By Cristina Hanganu-Bresch
This post is part of the series ‘What Should I Eat? Why?’ commissioned in collaboration with H-Net Nutrition by series editors Kristen Ann Ehrenberger and Lisa Haushofer. Posts will appear simultaneously on both sites. Please visit and follow H-Net Nutrition.
In the dissonant hum of competing food advice that I am definitely avoiding, cleansing (or detoxing) is probably at the top of my “don’t” list. Scientific consensus has been fairly categorical that the practice does nothing of the sort (“cleansing,” that is: we have a liver for that). However, cleansing and “detoxing” practices have a long history, as they used to be an integral part of humoral medicine, by another name. Their enduring allure comes from a combination between spiritual traits associated to purity and cleanliness on one hand, and scientific explanations on the other: both humoral medicine and contemporary detox practices make specific claims about the properties of food and the effects of cleansing practices. When we only debunk the non-scientific basis for these practices, no matter how justified and well-documented our arguments, we tend to lose track of the mystical allure of the ideal of purity that underscores them.
In Western medicine, emetics, laxatives, and diuretics have long been commonly used, alongside the other great staple of humoral medicine, bleeding, in an attempt to “discharge toxins.” Roy Porter explains that purging and bloodletting remained popular for so long because of “the old conviction that sickness followed plethora (excess) or the build-up of ‘peccant’ (evil) humours in the system, requiring periodic discharge” (2003, p. 137). Gail Kern Paster, writing about purgation regimens in 16th- and 17th-century London, documents the lengths to which Londoners went to seek such cleansing and links them to a burgeoning capitalism: “willed acts of purgative catharsis by adult men and women in early modern England were a socially visible performance which engaged the body’s internal habitus, both directly and symbolically, as the subject of an emergent practice of early capitalist consumption” (2000, p. 195). The brutality of these remedies was decried by many, famously by Molière, whose Dr. Purgon, with his “enemas and bloodletting,” is thoroughly ridiculed in The Imaginary Invalid (1673). By the 19th century, when such practices were accepted to be both violent and ineffective, quack medicine was ready to take the reins, often using a marketing language evoking the opposite of the harsh chemical cures of mainstream medicine. Perry Davis’s opium elixir, for example, was advertised as “a purely vegetable medicine” and depicted as carried on the angels of wings, and many other quack cures also boasted indigenous or exotic ingredients to make them sound like folk medicine.
Thus, where old paradigms propping up detox regimens withered with time, other supposedly scientific ones arose to justify mutated cleansing practices. The naturalistic fallacy (evident in the ad for Perry Davis’s opium elixir) has ebbed and flowed, mirroring to an extent the fortunes of homeopathy and naturopathy—which are once again held in high esteem in today’s alternative medical landscape. Today, cleansing diets (especially if “natural” and “pure”) pursued for the sake of health are in vogue again. Yesterday’s purgation regimens—which Paster rightly calls, following Foucault, a “technology of the self”—are today’s “cleansing,” “fasting,” and “juicing” trends meant to “reboot,” “reset,” or “hack” the metabolism, and are also, again, linked to conspicuous consumption, status, and fashionable lifestyles. Contemporary “natural” detox diets and cleanses make similar appeals to the deceptive advertising of the “natural” snake oils of late 19th and early 20th century: they respond to the same primal, symbolic need to pit a state of health against a state of chemical corruption and adulteration brought about by modern medical and scientific practices. Current detox fads represent embodied practices meant to tweak the animal body in order to produce a heightened version of one’s self.
In an article written as a reflection to yet another faddist cookbook launch promoted with the buzzword “glow,” Bee Wilson writes that the culture of clean eating has “elements of a post-truth cult” as it popularizes the idea that “a good diet is one founded on absolutes” (e.g., purely vegan, or gluten free, etc.). The main problem she sees is that there is always a kernel of truth in these claims. As a rule, we should eat more fruits and vegetables than processed meats, for example; that kernel, however, is blown up into untenable dogma (e.g., drink almond milk instead of cow’s milk). Wilson also points out that this polarization into dietary absolutes (e.g., processed vs natural or “clean”) makes it much more difficult to think soberly about our current food system’s very real need for reform: in this context, moderation or “normal” food become elusive, charged terms.
I would suggest that the idea of clean eating goes deeper than our current era’s well documented polarization and rampant “post truth” problems. It points to needs that are deeply held, based on assumptions that we should challenge. Let’s take the example of “antioxidants,” which have been shown to be crucial in fighting the free radicals that contribute to aging and disease, although the process is still not completely understood. This nugget of truth allowed marketers to tout foods rich in antioxidants as magical elixirs of health and youth. By now, we should know that they are far from delivering such wondrous results, but that does not seem to chip away at the lure of that spirulina-matcha-açai-berry smoothie. In the uptake from scientific article to dietary practice, “antioxidant” becomes a metaphoric term rather than a scientific one. The properties of the food get transferred to the body and (somewhat magically) ward off disease; never mind that many, if not most diseases, from cancer to schizophrenia, can strike whether a pure, “healthy” diet is maintained or not. (Steve Job’s case is a notorious example: his fastidious diet heavy in organic fruit juices did not stave and in fact it may have accelerated his cancer.) Partaking in health smoothies or detoxing regimens makes us feel virtuous, pure, clean—and also closer to our favorite celebrities, who, as far as I can tell, have without exception followed some sort of cleansing diet at some point in their life. (Oprah explicitly writes that she followed a vegan diet for 21 days “to allow the body to rid itself of toxins.”) Cleanses are a form of magical thinking in which we borrow the healthy/natural/pure/clean attributes of certain foods in hopes of restoring the body and spirit to a pristine, unadulterated state.
That desire, in and by itself, is harder to shed than renouncing or re-envisioning the scientific reasons for and the practical modalities of our cleanses. Here, I ally myself with Alexis Shotwell’s anti-purity screed (Against Purity, 2016). Shotwell rebels against this misguided search for purity in an imperfect, messy, entangled world into which we are always, already born adulterated: “Being against purity means that there is no primordial state we might wish to get back to, no Eden we have desecrated, no pretoxic body we might uncover through enough chia seeds and Kombucha” (loc. 119). The concerns with toxins and impurity leads, more gravely, to purity politics, which leads to hopeless ethical entanglements, given that it is impossible to live in a society without committing some ethical transgression of consumption. (Our cheap clothes are made in sweatshops, our products transported at the expense of the environment, our vegan and/or exotic produce cultivated by an exploited labor force and at the detriment of local populations, etc.) Shotwell believes, quite rightly, that there is no “pure” or unadulterated state that we can recover through any number of virtuous practices. “Detoxing” practices confer status, appear virtuous, and satisfy a deeply held desire for purity; at the same time, they are ineffective or even harmful and most probably unethically produced and deceptively advertised themselves. Detoxing is a myth whose endurance can be best understood from a historical and anthropological perspective; however, we probably cannot break it with scientific arguments alone. We need to critically examine, and hopefully abandon our existential need for purity, and attempt to recover an ethical path to moderation that shows understanding and compassion to ourselves—and the world.
Cristina Hanganu-Bresch is Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of the Sciences (Philadelphia), where she teaches primarily writing and scientific writing in addition to multidisciplinary courses in the history of medicine and animal studies in the General Education program. Her research has focused primarily on medical rhetoric, in particular the rhetoric of psychiatry. She is currently working on a project on the rhetoric of eating right and orthorexia.
Daniel, Kayla T. 2012. iVegetarian: The High Fructose Diet of Steve Jobs. Flirting with fruitarianism and other eating disorders of Steve Jobs. Psychology Today.
Paster, Gail Kern. 2000. Purgation as the Allure of Mastery. Early Modern Medicine and the Technology of the Self. In Cowen Orlin, Lena (ed.) Material London ca. 1600, pp. 193-205. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Porter, Roy. 2003. Flesh in the Age of Reason. London: Penguin Group.
Shotwell, Alexis. 2016. Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Kindle edition.
Wilson, Bee. August 11, 2017. Why We Fell for Clean Eating. The Guardian.