About two weeks ago, I finished the Whole30 eating program, a restrictive diet meant to reset your eating habits and change your life by getting rid of unhealthy food cravings. I'm pleased to report that my eating habits are still better than they were before I started Whole30, but is my life changed? No. There are still food struggles.
Of course, I didn't believe the diet was going to change my life because I know that any super restrictive diet isn't sustainable for long periods of a time. So when I started looking at the 30-day Taco Cleanse out of curiosity and its promise to "change your life," I didn't run out and stock up on tortillas.
The Taco Cleanse claims to be the last diet you'll ever need because you'll never be hungry and you'll always be satisfied. The rules of the cleanse are simple: eat all your meals in a taco shell. The diet encourages eating vegan. All the recipes in the Taco Cleanse book are vegan, but you don't have to eat vegan on the diet.
The other thing you should know about the Taco Cleanse is that it's not really a diet or a cleanse. It's making fun of diets, as one of the book's authors commented on the book's website:
The book itself is not really a cleanse. It’s satire making fun of fad diets like Master Cleanse. We very much hate harmful weight loss diets and their effect on our mental and physical health.
It may be intended as satire, but people are embracing this supposed life-changing eating plan.
What is a cleanse?
Usually when I think of a cleanse, I think of juice cleanses that are designed to rid your body of toxins. I realized I didn't really know what a cleanse is, so I asked someone more knowledgeable: Aimee Monaghan Curley, RN, MS, a nutrition and wellness nurse educator.
Curley is not a fan of cleanses, saying they "scream gimmick" and tend to be misleading. She also told me that the term "cleanse" is a catch-all, and there is no real definition.
"Cleanses typically are touted as a way to clean out the digestive tract — as opposed to their buzzword cousin, "detox," which is typically saved for diets that will rid the body of toxins," said Curley. But, she says, there's not a magic food formula that can top what our bodies can already do.
"Our bodies, namely the lungs, liver and kidneys, already do a fantastic job of ridding themselves of harmful substances and things we don't need. For the vast majority of folks, I would put my money on the intricacies of a well-functioning liver over the power of lemon water, maple syrup and cayenne pepper (components of the famous Master Cleanse) any day. Our bodies are amazing filters and rebuilders and compensators. The liver alone is responsible for more than 500 specific actions that keep our body in homeostasis," she said.
Does the Taco Cleanse have any merit?
Keeping in mind the Taco Cleanse is satire and meant to point out how diets can harm us, I asked Curley how this diet might work in the long run since some people are choosing to follow the eating plan.
"Oddly enough," she said, "I do see some positives from this approach. First, it can certainly help with being smart about serving size. It's not the 'over-stuffed burrito cleanse,' it's the 'Taco Cleanse.' There's only so much one can get inside a taco, right?"
Of course, if that taco is stuffed with fatty meats, sprinkled with tons of cheese and smothered in sour cream — like a taco from a fast-food restaurant that's likely also loaded with sodium — it's not the best choice. But, if a taco shell is filled with veggies, it's not such a bad choice.
"I've been studying nutrition for over 25 years, and it is certainly not a static science. Recommendations and trends change all the time. We have gone from the low-fat days to putting butter in our coffee. It can be mind-boggling. But very few things have withstood the test of time like vegetables," she said.
Her ideal taco would include an array of vegetables with a good mix of antioxidant-loaded leafy greens, vitamin-rich red peppers and some good mono-unsaturated fat with the addition of avocado.
"The more vegetables, the better," said Curley. "Then add a lean protein like skinless chicken, lean ground turkey, flank steak, shrimp or eggs scrambled with smoked salmon." For vegans, she suggests proteins like black beans, tofu, lentils and seeds.
Sustainability is the key
So it seems like the Taco Cleanse is not harmful if the tortillas are filled with nutritious foods, but like all restrictive diets, it's not going to be sustainable. In fact, the idea of a cleanse goes against the idea of sustainability, according to Curley.
"Cleanses may indeed make some people feel better and will certainly help them to lose weight if the calories drop, but these results are typically just temporary. A better approach to cleanse or detox your system is to make better food choices consistently. Eat your veggies, limit fast food, choose lean proteins, skip the added sugar, and yes, every now and then, treat yourself," Curley advised.
I think most of us would agree that this advice is what works in the long term. So now I'm wondering, why don't we (myself included) just follow this advice? Why do we choose temporary eating plans like Whole30 or the Taco Cleanse? Do we think, somewhere deep inside us, and against our better judgment: "Maybe this is the one that really will change my life?"