January is the longest month. Especially if you’re not eating sugar. or dairy. or soy. or gluten. or caffeine. or alcohol. Yep. That’s what I said. We spent the first month of the year on a cleanse (commence eye-rolling now). Why did we go and do a thing like that, you might be asking yourself? Well, back in the sugar and cocktail-laden holiday season, a friend gave me a book called, Clean. I skimmed it and thought to myself, “there is no way in hell that I could ever do that“. Like many working parents, my days often start with coffee and end with wine, as was so brilliantly described by Amber Dusick on her blog, Parenting. Illustrated with Crappy Pictures. Would I even be able to get through the caffeine withdrawal? I put the book aside and thoroughly enjoyed the holidays.
By New Year’s Eve, I was feeling bloated and tired and coming around to the idea of cutting out the excess. Then, a completely disturbing event occurred. On our way to visit our dear friends upstate for our annual New Year’s Eve dinner, one of them had a heart attack! A completely sobering experience. Instead of toasting with champagne and tucking into a tasty rib roast, we drove around Brooklyn in near silence waiting to hear about our friend (who survived and is recovering). Turns out, he was cursed with some nasty genes, despite his generally healthy habits, but the experience warmed us up to the idea of seeing if we could drastically change our habits for 21 days. It became a challenge. Game on.
I picked up the book again and did some more research. Turns out, this is the same cleanse that Gwyneth Paltrow touts on her website, GOOP (continue with the eye-rolling) and they suggest you spend upwards of $400 on supplements to take during the program. That was a deal breaker. But the plan itself seemed pretty doable – relying mostly on just eating whole, unprocessed food – so we decided to devise our own “down-market” cleanse. I got some fiber and herbal laxatives (essential) and milk thistle capsules (not sure about these) on sale at Whole Foods and we got down to business. How did it go?
The first week of January (before the actual plan started) we gradually weaned ourselves off of caffeine and sugar, and avoided diary, gluten and alcohol. Nothing says “Party’s Over!” better than a Friday night dinner of rice, beans and water. And that wasn’t even the cleanse, that was just the warm up. I have to hand it to Dr. Junger for suggesting one spend a week kicking the hard habits before heading into 21 days of serious abstention. To get started, you eat your usual three meals a day choosing foods from what he calls The Elimination Diet and it’s not too bad, as it includes a wide variety of food we basically already eat: beans, grains, vegetables – even meat (organic, grass-fed, of course). Frankly, it’s a list of the foods you should be eating most of the time.
After a week of swimming in the kiddie pool, we were ready to dive into the full cleanse and the general routine was this:
Breakfast: A smoothie (see recipe below). Love the smoothies!
Lunch: A full solid meal from the Elimination Diet. This could be rice, beans, and veggies (my usual lunch) or some variation on that theme. I even went out to lunch and ordered a simple grilled fish over broccoli rabe. Not too hard. No sandwiches, though.
Snack: apple & tea (I must admit, I didn’t go completely off the caffeine. I probably drank 3 cups of green tea per day)
Dinner: a liquid meal. There are a number of suggestions, but we basically rotated between butternut squash soup, vegetable broth, or cold cucumber soup.
The idea was to not eat at night for 12 hours to give your system a break from the hard work of digestion. So we would finish our liquid dinner by 7 and not blend up our smoothie until 7 the next morning. With the reduction in calories, heavy exercise was out and it was suggested that we engage in yoga and saunas. Having no easy (by which I mean, free) access to either of those things, we again had to hack the cleanse down market and do our yoga at home. Luckily, Yoga Journal was offering their own 21-day challenge and we woke up every morning to a different yoga video – the benefit of doing such a thing in January when 21-day challenges abound. Each morning, we would wake up, drink a cup of water with lemon and commence with our yoga. We joked that we should get matching jumpsuits -the kind they give you at Spa Castle. We even scored some free passes to the JCC, so we could get use their steamroom.
Once 7 a.m. rolled around, we would power up the blender and make a smoothie that included some combination of fruit, almond or coconut milk, almond butter and usually ginger. Some days they were delicious. Some days they tasted like cement. But they fill you up and get you to work. Once in the office, the hunger would set in and I would start watching the clock. Is it cool to eat lunch at 10:30? But then what will I do at 4:00? It was a little distracting at first, but I got used to it. Lunch was a glorious experience – when you eat only one solid meal per day (as do a fair portion of people in this world, I may add), you grow to appreciate it. You eat more slowly to make it last, but inevitably it’s over and the afternoon lies before you like a long flat road with no scenery. On busy workdays, this isn’t really a problem. Suddenly it’s 4:00 and you are enjoying your apple and tea. So civilized! The weekends, however, were excruciating. I had no idea how much my weekends were punctuated with food.
Dinnertime! The first night, we sat down with our daughters, who – just to clarify – were not on the cleanse, and watched them eat a full chicken dinner with vegetables while we sat with our mugs of vegetable broth. They thought we were weird. My husband and I have a funny kind of symbiotic relationship where I am usually the one to come up with an idea like this and, after the initial scoffing, he takes on the challenge with a vengeance. There was no way he was going to miss even a day of yoga. And there was no deviating from the plan. Luckily for me, he channeled his energies into making the meals we were allowed to have delicious. He tinkered with the book’s butternut squash soup recipe until it was so ambrosial I would eat it any time (recipe soon). Even the vegetable broth was divine. Or maybe I was just really freaking hungry. After the liquid dinner, we followed it up with a big glass of water, some detox tea, and a dessert of herbal laxatives. Yum! The laxatives are essential because for some reason, once you give your system a “break” from digestions, your bowels want to take that same vacation. Or maybe they just missed the coffee.
So that’s how it went, for 21 days straight. And you know what? It wasn’t actually that bad. In fact, we both marveled at how great we felt after the initial week of crankiness. I guess it’s not really rocket science: if you stop eating crap, drinking coffee and alcohol, exercise every day and get enough sleep, you’re going to feel a lot better. And if food was merely nourishment and hunger was only about blood sugar, this would be a pretty logical way to eat. But, of course, it is not. Eating is about a whole lot of other things, which explains why we spent a great deal of time these past few weeks devising a dinner party menu comprised mostly of foods that begin with the letter S and are expressly not on the Elimination Diet (schnitzel, sauerbraten, spaetzle, smoked trout and struedel) which we will be preparing this weekend to eat with friends. Because one thing I can say about a cleanse? It doesn’t do a whole lot for your social life.
So, what’s the takeaway?
- Except for our upcoming Austrian schnitzel-fest, I have gotten pretty used to the smoothie, big lunch, small dinner arc, and could easily eat this way during the week. Weekends are another story. Everything in moderation.
- I prefer coffee to herbal laxatives when it comes to making the trains run on time. Pre-cleanse, I was drinking 3 cups a day -now I’m easing back into one.
- Lemon water is actually a nice way to wake up in the morning. Seriously. And I think we will keep the yoga routine. Maybe even get the matching jumpsuits.
- Sometimes a little soup for dinner is all you need.
- I love smoothies.
The best thing about the cleanse was the feeling of accomplishment for having actually done it. If you had asked me to give up coffee in November, I would have given you the hairy eyeball. Don’t get me wrong, I love coffee, but 3 cups a day was just not doing me right. Plus, there is just no getting around the fact that if you give something up for a while, you appreciate it more. So will we do this again next January? Who knows! But we will probably still be drinking smoothies.
Basic Morning Smoothie
Start with these basic ingredients:
- apple, chopped with skin on
- 1 cup of blueberries
- 1 cup of almond milk or unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon almond butter
- ice (I like my smoothies cold)
Add any of the following:
- 1/4 avocado or banana if you like your smoothies thick
- Any other fruit you have on hand: pears, melon, frozen mango
- 1 cup chopped kale
- 1 tablespoon of chia seeds (soaked for 10 minutes in 1 cup of water)
- 2 tablespoons of flax seeds
- any kind of protein, whey, or probiotic powder (although I warn you this where the cement taste comes in)
- 1 T chopped or grated ginger
Put it all in the blender and blend for longer than you think you will need to. Add more water or milk depending on the consistency you like.
Do you have a smoothie recipe to share? We are always looking to change it up.