The First (Unexpected) Lesson from the Liquid Cleanse

A day and a half into my experiment with an all-liquid, water and green-vegetable juice cleanse, I’ve already learned something huge.

It has nothing to do with alkalinity or raw food or how all I want to do right now is eat something (solid, for the love of god).

It’s just this: Real food is so damn comforting.  Far more than physical hunger, not being able to eat is leaving me with a feeling of—wait for it—sadness.

Food as a Crutch

Before I started this cleanse, I was listening to a recording of a live Tony Robbins seminar where he said something resembling the following (I’m paraphrasing here).

A few days into the cleanse, you’ll think about food and realize that you’re not really hungry for it.  You’re used to eating all the time as a way of dealing with stress, and when you can’t do that anymore, you have to face that stress, and you have an opportunity to grow emotionally.

Ok Tony, I thought.  Sure.  Sounds applicable to someone with a weight problem who uses food as a crutch.  But come on dude, I run all the time.  If I don’t always eat mindfully, it’s because I think of food as fuel.  But it has nothing to do with emotions for me.

Apparently, I also give myself too much credit.

Until yesterday, I didn’t realize that when I finish an hour of work and take a break, the first place I head is to the kitchen.  When the day is wearing on and I’m stressed and thinking about the reprieve when it’s all done, cooking and sitting down to dinner is what signals that reprieve.  And when I think about how nice it’ll be to sit down and watch a rerun of The Office later, that thought revolves partially around eating a snack or drinking a beer while I relax.

This is all stuff I didn’t notice until yesterday, when the food part was no more.  When the food is taken away from all these situations, so is the deep, wonderful comfort that I associate with the routines.  And what’s left is an emptiness like I had never imagined.

Even though I hate to admit it, I could have told you this about coffee, and about that drink at the end of the night that I probably enjoy a little too often.  Much as I’d like to say it’s the taste, I kn0w that it’s the distraction.

But I’d have never said this about healthy, nourishing food.

Yet now I can say without a doubt that I use food to relieve stress and (temporarily) deal with problems.  And I am the absolute last person I would have ever suspected of that.

How’s it Going, Otherwise?

It’s okay.  (My pee is turning the test strips a darker color than it did at the beginning, so I’ve got that going for me!)

Yesterday was fine, minus the aforementioned general suckiness of life without real food.  No major hunger pangs, as the pureed soup made from avocados and other vegetables does a decent job of filling me up.

Today, the headaches started.  So did the fatigue.

They say it gets better after this part.  I don’t know if I’ll make it there.

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Comments

  1. I’ve been noticing I use certain foods for comfort at specific times, too(as noted by the jars of peanut butter and oodles of chocolate that go “missing” at nights). And while I don’t love that that’s the case, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a bad thing, either. I mean, so long as it’s not at an extreme, I feel like it’s more-or-less a human thing to do. That’s probably why there’s a book franchise called “chicken soup for the soul”.

  2. Michele says:

    I feel the same sense of loss and sadness when I deviate from my sleep/exercise patterns. I always knew I was stress eater, but when I had to give up workout time and sleep time to finish school the melancholy REALLY hit. I think our human bodies have emotional attachment to all of our routines (I also can’t fall asleep at night if I’ve neglected to brush my teeth before bed).

    • Michele, I agree that our emotions are directly connected to how much exercise we get. For me, not having exercise has never felt like this though. I suppose that’s the difference between me and someone who says they can get “addicted” to exercise. I’d say I enjoy exercising, but it’s never been something I feel like I need, emotionally at least.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I did a liquid cleanse a few years ago, and it was supposed to last 10 days, but I only made it 6. Part of the problem was that the hunger never really went away (and I was jealous of all the folks who assured me it did after 3 or 4 days!) and the other part of the problem was that I thought about food ALL of the time. It really didn’t seem healthy–or helpful–to be so focused on the idea of food or eating every waking hour. And I can’t really buy that as a sign of food being an emotional crutch. I really think that our bodies are meant to have food–solid, delicious, wonderful foooood–and when we don’t give them that, they signal that something is wrong. (Not that a liquid fast is terribly dangerous if done properly, I’m just saying that it makes sense to feel some sadness & loss when such a big part of our socializing & physical function is removed.)

    • Elizabeth, you might be right in saying that crutch isn’t really the right word. Really, food is more an emotional leg! It’s natural; you’re supposed to have it and depend on it. So when it’s gone it’s a very strange feeling. I still think it’s an opportunity to learn though, and one far less permanent than losing a leg.

  4. The reason why I have postponed a cleanse like this is exactly what you are writing here. I’m too afraid!

  5. Your notes on emotional eating, especially from an athlete’s perspective, are really insightful.
    Oh, the headaches…I remember the headaches. I had those all.ten.DAYS. I mean, not to scare you, heh :]

  6. A couple of weeks ago, I forgot to bring my (coffee snob) blend to work and used the “opportunity” to go through caffeine withdrawal for the next few days. I went through something very similar – missing the distraction and wondering how I’d make it through each day. Now that the headaches are over, I’m sleeping much better. Hopefully you will also have a positive outcome to your experiment!

    • Marian, I’ve been through that with coffee. This is the exact same feeling, only it’s more intense when it’s EVERYTHING (except vegetable juice). I just never imagined the feeling would carry over to food. Coffee I knew was an emotional comforter, food I had no idea.

  7. Insightful, indeed.

    I am excited to see how this plays out for you.

  8. I agree completely. The first time I partook in the master cleanse I realized how much I wanted to eat food for only mental reasons/something to do, not because I was hungry. It becomes apparent that eating while watching tv/on the computer/ect. is a huge part of many of our lives.

  9. Hmmmm so interesting. Funny thing is that I already knew I used food as a crutch. The problem is that I’ve never really thought about how to end that. Maybe you will figure that out and enlighten me. In the meantime I hope you get over the fatigue part soon :)

  10. I know this must be tough! I think to get through this you could use your own mantra from the 50 miler (I think it’s yours!) Just remember that this is what you’re here to do. Even if it sucks, just embrace it and learn from it; at the very worst you’ll realize you never want to do it again! But at least you tried right? What are we here for if not to try and experience new things?

  11. So true! I know that sitting down to a nice dinner after a long day is definitely a way for me to relax, recharge, and in a way, reward myself for a hard day’s work. Few things in life give me that kind of release… music and working out being two of them.

    Hang in there!

  12. Yeah, I definitely always notice that I get sad because I can’t share that social time of eating with people. It’s really weird to realize most of your conversations or activities revolve around food but it’s true. You can do this!

    The headaches definitely go away and day three or four you’re going to be incredibly surprised at how amazing and energetic you feel!

  13. Laura M...ski says:

    man, i really can’t imagine doing an all-liquid diet. it’s something i might have to look forward to for tests to figure out more of my health issues (like why my body won’t even let me go NEAR a vegetarian diet), and i dread the mere idea of it. i just like food too damned much, and used it as an emotional crutch for way too long.

  14. Very interesting details about your experiment. I wonder if it’s a matter of taste (pun intended). Do the concoctions you’re making taste good to you? That would be my biggest barrier in trying something like this, along with subscribing to a majority raw diet.

    • Warren, they actually do taste very good. That’s something else important I’ve learned: Previous to this, I made juices but always felt the need to add fruits to sweeten them. This has taught me that vegetable juice alone is pretty good, especially when you use higher-sugar fruits like carrots or beets. I think I’ll continue to drink vegetable-only juice in the mornings.

  15. If nothing else this should give you an insight into why diets in general fail. The poor dieter is just so miserable!

    I think you’re doing a great thing. I did 80 days of juice back in 2008 and would do it again except that I hated MAKING the juice day in and day out. I’d much rather do a few days on smoothies now…

    • Great point Hanlie. I’ve never really done any sort of diet that involves depriving myself of any quantity of food (only types of foods). You’re right; if this is how it is, why they don’t work is entirely clear.

  16. How great that you are giving yourself this opportunity to discover and to, well, “suffer” a bit. Think of your long races, when you get to a point where you couldn’t possibly go further, yet you do and in that process find some points of clarity. Sometimes stripping ourselves down is how we learn more about ourselves and then we can move more conscientiously in all that we do. You’re doing great! As I tweeted to you yesterday, today I will do a one-day juice fast in solidarity. I’m in the middle of a five-day cleanse but had talked myself out of the day long-fast until I read your tweet yesterday. So today, liquids for me in solidarity with you!

    • JL, you are awesome for doing that. I’m new to this whole cleanse thing…what kind of cleanse are you on that isn’t a fast of some sort? What do you eat?

      • Matt, first, how are you feeling??? My confession is that I made it ’til 5pm and when I got home, realized I was on vacation for ten days, I couldn’t resist a glass of wine…and a solid meal followed soon after.

        I’ve done several cleanses and they are all food-based. Basic principles: no coffee/caffeine, no sugar, no wheat, no dairy (no problem for vegans), no alcohol. No processed foods. You eat balanced meals of fruits, veggies, protein and limited (1 -2 a day) but wholesome grains: quinoa, oats, millet, buckwheat, etc. My first cleanse was 14 days following all of those principles. Mid-point I had a day of mostly raw foods leading up to a 3-day fast (master cleanse) For three days I drank nothing but water/lemon/maple syrup/cayenne pepper. Swear, by day three I was flying with energy. Then went back to raw food for a day and another five days of wholesome eating. It was turning point for me and that’s when I transitioned from vegetarian to vegan. No looking back! Now I do a cleanse every 6 – 8 weeks. In May I did a 12 day cleanse and at mid-point incorporated one day of juices only. I tend to cleanse after a big race because I don’t get skinny when I train for a half-marathon. I eat the calories I burn, which is just what I want. So when training is over, I have to “retrain the brain” on how much is enough because if I kept eating the way I was training, the lbs would climb. Usually a wholesome cleanse does the trick. Hope this makes sense!

  17. Very interesting observation. I, too, often eat too much, even if it IS healthier foods. I’m kind of considering doing some kind of “cleanse”, myself… just to get the mind off of FOOD.

    • Sagan, I think that’s a healthy place to approach it from. I don’t know if it will actually get your mind off food as much as remind you of how much it’s on food, but it’ll be an interesting exercise regardless.

  18. I read the title and immediately assumed it had something to do with poop. Shows how my mind works…… I suppose that’s more of an expected side-effect.

    I think it’s great your doing this – and super-great you’re keeping us all in the loop! It’s kinda like a soap opera. I’m dying to know how you’re going to feel through the days – and how you’ll feel about food immediately after.

  19. I tried one of these liquid diets before and I was hungrey all the time. There is something about chewing and solid food that helps me feel full.

  20. Jessica says:

    I totally know where you’re coming from . I tried to do the master cleanse once and wasn’t hungry, but just really wanted to eat. Don’t even think about watching shows with food in them. We watched this anime series, trying to distract ourselves, but there ended up being a kid who loved sweets and there was cake in pretty much every scene. We caved and had pasta and cake =/. But that quote about facing the emotions makes me want to try again.

  21. What is so bad about being comforted by good, healthy, wholesome food? You said it yourself: you are an active athlete who uses food primarily as fuel. Think about it through an evolutionary lens. Hunter-gatherer types were VERY relieved and comforted when they ate a meal, because it meant that they would be able to sustain themselves longer and live. It is perfectly natural to be comforted by the act of eating. As long as you manage what you eat and when to stay within your healthy boundaries, enjoy eating! It is a natural and healthy thing to do.

    • Sarah, that’s a really good point. I had actually thought a little about the evolutionary idea—food’s way of making us feel good serves a purpose—but didn’t have much more to say about it. But you’re absolutely right. Maybe it’s completely normal and healthy to rely on food emotionally.

      Still, that’s not to say one can’t learn about one’s emotions by taking that food away and seeing what happens…

  22. Just by attempting a liquid cleanse is an accomplishment. Don’t get down on yourself if you can’t finish it. When I’ve tried cleansing in the past I missed chewing food.

  23. You can do it Matt! Once you get past the headaches and fatigure, you’re going to feel as light as air. I hope you take full advantage and get some meditation in while you’re in that state. It takes real willpower to get there and if there’s one thing you’ve got it’s willpower. So hang in there! You are truly an inspiration!

  24. Very insightful entry! :) I just finished reading a book on compulsive eating, Feeding The Hungry Heart, and the stories in it are a lot like what you describe. Often, we use food as a distraction from the daily stressors of life. We eat out of habit, we eat when we’re down, we eat when we’re lonely and empty, and want to feel comforted, we eat when we’re upset, or we eat to avoid having to face certain pressing problems. I know that I certianly do all of the above.

    When I decided to quit cycling, I was so stressed out as to how to tell my sponsor I wasn’t gonna cycle anymore and didn’t want the bike anymore, I felt like a failure, and I didn’t know what to do, so I delved into food and focused on eating and getting fat and hating myself for that. Not eating certainly makes you face all the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that food – our choice of drug – usually helps to numb.

    I’m interested to know how you’ll be dealing with the lack of solid food to distract you. :) But hey, as Tony Robbins says, it’s an opportunity for emotional growth! I’ve faith you’ll pull through your liquid cleanse! You’re gonna feel SO GOOD after you’ve detoxed.

  25. Neighbor Greg says:

    Thanks to Matt & Christine for the many recipes that helped me achieve my small “cleanse” by going meatless (for me that means occasional eggs, tuna, shrimp and salmon) for the entire month of June. I wanted to see how easily I could accomplish this since I do enjoy grilling and I am basically a meat and potatoes man. Honestly, it was easier than I thought. I never had the urge to cheat or an actual late-night craving for meat. I do 30 minutes of cardio and lift weights during the week and didn’t notice a dropoff in energy or endurance. However, it’s tough to judge an increase in energy since I haven’t been sleeping well. I did supplement my diet with a few soy and whey protein shakes. I may continue meatless for a few more days or then again, if I see something fresh alongside the road I just might fire up the grill over the holiday weekend.

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