The Master Cleanse Diet: What It Is, Benefits & Risks + How To Do It

Contributing writer By Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., B.S.
Contributing writer
Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., B.S., is a freelance journalist and contributing writer for mindbodygreen. She received her Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science from Central Washington University, and her Master's of Education in Counseling from City University of Seattle.
Medical review by Bindiya Gandhi, M.D.
Physician
Dr. Bindiya Gandhi is an American Board Family Medicine–certified physician who completed her family medicine training at Georgia Regents University/Medical College of Georgia.
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The Master Cleanse (aka the lemonade diet), is a modified juice fast popular with celebrities like Beyoncé, Demi Moore, and others looking to cleanse their bodies and lose weight fast. While dropping pounds can be alluring to some, experts support healthier methods for maintaining weight loss and getting fit. 

Still curious about the Master Cleanse? Here's a breakdown of what it is, how to follow it, and what you need to know about the risks.

What is the Master Cleanse?

The Master Cleanse dates back to the 1940s, when Stanley Burroughs, a dietitian, wrote a book called The Master Cleanser. Though the book was published then, it only became mainstream when the revised version was released in 1976. The cleanse then captured the spotlight, with dubious claims of quick weight loss and its ability to detox the body and treat any health ailment.

The central feature of this program is the Master Cleanse lemonade made with water, fresh lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and pure, organic maple syrup. This drink, which is the only calorie-containing item allowed, is consumed six to 12 times a day for 10 days. You'll also sip on a saltwater flush in the morning and laxative tea before bed (laxative teas vary by ingredients, but some include senna leaf, which has the potential to help shed excess water).

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How does it help you lose weight? 

The health claims range from detoxing and cleansing your system of impurities to curing certain health conditions and rapid weight loss, but cleansing your body isn't really necessary. Our bodies have a natural detox process and doing a healthy detox is about supporting that natural process and reducing external stressors.

It's based on fasting principles.

The Master Cleanse is a restrictive diet that eliminates food and key nutrients. Any program that eliminates food is bound to cause some temporary weight loss. Since the Master Cleanse is a modified fast, the weight loss is primarily a result of consuming very few calories over several days. However, this rapid change in weight is not so sustainable, as all the weight lost is essentially water weight (more on that later).

That said, there are some reported benefits to fasting. A 2019 study published in PlosOne, looked at a Buchinger periodic fasting program (a fasting diet of only fruit and vegetable juices, as well as tea and mineral water) with fasting periods between four and 21 days. While this diet is a little different than the Master Cleanse, both programs allow you to reach a fasted state. Researchers found in this study that after the one-year observational period, periodic fasting led to weight loss and improvements in several cardiovascular risk factors in the 1,422 subjects.

Additionally, the use of lemons during fasting protocols has been shown to improve weight loss, due to their vitamin C content. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine states that low levels of vitamin C are associated with increased BMI and central fat distribution. On the other hand, increased vitamin C intake is associated with higher HDL levels (that’s the good cholesterol). The study found that drinking a beverage of lemon water and honey during a four-day fast led to an average weight loss of 4.8 pounds.

Although studies and research about the benefits of various fasting protocols exist, there are no studies to support the specific claims made by the Master Cleanse (and other similar diets) and its ability to remove harmful toxins from the body or improve overall health.

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What are the health risks?

While you may shed a few pounds and feel less bloated after 10 days on the Master Cleanse, there are some health risks you should know about before you decide to take the plunge:

1. It can cause undesirable side effects.

Low calories can cause or exacerbate dizziness, shakiness, lightheadedness, fatigue, and lack of mental clarity, according to dietitian Gabrielle McGrath, M.S., R.D., LDN. Not to mention, you may experience extreme hunger from the lack of sufficient calories.

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2. It could be dangerous for people with certain health conditions. 

"People managing diabetes or those who have blood sugar regulation issues need to be especially careful with fasting-mimicking diets," says McGrath. Also, anyone with anemia, cancer, and other serious medical conditions needs to be very mindful when considering a low-calorie cleanse. Additionally, pregnant women or women that are breastfeeding should avoid the Master Cleanse.

The cleanse can also cause dehydration or electrolyte disturbances, due to the intense calorie restriction, as well as if you’re “purging” toxins without rebalancing them back (after all, optimal health is truly all about balance).

3. It may trigger disordered eating patterns.

Anyone with a history of disordered eating or eating disorders should avoid this diet, says McGrath, especially since low-calorie diets (as well as laxative tea use) increase the risk for relapse. 

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4. It can cause muscle loss. 

For many people, losing weight is just part of the equation. Gaining or preserving lean muscle mass and feeling fit is equally important. Unfortunately, a program like the Master Cleanse, which requires very few calories and causes rapid weight loss, has the potential to work against that goal and, consequently, cause a loss in muscle mass.

5. It's not very sustainable. 

Philadelphia-based weight loss expert Charlie Seltzer, M.D., points out that essentially, all weight lost is water weight. "With severe calorie and carbohydrate restriction, sugar that is stored in the muscle is used for energy, and every molecule of stored sugar binds to three molecules of water, so the scale can drop dramatically in a short period, but that doesn't indicate fat loss," he says.

What he means is, as soon as the cleanse is over and you go back to eating food, the weight has the potential to come right back on.

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How to follow the Master Cleanse. 

Despite the lack of evidence and potential risks, proponents of the diet follow a protocol like the one outlined below. Before starting the Master Cleanse diet (or any other aggressive cleansing program), be sure to discuss your plans with your doctor. 

Here’s how it’s done:

For 10 days, a special drink is consumed--it contains freshly squeezed lemon juice, cayenne pepper, pure maple syrup, and water (full recipe down below!). That's it—no food or other calorie-containing beverages are allowed. 

Each morning a saltwater flush (another recipe to come) is consumed, followed by several glasses of cleansing lemonade throughout the day. In terms of when to drink the cleansing lemonade, it’s up to the individual, as long as they drink six to 12 glasses a day. Then the day is completed with a cup of senna-based herbal tea. 

To prepare the body for 10 days of a liquid-only diet, it’s recommended to ease into the program by eliminating processed food and sugar, alcohol, caffeine, dairy, and meat, for three days. During this time, pureed soups, broths, and fresh fruit and vegetable juices are allowed. After the 10 days are done, it’s best to ease out of the cleanse slowly by periodically adding in solid foods.

Master Cleanse drink recipes. 

Here are the recipes for the specific drinks during the diet. As mentioned, the saltwater flush is consumed in the morning, followed by as many glasses of cleansing lemonade as needed. For both drinks, you simply mix the ingredients together in a glass.

Cleansing lemonade:

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (not lemonade or concentrate) 
  • 2 tablespoons pure organic maple syrup, Grade B (not pancake syrup)
  • A dash of cayenne pepper (about 1/10 teaspoon)
  • 8 to 10 ounces of purified or spring water

Saltwater flush:

  • 1 quart of warm water
  • 2 teaspoons of non-iodized salt

What do the experts say?

So, do the experts recommend the Master Cleanse? While many professionals have their own opinions, the verdict from McGrath and Seltzer is clear: It's best to proceed with caution. 

According to McGrath, the risks outweigh the benefits. "It's not sustainable, it does not help you make a permanent lifestyle change, it can cause muscle loss, and it's not an enjoyable way of eating."

"In regards to detoxification, the body's kidneys and liver are natural detoxifiers, meaning that structured detoxes are not necessary," she continues. Instead, she recommends focusing on eating more fruits and vegetables and drinking more water to maximize your vitamin and mineral content. All of these essential nutrients play an important role in your body's natural detox process.

More specifically, McGrath recommends cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, along with allium veggies like garlic and onions, which contain certain sulfur-based compounds that help activate detoxification enzymes and promote other detox-related functions. 

Seltzer also recommends avoiding this plan, despite the touted weight loss benefits. "You should avoid cleanses, especially for weight loss. This plan doesn't address the issues that get people into trouble in the first place, so they will still be there when the cleanse is over. If you are going to do it anyway, talk to your doctor first to make sure it is not going to be dangerous for you."

If you're trying to lose weight, Seltzer says your best bet is to eat healthier foods and move more. "How you should do it depends on your lifestyle, food preferences, activity level, and other unique factors," he says. For example, some people do well with intermittent fasting, whereas others must eat breakfast to maintain a calorie deficit. The bottom line is this: You would be better off experimenting with what works best for your body. You might lose water weight, but that weight usually comes back on once you start eating “regularly."

The bottom line.

The Master Cleanse is a radical change from a standard diet without clinical proof or evidence that it works. If you're still trying to decide whether the cleanse is right for you, the first step is to talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian. They can help you determine if the benefits of a restrictive diet like this one outweigh the risks.

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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