IF YOU LIVE IN SAN FRANCISCO, YOU PROBABLY KNOW SOMEONE WHO HAS CLEANSED. You might even be part of the cleansing demographic yourself: Wealthy enough to choose not to eat (which is why Gwyneth Paltrow cleanses more than the average human) and knowledgeable enough about environmental toxins to be anxious about your health. You have easy access to modern conveniences like a toilet. (Peeing, during a cleanse, is very time-consuming.) You allow yourself the occasional buttery morning bun at Tartine, but make up for it with veggie burgers wrapped in lettuce. Still, there’s the sense that you could be doing better—Craigslisting your flame-retardant couch, buying more organic.
Of course, you know that to help remedy this, you should eat more kale. In recent years, the leafy green has come to represent the panacea that will right the world’s wrongs. Maybe another superfood, like kukicha twigs, will swoop in to save us in 2013, but for now, raw kale is the main ingredient in the tsunami of juice bars and cleanse companies (including Can Can Cleanse, Living Greens, Sow, Thrive Cleanse, Urban Remedy, and Juice Shop) that have recently washed over our city. San Francisco—which has always had its share of greasy-faced gourmands bragging about their heritage pork belly conquests—is now equally full of people buzzing about when they last stopped eating solid food. These evangelists aren’t limited to women in stretch pants, social x-rays from L.A., and regulars at Café Gratitude. Even my unabashedly male friends with 360-degree bay views from their hedge fund offices have cleansed.
Deliberately not chewing on anything for 24-plus hours, I have discovered, gives you the time to talk a lot. It’s one of those noble but masochistic acts that makes you want to crow, like running a triathlon or giving birth without an epidural. As everyone oohs and aahs over your tenacity, you feel like a warrior—particularly in retrospect.
During the cleanse, however, it’s a different story. On the first day, faced with a bar’s worth of elixirs without a drop of fat in them, even a live chicken sounds scrumptious. The haunting smell of Cinnabons—something you haven’t inhaled since working at the mall in high school—suddenly wafts by like a ghost. The crunch of a Popchip being eaten across the office makes you gnash your teeth. And if you’re me, a week before the cleanse is scheduled to commence, the pit of dread in your stomach is leagues deep. In survivalist mode, you eat more than usual just to store up. Booze is consumed sentimentally.
I know all of this because, after endless glowing reports from friends who cleansed and lived to tell about it, I concluded that it was my journalistic duty to undertake one myself. I had attempted a one-day fast from Can Can last year, but caved six hours into it with a bratwurst at Leopold’s. This time, I chose a threeday cleanse from Bernal Heights–based Living Greens, which delivers its tasty, organic juices to your house every morning.
Although Living Greens gives strict instructions to ease into the ordeal—eliminating white flour, dairy, sugar, and alcohol a few days ahead of time—that wasn’t an option for me: War reporters have to go to the front lines, and food writers have to eat. I had already accepted a once-in-a-lifetime invitation to a 35-course Chinese dinner, cooked by a famous chef flown in from the Sichuan Province, that was scheduled for the night before. Consequently, I began my cleanse with a hangover, an Advil, and a toaster waffle. Already feeling like a loser juicer, for the rest of the 72 hours I supplemented the juice with very convincing rationalizations: “Quinoa is so healthy that it doesn’t even count.” “Wine is juice, right?”
Nevertheless, I got the gist of what real cleansing is all about. For one, your body chemistry does change—though the main adjustments may be to your mood rather than your toxicity level. Eight hours in, my emotional state was oscillating between the tranquil self-satisfaction of a Zen monk and the petulance of a toddler. After starting every morning with the sour slime of aloe juice, the sweetness of coconut water felt like the discovery of Technicolor. I could go on, but I’ll spare you the details—you can always read about some other writer’s juice cleanse while you’re on the elliptical flipping through Vogue or Men’s Health.
However, I will say this: As I chugged my way through lunch and dinner, I found myself pondering some existential questions triggered by my modern-day vision quest. Given that I spent three days never feeling the need for an Alka-Seltzer, does it follow that my whole profession is unhealthy—or even gross? Was my headache caused by toxins being released or by missing my Réveille Coffee fix—and, really, what toxins are we talking about, anyway? Will I start thinking twice before popping a handful of Goldfish while making the kids’ lunch? Could I be a—gasp!—closet vegan? And, of utmost importance, am I glowing? (Our photo editor said yes, but I also felt feverish.)
Most of all, I meditated on what (aside from an impending bikini-clad beach vacation) compels people to cleanse. Like the rest of its kind, Living Greens literature speaks much of eating “clean,” which implies that we normally eat dirty. There’s a dash of Scientology and a sprinkle of Catholicism mixed in with the beet juice—the idea that we’re tainted, but can be made pure again by repenting in a liquid confession booth. You can’t deny the element of guilt.
If a juice cleanse could actually heal your body to some extent, as Living Greens states, or—better yet—reverse aging, as Urban Remedy promises, I’d be more than willing to submit to the occasional fast. Not surprisingly, though, it’s probably not so simple. “My patients seem to have this vision that somehow the juice is pulling the metabolites and heavy metals out of them,” says locally based, holistically inclined Dr. Daphne Miller, author of The Jungle Effect and a cohort of Andrew Weil. “But there’s no evidence to substantiate this—although traditional communities that adhere to a modified fast schedule for their religious calendar are shown to have a better cholesterol level.” As for juices in particular? “I think we’re a quick-fix culture,” Miller says. “Things we can buy and sip with a straw that we’re told will make us feel better are really appealing.”
Dr. Jane Hightower of California Pacific Medical Center, who is known for her work on mercury toxicity, concurs. “We live in a chemical soup, but does our body need help to get rid of these things?” she asks. “I try to get people to have a good diet, stop the exposure, and let their body rid [itself of toxins] on its own.” Even Michelle Hall, the cofounder of Living Greens, can’t provide proof that a cleanse works. “When I do a three-day, people are stopping me on the street and asking why my eyes are so brilliant, why my skin is glowing,” she says. “I just know that people feel amazing after they’re done.”
Hall isn’t wrong. I did feel amazing: amazingly svelte and—it must be said—amazingly smug. On the last day, sipping my detox tea on the couch while my husband ate some annoyingly delicious-smelling Indian takeout, I looked at him with the kind of pity you feel for people polluting their bodies with curry and meat. “Do I look like I’m cleaner on the inside? Like I’m better than you as a person?” I asked, sucking in my warrior-thin frame. He rolled his eyes. “Well, I can tell you one thing,” he said, turning back to watch Homeland. “You definitely look full of it.”
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of San Francisco.