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Master Cleanse Diet – Everything You Need To Know

Published: 13th May 2018. Last updated: 21th July 2019.

Matthew Smith

Staff Writer


What Is The Master Cleanse Diet?

The story of the Master cleanse diet is one of the most fascinating stories in dieting history, a diet that started in the 1940s and led to the creator being tried for second degree murder. Incredibly, this diet is still used today, and has been promoted by celebrities such as Beyoncé who followed it back in 2006 while trying to get in shape for Dreamgirls.

The master cleanse’s enduring popularity throughout the years is down to a number of factors. The amazing short-term success, the simplicity of the diet, and the faux morality that fasting for a week can provide. It manages to tap into that desperation that we all have when there’s an event we want to look good for coming up, and we’ve just finished an ill-advised pizza.

In this article we will be taking a look at the history of the master cleanse, we will examine what the master cleanse consists of, and analyze whether this diet works or not, and whether you should consider trying it.

History Of The Master Cleanse (Also Known As The Lemonade Diet)

The Master Cleanse was created in the 1940s by Stanley Burroughs, an alternative health practitioner [1]. Burroughs was not a doctor, nor did he have any qualifications in nutrition. This did not stop him from acting like one, and he would later be charged with practicing medicine without a license.

The diet was not actually designed for weight loss but was supposed to cure ulcers. But as it gained popularity Burroughs began to attribute many health benefits to it, treating it like a health elixir. If you are picturing a guy in a large hat standing on top of a wagon selling his magic health tonic, then you are not too far wrong!

Stanley Burroughs was a charlatan in the proper sense of the word, he falsely claimed to be an expert. He clearly bought into his own hype though, after the publishing of his book “The Master Cleanser” in 1976 Burroughs was charged with second degree murder.

This was after he had tried to cure a terminally ill man called Lee Swatsenbarg of leukemia using a combination of his Master Cleanse lemonade drink, massage, and light therapy. Lee was forbidden from visiting his physician while undertaking this therapy [2].

We don’t want to go into too much detail, but the court record walks us through what happened during this therapy. Lee Swatsenbarg died just three weeks into the course, and well before he would have using traditional evidence-based medical treatment.

In a sane world, the master cleanse would have fallen completely out of favor the day that Stanley Burroughs was incarcerated. Sadly, the world does not seem to work like that. Stanley managed to get his prison sentence overturned on appeal. Then the master cleanse was repackaged by Peter Glickman in 2004 as “Lose Weight, Have More Energy & Be Happier in 10 Days”.

Glickman’s diet book was a runaway success, and it is this version of the diet (Glickman has basically repackaged the diet created by Burroughs and presented it as his own) that became truly popular. Beyoncé is not the only celebrity to have used it, many celebrities have used it as an extreme weight loss solution before a new movie role.

With social media being what it is, the master cleanse diet is as popular as ever with desperate people looking for an immediate solution to their weight gain issues. So, let’s take a look at this diet.

How Does The Master Cleanse Diet Work?

The diet is very simple, provided you have the right ingredients. It’s also fairly terrifying (or maybe that’s just our reaction to it). To start, you first need to decide how long you should follow it for. The Burroughs version could theoretically last between 10-40 days, but the Glickman diet is fairly obviously aimed at 10 days (the clue is in the title).

To make the lemonade you will need:

  • 2 tbsp Lemon juice (from actual lemons)
  • Pinch of Cayenne Pepper
  • 10oz (0.28l) water
  • 2 tbsp Maple Syrup (Grade B)

Mix them all together in a bottle and you now have the lemonade required for your master cleanse. You are also supposed to take a herbal laxative in the form of a tea. Finally, you should drink a salt-water mixture every morning.

You are supposed to drink the salt-water concoction first thing in the morning, then drink the lemonade throughout the day. Followed by the herbal laxative tea in the evening. Follow this diet for ten days and then you can progress to drinking orange juice for two days before adding fruit and salad on day three. By day four you can follow your normal diet again.

Is It Effective?

If you mean, does the master cleanse diet lead to weight loss? Then yes, the master cleanse diet will work like a dream. You are basically almost starving yourself for 7 days. Of course you are going to lose weight.

Will the Master Cleanse diet detox your body? No, and you shouldn’t want it to. Your body is perfectly capable of removing toxins, and if it isn’t you don’t need some lemonade, you need a doctor! Okay, there may be some foods that have detoxifying qualities, a study by Klein & Kiat (2014) wrote that:

“There is evidence that coriander, malic acid (found in grapes and wine), citric acid (found in citric fruits), succinic acid (found in apples and blueberries), citrus pectin (found in the peel and pulp of citrus fruits) and Chlorella (a type of green algae) exhibit natural chelating properties, suggesting that they may be useful for the elimination of toxic metals” [3].

But 1) None of these foods have been examined as part of a detoxifying diet, and 2) none of these foods are found in the Master Cleanse (except some citric acid from the lemons).

So, to sum up: The Master Cleanse works as a short-term weight-loss diet but does not provide any of the other benefits that were promised by Stanley Burroughs. But just because a diet can lead to weight-loss, it does not mean that the diet is necessarily a good diet.

The Pros & Cons Of The Master Cleanse Diet

Below is a list of everything we like and dislike about this diet plan:

Pros

Benefit #1 You will lose weight

The master cleanse diet involves consuming no food and some low-calorie liquids for ten days. Even after that ten-day period you are only consuming fruit juice, followed by fruit and salad, for another few days.

It’s basically two weeks of severely restricted calories. Of course you are going to lose weight from that. If you are a film star trying to crash diet for a role, or you are a boxer/wrestler who needs to make weight for a fight, then the master cleanse is a great way to do that.

Keeping that weight off long term? That’s another matter.

Benefit #2 Short-term fasting may boost your metabolism

A 2000 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the effect of short-term starvation on serum norepinephrine [4]. The study found that during the early stages of starvation, serum norepinephrine increased which raised metabolism.

Increasing your metabolism can lead to more calories burned during the day, and more energy to do things. This may explain why some people who have followed the diet report feeling more energetic, despite the fact that they are literally reducing the amount of energy they receive through diet.

Benefit #3 You may see an increase in growth hormone production

Human growth hormone is such an effective hormone that many bodybuilders and sports professionals have taken it as an illegal supplement.

A 1992 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that fasting led to a significant increase in HGH production [5].

Having more HGH in your system could lead to increased muscle gain, enhanced fat loss, and increased strength. However, these benefits will only last for a short while, and the likelihood of you being able to build muscle while in a severe calorie restriction is very low.

Cons

Drawback #1 Increased Cortisol

While short term fasting may have some initial benefits, the longer it lasts (and ten days is considered very long) the more downsides occur. Cortisol (known as the stress hormone) has many benefits when it is being released normally. But chronically elevated cortisol levels can cause many issues.

A 2010 study by Tomiyama et al found that low calorie dieting increases cortisol, even the act of counting how many calories were to be consumed led to increased stress among participants [6].

Elevated cortisol can lead to acne, fatigue, higher blood pressure, and weight gain. It can also affect sleep quality and lead to increased appetite. We’ll talk about weight regain in a little bit, but increased cortisol and lack of sleep can be big contributors.

Drawback #2 Nutrient Deficiency

No matter how you look at it, the master cleanse diet does not contain anywhere near enough nutrients to be described as healthy. The diet contains zero protein, something that Burroughs dismissed by claiming that protein was unnecessary! He was 100% incorrect in this belief. In fact, you should be looking to increase protein while in a calorie deficit as it can prevent muscle loss.

But protein is not the only issue, there is almost no healthy fats in this diet either. Nor are there enough vitamins or minerals. Even if you take a multivitamin, there is no way it can replace real food sources of these nutrients.

Drawback #3 Electrolyte Imbalances

Many very-low-calorie diets can lead to dehydration and a loss of potassium. This can cause electrolyte imbalances which can lead to heart health [7].

Drawback #4 Death

If this sounds a bit melodramatic, please re-read the earlier section where a terminal cancer patient died within three weeks of starting the Master Cleanse diet. While this is was clearly a special case, it does drive home the fact that if you have a pre-existing medical condition the master cleanse will 1) not improve your health in any way 2) potentially worsen your conditions.

Increased blood pressure, electrolyte imbalances, lack of protein, malnutrition, the list of issues goes on and on.

Drawback #5 Weight Regain

One of the biggest problems for any diet is the fact that most people who lose weight through dieting will put the weight back on again within the next few years. One of the causes of weight regain is the disruption of hormones that affect your appetite.

There are many theories as to why this happens, in animals (and humans) being underweight can affect reproduction, men who diet for too long can see drops in testosterone, while women can see drops in estrogen and may even see disruption to their menstrual cycle.

The idea is that the body will increase your appetite by increasing production of the hormone ghrelin (which promotes appetite) so that you eat more calories. Ghrelin can also be increased by bad sleep (mentioned earlier as high cortisol can cause bad sleep). Leptin levels may also be affected, this is the hormone that makes you feel full after a meal.

Short term, fasting can have a positive effect on hormones, but the master cleanse is long enough to cause some damage. This can lead to increased appetite, increased calorie intake, and therefore weight gain.

Another cause of weight regain is a damaged metabolism, this can be caused by long-term calorie restriction. It is unlikely to be caused by ten days of fasting, but the longer versions could absolutely lead to a reduced metabolic rate.

One of the big issues is the lack of protein, fasting without protein will lead to a loss of muscle as well as body fat. Less muscle means a lowered metabolism, which can lead to weight gain in the future.

Drawback #6 Eating Disorders

Not everyone who completes a master cleanse will have an eating disorder, nor does everyone with an eating disorder use master cleanses. But there is definitely a cross-over. Many eating disorders involve periods of extreme calorie restriction, as well as the use of laxatives to lose weight.

It’s not that the master cleanse will create an eating disorder, it’s more that it can be used to disguise one. To the casual observer there is very little difference between someone with an eating disorder and someone who is eating nothing for ten days and taking laxatives.

If you are going to follow this master cleanse (and if you’ve read all of this and still fancy it then there’s nothing more we can say) then please first identify your motivations behind it. Body dysmorphia is a serious issue, and it can cloud your judgement. Both men and women can suffer from it and diets like the master cleanse thrive on your insecurities.

Conclusion

By now you can probably see that our opinion of the master cleanse is not a particularly high one. This is a reckless, badly thought out diet that will cause more harm than good. There is nothing special about the ingredients used, and you’d be better off eating a chocolate bar and drinking water every day for all the good it would do you.

The master cleanse is entirely focused on the short-term. You will see fast weight loss as the cleanse removes all of the water from your body, you will be hungry, stressed, miserable. Your hormones will be affected, your sleep pattern will be disrupted, your breath will be bad, and you won’t be a particularly pleasant person to be around after eight days of lemon water.

The diet was created by an uneducated charlatan who was rightly charged with practicing medicine without a license - make of that what you will.

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