Cleansing vs. Building: Can Detox Go Too Far?

Rub-a-dub dub, raw food in a tub.

Pop quiz time.

Say we’ve got a 2-year raw foodist—we’ll call her Betty Lou. Lately, Betty Lou hasn’t been feeling like her usual vivacious self. She’s always tired and fatigued, and even when she musters up the energy to exercise, she can’t seem to build or keep her muscle tone. Her husband Billy Bob keeps pointing out the dark crescent-moon circles under her eyes and complaining that she’s too bony to cuddle with. Poor Betty Lou! She decides she must be going through a deeper phase of detox, and decides to speed up the process by going on a two-week water fast.

What’s wrong with this scenario?

If you answered “over-cleansing,” you’re spot on the money.

The problem is a common one in the raw food world. We’re all trained to focus on purity, on blasting all those nasty little toxins out of our cells so we can be squeaky clean and healthy. And it’s an understandable mentality. In Westernized nations, most people suffer from diseases of excess—high blood pressure from too much sodium, obesity from too much McDonalds, diabetes from too much fat and sugar, osteoporosis from too much phosphorus, liver damage from too much alcohol, congestion from too much dairy—the list goes on. And on. We’re a society of sick, overfed couch slugs, padding the pockets of Big Pharma while lolling slothfully towards our graves… all because of the “excess” we cram down our throats.

Then along comes raw food, with its stunning ability to leave us cleaner than a rubber duckie’s armpit. (Nice image there, huh?) Because most of us started out with a lifestyle of “too much,” we immediately blame any health woes on being toxic—on having residual internal grime from our previous ways of living. That’s why we’ve got a smorgasbord of liver cleanses, colon cleanses, kidney cleanses, gallbladder cleanses, parasite cleanses, colonics, enemas, and water fasts at our beck and call. Indeed, cleanses and fasts are nearly as common in the raw food community as raw food itself.

Fasting, in particular, can be helpful in times of chronic disease or when the body needs a reset from a toxic lifestyle. But there comes a point where—as with the Standard American Diet of Unscrupulous Excess—the “health balance” tips too far in one direction. Just as you can be burdened with the strain of harmful substances and artery-clogging foods, you can be whittled away by too much cleaning.

And this is what more and more raw foodists are experiencing. You wouldn’t expect a carpenter to build a house without having any materials or tools, and you can’t expect your body to stay strong and sturdy if you’re constantly depleting it with fasts, cleanses, and other detox strategies. Unless you were really swimming in toxins before going raw, the niggling health problems that crop up after a year or more of eating an uncooked cuisine (sometimes earlier) are more likely due to deficiency than excess.

If you want to stay healthy, it’s imperative to know when you need to clean up, and when your body actually needs a better foundation to rebuild itself.

Is it time to keep cleanin’? The answer is probably “yes” if you are:

• only on your first few days or weeks of eating a raw food diet
• experiencing frequent mucus and phlegm
• having periods of feeling awesome, interspersed with heavy-duty detox episodes (headaches, the sudden desire to sleep for two days straight, wild cravings for junk food, flu-like symptoms)
• randomly smelling or tasting foods or medicine you consumed during childhood
• observing a resurfacing of symptoms you had much earlier in life (such as sudden, inexplicable pain in that toe you broke 17 years ago)
• experiencing acne outbreaks*

*disclaimer: specific raw foods, such as nuts, can sometimes trigger acne—in which case getting “cleaner” might not always be the answer here.

Is it time to rebuild? The answer is probably “yes” if you are:

• losing too much weight
• experiencing hair loss, excessive skin dryness, or soft/brittle nails
• noticing a loss of muscle tone
• feeling physically weak or lethargic on a consistent basis
• experiencing “loose”-feeling teeth, or noticing that your teeth are chipping or becoming weaker despite avoiding acidic foods
• exhibiting dark circles under your eyes that just won’t go away
• having legitimate cravings for protein (such as unseasoned meat, eggs, fish, or even a hunk o’ tofu)
• not digesting any of your food well
• having to sleep excessive amounts each night, every night—even on days you weren’t very physically active
• in women, ceasing ovulation and menstruation* (men, it’s okay if yours stops)
• feeling constantly hungry, but find that no raw vegan food you eat is deeply satisfying

*some women ovulate without menstruating, but many raw women who cease menstruating do so from hormonal imbalance, excessively low body fat, or deficiency. Tests are available to see whether you’re still ovulating (they may be more reliable than temperature-measuring methods).

If you’re not feeling like a jubilant, high-energy raw creature, take a look at which symptoms describe you better. If you’re nodding your head at the first list, you might need to do a bit more housecleaning before you’re on top of your game again. But if the second list resonates with you more, nix the fasts and cleanses STAT: your body is probably running on low reserves, and trying to scrub away more toxins will not only be futile, but could also be damaging to your health.

How exactly do you rebuild?

• Make sure you’re eating enough food in general. It’s woefully easy to under-eat on a raw diet, and this will probably be the case if you’ve been steadily losing weight/muscle mass—which is the first thing your body sacrifices when it senses a calorie deficit.
• Get adequate vitamins and minerals. Load up on leafy greens, seaweeds, and deeply-colored fruits and vegetables. Consider supplementing the hardest-to-get-on-raw nutrients: vitamin B-12, vitamin D, and zinc. It may help to get a blood test done to see if any specific nutrient could use temporary supplementation.
• Focus on higher-protein raw foods; avoid very-low protein fruits, sweeteners like agave, and oils (which will drag down the total percent of protein you eat). See my earlier posts on the Great Protein Debate Part 1 and Part 2 for more tips and info.
• Consume green smoothies or green juices to better assimilate the nutrients in greens.
• Allow yourself plenty of sleep and rest.
• Consider adding small amounts of energy-dense “taboo” foods into your diet, like raw (or very lightly cooked) animal products or cooked tubers and legumes. These foods don’t necessarily have to be permanent additions to your menu, but they can be deeply helpful for rebuilding when you’re depleted.
• If you’re avoiding certain raw foods for ideological reasons—like eschewing sweet fruits because you’ve heard the sugar is bad for you, eating no overt fats, avoiding sprouts, etc.—consider experimenting with these foods to see if you’re avoiding them for legitimate reasons. A diet with a wider range of foods and plant species will be more rebuilding than a highly restricted cuisine.
• And most importantly: avoid fasting, embarking on cleanses, pursuing highly physical activities without fueling yourself properly, or doing anything else that forces your body to draw on its own precious reserves. It’s time to treat yourself well!


  1. I appreciate your style of writing neisy you have a lovely flow and appreciation of the elements that make up your stories.

    You walk that fine line between the heretic and the soothsayer indeed all power to you.

    Your articles are, I find, well researched and are neither judgmental or have callous disregard for elements, of scientific proof for the major tenets that the high priests of the raw food movement are seen to fall and impale themselves on.

    I frequent a couple of forums and follow along with the ebb and flow of the tides of guruistic pontification on the ocean of of information that makes up the ” ultimate species specific diet .”

    I enjoy it immensely when I come across someone such as your self pointing out some inconvenient truths

  2. It is virtually impossible to ovulate without menstruate unless you are pregnant or have something like Asherman’s Syndrome.
    You may have meant to say that it is possible to menstruate without ovulating….which is quite common, especially in older women who are perimenopausal. You, in fact, need good amounts of fat & protein (and a whole stack of nutrients) to have adequate nutrition to enable ovulation and normal menstruation.
    As a side note, doesn’t the need to supplement call into question the validity of any diet? If we can’t get enough nutrients from the diet we follow -such that we need supplements to make up the difference, then it can’t be biologically plausible or healthy in the long run.

    1. “Temporary supplementation” – if you have been over cleansing, temporary measures might have to be taken to ensure your phsyical safety. However, if you have not been depriving yourself, supplements won’t be necessary – that’s my interpretation.

  3. Wau! I mean Woow! This really is a writing that I would love to translate and post for our Bulgarian Raw Food community. This would explain to lots of people why even on 100% raw they feel less happy than we do. I am so happy that since the beginning I am only enjoying being raw food chef and creating tons of own recipes, that I am 100% sure that not only the vegan, but the raw food is my lifestyle ’till the end.

    Thank you very much for the interesting style, approach and information!

  4. have you heard of aajonus? (primal diet)

    sounds like you stumbled on the same conclusions as him, perhaps you read his books.

    amalgams still in your mouth? we can’t ignore swallowing mercury with every bite, or maybe we can.

  5. I’m curious when I see the term detoxing as to what that really means. Could you at some point provide a little more detail as to what toxins are? I’m a little familiar with bacterial endotoxins, polycyclic aromatic compounds like benzopyrene, plant toxins like aflatoxin, and metabolic by-products. However, I never see any discussion of speciifc toxins that are eliminated more efficiently through a change in diet.

  6. you repeat an old myth…. that saturated-color vegetables are full of nutrients.

    You need to pay more attention to how clever agricultural researchers have become in protecting their appointed beneficiaries: commercial farmers. Yep, Ma & Pa Kettle, not just Archer Daniels Midland.

    The agriculturalists have gotten quite expert at breeding cultivars of vegetables which have enhanced fake (ie, cosmetic) shelf lives.

    They have also become all too expert at breeding cultivars which have fake “shelf appeal” to several generations of shoppers who were lectured to select strongly-colored veggies!

    Denise: can you show me a seed catalog which proclaims the harvest-yield as densely packed in nutrients?

  7. @ alan
    at what point in her post did she state to eat strongly coloured veggies? – eating a wider variety of coloured fruits and veggies ensures you are eating a wider variety of foods period.
    If you’re looking for a seed catalogue that is high in nutrients I would recommend looking in your area for a local farmer that uses heritage seeds. Most people don’t realize it but carrots can be purple and white – not always orange!

  8. Hi Denise,

    I’m a big fan. You are doing some great work & I’m looking forward to your book!

    I was wondering if you have any thoughts on juice feasting. I have read many testimonials of people who have used a juice feast to “kick start” a change from SAD to whole food diet with a lot of success. I have been in a high raw vegan / minimal grain zone since February. I’m a professional (cooked) chef, so I taste a good deal of foods with animal products, dairy, white flour, vegetable oils etc. I feel like I haven’t really detoxed much because of work related tasting. I should mention that when I stopped drinking coffee in March, I had a metallic taste in my mouth for a few days.

    My diet varies day to day, but it starts with kale based green juice. I usually follow that with 2 mono fruit meals, or a green smoothy and 1 mono fruit meal. If I’m at work, I’ll follow that with a salad and my last meal for the day is usually cooked vegan food. When I have a day off, I’ll follow the fruit with a mix of raw & cooked vegan food, whatever I’m in the mood for. I’ll also have 1 cup of green tea in the afternoon, a few cups of herbal tea in the evening, and a few glasses of wine per week. Foods I eat regularly include: all greens, beets, radish, celery, cilantro, carrots, bananas, seaweed, avocado, chia seeds, sprouts, legumes (cooked), and home fermented veggies. I eat fish, eggs, and buckwheat or rice noodles about once a week. I eat about a 1/4 cup of nuts or seeds almost everyday. This time of year I’m enjoying cooked winter squash & sweet potato, apples, pears, cauliflower, ginger, parsnips and other root veggies.

    As far as your list of symptoms I should be thinking about, I have some from both lists. I’ll have a few days of feeling great, followed by days where I’m really tired. I have small but frequent acne breakouts. My skin, other than where I’m breaking out, is quite dry (I do live in the desert though). I am digesting food just fine. My only cravings are for my favorite vegan cooked foods like pad thai, chow fun noodles with broccoli, or a black bead burrito. I attribute these cravings, however, to it being cold outside instead of lack of nutrients. I have noticed a loss in muscle tone, but I haven’t had much time to work out since July. And even though over the past 10 months I have really changed my diet for the better and have lost about 5 pounds, I would like to lose 10 more.

    I am planing on quitting my job the end of the year and opening a new restaurant in the spring. The menu will be much more in tune with how I want to eat. I am planning on taking the month of January off before the restaurant gets under way and I thought this could be the perfect time to do a juice feast. I’ll have time for rest, yoga, crafty things around the house, and wont have to worry about being around food all day. My boyfriend is willing to do the feast with me… he is trying to transition away from a SAD diet… so we would be able to support each other.

    I am thinking we would do a 30 day juice feast relying heavily on green juice. Since it will be January, we would mix in a lot of citrus since that is at its peak at that time. I also have access to locally grown organic sprouts. Do you have any thoughts on whether or not this could be too long of a fast / feast?

    I would appreciate any and all comments.

    Keep up the good work!!!

  9. Hey, i need help.. I suffered with stomach burns/acid reflux after meals and at night for about 8 months prior to going 80/10/10/high fruit raw. For it claimed to be the panacea. it’s been 9 months and with in this time frame i did a 7 day juice fast once a month and a 21 day waterfast, I read books such as arnold ehret mucousless diet and the grape cure ( all saying to eliminate, dairy, meat, protein, to heal diseases ), I have been working with dr.morse nd’s programme taking herbs and high fruit, i have fasted myself down to a skeleton, My stomach symptoms have increased dramatically, to the point where life is unbearable, It’s a constant roar of fire in my stomach. People are saying it’s detox, arnold ehrets book says that those with a toxic stomach should go very slow and transition or the patient will suffer. I am male, 24 years old, 6 ft, and fell down to 120 pounds, My teeth have become transparent, hands, feet and legs are cold and my bones hurt in my legs. I have come across many articles saying that green juices are very toxic, they are full of vitamins and minerals but also full of plant toxins and can overload the liver and body, almost no better than taking lots of pharmaceuticals. I am so f’up, although i was sick prior to going raw, i feel like this whole thing has f’up my health way more than if i just continued on my old diet. The naturopath at dr.m’s clinic has told me that i need to stay high fruit to come out the other side, My digestion is so impaired and i am really weak. I am so afraid of eating animal products, protein,fat and green juices, I need some guidance so bad, I feel like i could benefit from fish, but all i think about is parasites, stomach cancer etc.. 😦 i need some wisdom!

    1. Hey Daniel! “……but all i think about is parasites, stomach cancer etc.. ”
      This might be exactly the problem. It is all in your brain, you need to have faith and positive outlook first of all. Freight is a consuming emotion, it is eating you from the inside. Don’t be afraid. Go to the doctor, see what’s exactly happening with your stomach, looks like your stomach valve doesn’t close properly. Research that too, and be sure everything will be alright.

  10. I have been 100% raw for the past 2 and a half weeks and I just am feelings very depressed about it, as if it isn’t working. I am trying to fight my acne and its just getting worse! I havent been eating any overt fats for the past 3 weeks so it can’t be fat, im just wondering when I will see improvement in my skin….

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