—though it doesn’t involve the same approach as the Master Cleanse. In short, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to detox.
Do you eat anything on the Master Cleanse?
According to Burroughs’ book, dieters are advised to drink 6 to 12 glasses daily of a lemonade-like concoction made from maple syrup, lemon juice, water and cayenne pepper. In all, you’ll go through roughly three to six lemons each day and up to a cup and a half of maple syrup. Cayenne pepper is added to taste. Interestingly, the large amount of maple syrup plus the lemons adds up to about 1400 calories per day, which is actually on the lower end of a fairly normal diet.
Aside from the lemonade, dieters are permitted an herbal laxative drink, as well as a saltwater tonic. But despite giving the body enough calories, on the Master Cleanse you’re essentially just consuming sugar and depriving your body of key nutrients like protein, vitamins, carbs and minerals.
How long does the cleanse last?
According to The Master Cleanser, the diet lasts for a minimum of 10 days. The maximum duration is 40 days. Burroughs claims that people can go on this diet three or four times each year to keep their bodies detoxified.
When you’re done with the cleanse, it is essential that you gently ease back into the realm of eating solid food. Focus on eating things like fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds. This means small portions, no grains and no meat—at least for that first day. On the second day, you can start adding elements like beans, rice and olive oil. Still, it’s wise to avoid things like sugar, dairy, caffeine and red meat for a few more days.
One of the benefits of doing a cleanse is the fact that you’re getting a diet reset, so diving back into a life full of processed foods and simple carbs is going to undo all that hard work.
Does the Master Cleanse work?
You’re getting very few calories on the Master Cleanse. Basic science dictates that when you’re operating on a calorie deficit, you’re going to lose weight. However, along with the fat you’re losing, you’ll also have loss coming from your bones, your muscles and water weight. There’s no real proof that detoxing is an effective weight loss method. Often, cleansers will be thinking about food the entire time, binging right after the cleanse ends. It’s simply not sustainable.
The other major caveat about cleansing? According to countless scientists and studies, you don’t need to go through a special process to detox. Your liver takes care of this for you. In all, you’re better off sticking to the basics: healthy fats, lean proteins, fruits, veggies and whole grains.
Technically, the body can go about three weeks without food. But this is a worst case scenario, not a recommendation by any means. Outside of dire circumstances, there is no benefit to depriving your body of key nutrients for long periods of time. In fact, we’re willing to bet that The Master Cleanse might cause more problems than it’s worth—and it certainly won’t spur sustainable weight loss.