In the year’s very first issue of her online newsletter “goop,” actress Gwyneth Paltrow featured recipes for a cleanse “that won't leave you feeling cold and hungry during the winter months.” The three-day diet was an abridged version of a three-week cleansing regimen created by Dr. Alejandro Junger.
The cardiologist is the bestselling author of two books on his “Clean” program which Paltrow, Demi Moore, fitness trainer Tracy Anderson, and thousands of people have used to rid their bodies of toxins.
“We have an overload of toxins that end up in our bloodstream,” said Junger. “Mostly through the chemicals that we put in our food. We use coloring agents, smelling agents, texturing agents, conserving agents, preserving agents and then even to the cows and chickens, we give them hormones and antibiotics and we feed them in the wrong way.”
Junger’s solution to detoxifying our bodies? Focusing on cleansing the gut by not eating any foods containing gluten, caffeine, alcohol, dairy, processed sugar, even most fruits, for 21 days. Breakfast is a shake with supplements. Lunch and dinner are solid meals.
“This is my experience after years of medical practice,” said Junger. “People come to me and if I tell them to take away one item, let's say, cut off dairy but keep everything else, they find it difficult. But when I take all of these things together, it's easier, even though it doesn't make sense. The reason why is because many of the things that we take are like we're medicating ourselves.
“We take coffee in the morning, so that we pump our adrenals and we can function,” he continued. “And then in the evening, we need to calm down and we drink alcohol. And during the day, when the slumps of energy come, you need sugar or coffee again. So we use uppers and downers without even knowing it, just like drug addicts do with cocaine and then anti-anxiety pills. So we medicate ourselves with food and when you take one out, the whole thing kind of is unstable. But when you take everything out, it's a shock to the system for a couple of days and then it's really good.”
It was Junger’s own experience with health problems including irritable bowel syndrome, severe allergies and depression – and the seven prescription medications to treat them -- that compelled him to find an alternate solution. It began with a drastic lifestyle change from his childhood in Uruguay where his family ate fresh fruits and vegetables to the diet he adopted after he completed medical school and moved to New York City.
“I started eating in the way that Americans eat,” recalled Junger. “Going to the supermarket and being fascinated by the boxes and the jars and the bags and the colors.”
Microwaveable meals and vending machine purchases took their toll. When his medical fellowship ended, he moved to India and lived in an ashram for a year where he learned about integrative medicine.
“Western medicine, at some point, became fascinated with detail,” said Junger. “We divided the body into just parts. And we treat these parts like auto mechanics think of broken cars. And Eastern Medicine looks at the big picture, looks at functions, looks at how everything affects each other, how the different parts interact and harmonize.”
Junger learned that by treating the body as a whole he could restore its natural ability to heal itself. Much of the treatment involved adjusting patients’ diets: “A lot of the things that we did had to do with either taking foods out, adding certain foods, eating more or less, and I saw the incredible results of these things. And I started trying them on myself,” said Junger.
Cleansing programs are not without their critics who say that not only do they not remove toxins but that the diets deprive the body of the nutrients it needs. Junger says the problem lies in using cleanses the wrong way or in the wrong circumstances. He says that cleanses such as fasting and juice-only have been around for thousands of years, but are too intense for busy life in a modern city.
And it’s that same busy life which can make cleanses a challenge. Yet Junger says after the program, people have told him that “eating broccoli gives you almost the same pleasure as eating an ice cream before.”
Maintaining the dietary restrictions after the cleanse can be tough as well, even for Junger. Calling himself a recovered addict, Junger says he falls back into bad habits, consuming dairy, sugar and gluten. But he says that when he eats dairy, he sniffles and sneezes immediately.
“I have so many Achilles’ heels, I should have seven legs,” joked Junger. “Yes you change, hopefully, by the end of the program in such a way that you never want to go back to what you were doing before. Because nothing tastes as good as feeling good feels. And that's what people learn.”
ABC News' Maria Nikias and Brian Fudge contributed to this episode.