My experience with Dr. Junger’s Clean Program.
I should probably start by saying that I haven’t ever been on any kind of diet before. I was fortunate enough to have parents that were incredibly conscious of the food they served themselves and their children, and my mother’s work in sustainable entrepreneurship made her (and, by extension, me) all too aware of the chemicals and pesticides that lurk in processed and/or junk food. I grew up eating well, and carried these habits with me throughout college and into my late twenties (aka today). Furthermore, I have been living in France for almost 6 years (wow that feels like a long time all of a sudden…) where fresh bread, cheese, fruits and vegetables are all easily accessible and affordable. So, I have been lucky.
I also love food far too much to even think about imposing limits and restrictions. Why try to fix what isn’t – or doesn’t seem to be – broken? My relationship with food was strong and healthy.
Nonetheless, somewhere along the way I also became an adult – I think that is what they call 27-year-olds with full time jobs and stuff nowadays – and with adulthood came bills and budgeting and choosing my own groceries. Always thrifty, my technique was to go for the least expensive option for whatever it was I needed. Fruits, veg, kitchen staples (milk, eggs, pasta etc.) – unless I had a convincing reason to do otherwise, I just bought the store brand at the supermarket. I did my best to stay away from the worst of the processed foods by avoiding the frozen pizza/snacks section, and buying separate ingredients to cook rather than pre-made meals. This was all well and good – I felt victorious at checkout every time, congratulating myself as I looked at my full shopping cart and the comparatively small total on the receipt. I was working, doing my own groceries, paying my own bills, cooking in the evenings…look at me go! Successful adulting FTW.
Then I got a new job. I now work in a completely different industry that demands a different skill set while working in an unfamiliar atmosphere…a perfect recipe for fatigue and stress. Additionally, instead of having a 35-minute commute, I now have a 1h commute. The combination of the above factors meant that since December, I hadn’t been cooking. I’d been eating more cheap pasta, less salads. I got to know the frozen pizza section at the supermarket. I started drinking coffee at least twice a day – in the morning and after lunch – and was still exhausted in the evening, far too exhausted to cook. I started buying more snack food, more candy, more of anything that was easy to prepare and tasted good without paying any attention whatsoever to what exactly it was that I was putting in my body. I was young and healthy, I told myself, I could take it.
What really tipped the scales though was that I was no longer bringing in food from home to eat at lunch. There was a kitchenette at my previous job, so I would cook in the evenings and make enough so that I had leftovers for the next day. I could store everything in the fridge, and heat it up on the stove or in the microwave. Sometimes I would just buy all the fixins for a salad, buy some bread to go with it and make myself variations of the same salad for a couple days in a row. It was a good deal. At the new job, I work in a building complex with 3,000 other people so there is no kitchenette, there is just the cafeteria, and most people eat there for lunch. It is less expensive than any of the restaurant options within reach (of which there are not many), and the selection is pretty good. Unfortunately, with a wide selection comes temptation…so instead of eating a healthy salads I would find myself with a plate full of red meat, rice and vegetables with a solid dessert and bread and butter on the side.
Needless to say, these alimentary choices started to build up. I started feeling more lethargic generally, despite maintaining my dance/workout routine, and just felt tired all the time. I felt changes not only in my body, but also in my mind – I felt mentally heavy, and more inclined to be negative. I realized that I was frequently depending on food to make me happy, and that my previously healthy relationship with food was beginning to deteriorate.
This brings us to late April. I was talking to a good friend of mine, another American living in Paris, who told me about the Clean Program. She does the 21-day detox every year in March, and swears by its positive effects. She told me that it was pretty dramatic, but temporary, and that I would feel much better afterwards – like a reset for the body. Most importantly, the point was not to lose weight – although weight loss might be a side effect – the point was simply to eliminate toxins that accumulate in the body, and to eat cleanly. According to the book – Clean: The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body’s Natural Ability to Heal Itself by Alejandro Junger, M.D. – benefits of the Clean Program include: having more energy, clarity of mind, cleaner/healthier skin, ameliorating or completely eliminating allergies and intestinal issues, better sleep, improved mood, developing a healthy relationship to eating/snacking, and less (if not no) cravings for junk food and highly caffeinated drinks following the program. Although personally I had never heard of the program before (again, not really a diet person), apparently it is a pretty big deal. The book has been translated into at least 13 languages, and following the program has changed lives – incrementally and dramatically – all over the world.
I thought, why not? I needed a change, and was feeling guilty about what I’d been eating.
I started my Clean Program on Friday, March 4th. Today – Thursday March 24th – is my last day on the Clean Program.
So what is the Clean Program? For me: lots of suffering and frustration.
Let me explain.
In the Clean Program, there is a long list of things that you are NOT allowed to eat/drink for various reasons, including (but not limited to) pesticide/chemical content, allergens, and digestive difficulty.
Things that are off-limits: oranges, orange juice, grapefruit, bananas, strawberries, grapes, corn, creamed vegetables, nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes), dairy and eggs: including milk, cheese, cottage cheese, cream, yogurt, butter, ice cream, non-dairy creamers, ghee, white rice, wheat, corn, barley, spelt, kamut, rye, triticale, oats (even gluten free), pork, beef, veal, sausage, cold cuts, canned meats, frankfurters (hot dogs), shellfish, any raw meats and fish, soybean products (soy sauce, soybean oil in processed foods), peanuts and peanut butter, butter, margarine, shortening, processed oils, canola oil, salad dressings, mayonnaise, spreads, alcohol, coffee, caffeinated beverages, soda, pop, soft drinks, fruit juice (unless fresh pressed), refined sugar, white/brown sugars, maple syrup, high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, Splenda®, Equal®, Sweet’N Low®, juice concentrate, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, honey, regular chocolate (with dairy and sugar), ketchup, relish, chutney, traditional soy sauce, barbecue sauce, teriyaki, breath mints.
TL;DR – Nothing with dairy, eggs, sugar, red meat, coffee, alcohol or wheat (aka flour). Nothing involving corn, tomatoes or potatoes.
Everything that I previously held dear in this world was now off-limits. Bread? No. Cheese? Nope. Any kind of dessert (other than fruit)? Not for 21 days. But its ok, I told myself, its only 21 days! That is a finite period of time, and I am strong enough to do this.
So, what can I eat?
Things that are allowed: unsweetened fresh or frozen whole fruits, fresh squeezed fruit juices, seaweeds, avocados, olives, and raw, steamed, sauteed, juiced, or roasted vegetables, hemp, rice, and nut milks (such as almond, hazelnut, walnut, etc.) and coconut milk, coconut oil/butter, brown, red, black and wild rice, millet, amaranth, teff, tapioca, buckwheat, quinoa, fresh or water-packed cold-water fish (trout, salmon, halibut, tuna, mackerel, sardines, pike, kippers), wild game (rabbit, pheasant, bison, venison, elk, etc.), lamb, duck, organic chicken and turkey, split peas, lentils, legumes, bee pollen, spirulina, blue-green algae, sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds, walnuts, cashews, macadamia, pistachios, brazil, nut and seed butters such as almond or tahini, cold-pressed olive, flax, safflower, sesame, almond, sunflower, walnut, pumpkin, and coconut oils, filtered water, green, white or herbal tea, seltzer or mineral water, yerba mate, coconut water, green juice, stevia, coconut nectar, yacon, whole/fresh fruit, dried fruit (in moderation).
I won’t lie to y’all, there are a fair amount of items on the “allowed” list that I have never heard of, and haven’t even looked into. I have been sticking to poultry, organic fruits and vegetables, quinoa, wild rice, nuts, and all things coconut.
My general food schedule has been as follows: hot water with lemon and a berry/mango/coconut (or almond) milk smoothie in the morning, grilled chicken and whatever (allowed) vegetables the cafeteria proposes at lunch, and vegetable soup with quinoa/wild rice for dinner. I snack on apples and nuts: walnuts, almonds, and cashews. And that is just about it. No coffee, no alcohol, no dessert, no bread, no cheese…nothing at all that previously made me feel better/happy.
21 days may not seem like very long in the context of a lifetime, but when you break that down into meals and snacktime (snacktime is important)…it becomes 63 meals and 15 afternoon snacks. Adding in at least 4 times going out for drinks, this makes 82 times where you have to bravely look at all the things you cannot eat, and choose the Clean Program option. 82 epic battles of willpower, 82 times where you are not allowed to give in to your cravings, 82 times of having to explain, at least internally if not to other people, why you are doing this to yourself. Add in any kind of stress or unhappiness and the difficulty levels up significantly. Let me tell you, it has been a long haul.
So, other than having to fight through all of these battles, what have I actually gotten out of the Clean Program? Well, the little sugar-dairy-wheat-deprived voice in my head is yelling “nothing but anger and sadness!!” but I need to tell her to have a seat because it is logical voice’s time to talk. Here is my compiled list of Things I Learned:
- I don’t actually need coffee. At all. Coffee was absolutely the easiest thing to give up, and I was shocked. From 2 coffees per day to none at all with no problem. I do like drinking something warm in the morning, but water with fresh lemon juice more than satisfies this need, and does far more good to my body than coffee ever did. I did feel like I had more energy and a clearer mind; I don’t think I’ll go back to regularly drinking coffee. This will be good for my body and my budget!
- Buying organic DOES make a difference, and not just in how you pat yourself on the back about your purchasing choices. After buying all organic fruits and vegetables for 3 weeks, I feel like I have rediscovered what mushrooms, squash, carrots, mangoes, apples, berries, etc. actually taste and smell like. I also bought organic eggs, which of course I haven’t been able to try, but my boyfriend assures me that they are far superior to the “regular” eggs we had been buying in the past. I also had always assumed that organic foods were super expensive compared to “regular” foods, and have learned that this is not the case. Yes, some foods are a lot more expensive, and organic food generally is slightly more expensive than the alternatives, but not enough to break the bank. I will keep buying organic as much as I can.
- Avoiding alcohol has been really interesting. I wasn’t consciously aware of how much alcohol contributes to social ties, but oh man, does it ever. For 3 weeks I had to explain to friends who invited me out for drinks why I would only drink water, and had to face their flabbergasted reactions. I got a small taste of what its like for people who never or rarely drink alcohol (for religious or other reasons), and I have to say, I salute you. I also went dancing without drinking at all for the first time in…I don’t know how long…and it was actually much more enjoyable. Unsurprisingly, I had more energy, more coordination, and far more awareness of my own and others’ behavior. That being said, I fully intend to re-partake in alcoholic indulgences, but perhaps a bit less than before.
- The Clean Program made me acutely, painfully, constantly aware of the emotional importance of food. I’m not even talking about processed/junk food, although I do miss candy and potato chips. I’m talking about basic foods that are generally healthy – bread, cheese, pasta…I missed these with an unexpected passion. I also very much missed dessert. I have a sweet tooth and am proud of it – I love chocolate, ice cream, and above all, French pastries. I mean, why do you think I live here??? The emotional importance of the foods I love hit especially hard because for 7 of the last 21 days I oscillated between low-key and high-alert panic due to a problem with my visa (the document that allows me, an American, to live and work in France). I wanted to eat foods that make me happy SO. BADLY. but I had to resist. The important lesson that I learned here was not to depend on food to help me, but instead to depend on myself and the people who love me. Even when I’m not up to the task of making myself feel better, the people who love me always are, and their support is much healthier than eating pastries.
- I had the willpower and mental fortitude to complete the program, in large part due to social support. Beyond detoxing my body and mind, I also saw the program as a challenge. When I am faced with any kind of challenge, the perverse stubborn competitor in me has no choice but to declare CHALLENGE ACCEPTED and charge forward. Despite the charge, I honestly wasn’t sure that I could do it. I told myself that I would see how it goes after the first week, and decide whether or not to continue. Honestly, after the first week – much like after the first 10-15 minutes of running after not working out for a while – I was ready to quit. It was HARD. I was unhappy. But my social network saved me in an incredibly frustrating way: because the program changed so many of my alimentary habits, people around me were asking questions. I had to explain what I was doing, and why, and by the end of the first week so many people knew that I was doing the program that just the idea of having to tell all of them that I quit made me keep on keepin’ on. I was pretty bitter about this at the time, but grateful in the end. I stuck with it, for myself and with the help of lovely people around me whom I refused to disappoint. This was no small victory, and I am proud of myself.
I think that these lessons alone were probably worth the frustration of the 21 day detox (you hush, sugar-dairy-wheat-deprived voice). I feel generally healthier, I have more energy and less headaches. I feel better about my food choices, and my relationship with food. I discovered what I was missing by not buying organic, and learned that I didn’t miss coffee and alcohol as much as I expected. I was strong enough to stick to it, and even though it wasn’t one of my goals in starting the program, I also think I lost some weight.
At the end of the day (or rather, at the end of 21 long, sugar-dairy-wheat-deprived days), and despite the frustration and suffering, I would absolutely recommend the program.
It really forces you to make conscious, informed choices about what you eat, instead of moving through the supermarket and just buying things that look good and/or fit into your budget. I will no longer choose the least expensive, store-brand option – my money is important to me, but my health and mental well-being is far, far, far more important. I was firmly reminded of the old adage “you are what you eat,” and I want to be better.
The Clean Program is actually more than just dietary restrictions – the book also talks about meditation and mindfulness, cleaning your mind just as you clean your body. Since this was my first time, and I have never really gotten into meditation (that’s a story for another article), I didn’t delve too deeply into this part of the detox but I imagine that if I had, these 3 weeks could have been even more transformative.
Perhaps I’ll try the meditation part next time. If there is a next time. The jury is still out about that.
One thing is certain though: tomorrow, I fully intend to