Spring cleaning: cleansing your diet

Warming weather brings with it the urge to cleanse. We want to shed winter’s heaviness and get lighter.
Certainly there’s an impulse to clear out our closets and wash down our windows – it is called spring cleaning after all.
But there’s that other impulse, the one when the dandelion greens in your lawn look so appetizing.
The season’s new growth has us craving what’s green – kale and chard and even nettles.
Which is why embarking on a dietary cleanse this time of year may be easier.
For Mary Ellen Francescani, a Lancaster nurse practitioner, consciously changing her diet for a set period of time is part of her overall quest for a healthier life.
She says that people fast or do cleanses for multiple reasons: to change some undesirable food habits, to feel better physically, or for spiritual reasons.
Most of the world’s religions incorporate some kind of food restriction, from abstaining from meat on Fridays during the Lenten season, to fasting during Yom Kippur, or not eating during the daylight hours during the month of Ramadan.
These fasts require a psychological discipline that are intended to lead to atonement, purity, and a closeness to God. Whatever their faith, those who fast regularly attribute the practice to achieving a clearer mental state and increased energy.
Francescani notes that the father of western medicine, Hippocrates, prescribed fasting.
Well known health advisor Dr. Andrew Weil writes on his website that he occasionally restricts his food intake for a day “drinking only fresh juice and water to give my digestive system a rest.”
It’s the kind of fast Marlena Torres advocates.
Torres, a certified clinical nutritionist from Mountville, has developed her own Health Through Indulgence consulting business to guide clients through fasting and detoxification programs (marlenatorres.com). She and her husband Enrico have also developed Sunshine Juices, a line of organic fruit and vegetable juices.
“I got into juicing and eating raw/plant-based foods because I wasn’t feeling well and had a lot of digestive issues,” she says.
Torres credits author Natalia Rose and specifically her book “The Raw Food Detox Diet” with her keen interest in juicing and eating raw foods, eventually leading her to becoming a nutritionist.
Although some of her clients enjoy three-day juice fasts, Torres says they are not for everyone.
“A juice fast can be so hydrating and so extreme it can make you feel sick if you’re not prepared for it,” she says. “Fasting can be so trendy, but you have to be careful.”
She suggests that people may simply want to try a mini-fast by replacing breakfast with a green juice, or even a vegetable and fruit smoothie.
“Fasting doesn’t have to be scary or all or nothing. It doesn’t have to feel restrictive or harsh,” says Torres. “Just think of incorporating little changes. Know what’s best for yourself.”
Torres aims to educate those thinking of trying a fast or a cleanse through a series of educational webinars targeted to dispel fads.
“The first time I fasted it was an extreme fast,” admits Francescani, “It was years ago, and I was young.”
Francescani embarked on the “master cleanse,” developed in the 40s, made popular in the 70s, and cyclically comes back into fashion with its restricted menu of lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper all mixed with water.
It’s a fad she doesn’t advocate.
“I was 19 and I could lay around on the couch all day if I felt dizzy,” she says. “Now working full-time with kids, there’s no way.”
Still, the impulse to cleanse once a year remains strong.
“All of our bodies have their own built-in detox systems: the liver, kidneys, lungs, colon, and skin,” she says. “But in our society, there are so many toxins in our food and air, that I think for some it can be beneficial to detox to help the body reset and and recoop and recharge and recover.”
Francescani just finished a six-day program in which she limited her diet exclusively to fruits and vegetables, drinking smoothies in the mornings, having salads and lunchtime, and steaming vegetables or stir-frying them in a little oil for dinner.
“Luckily my husband did it with me,” she says. “For the kids, it was two adults against three children. They did share smoothies with us, but we did make other things for them.”
Francescani advises moving into the fast and exiting the fast slowly or risk “ruining the whole reason you’re doing it.”
She suggests first giving up caffeine, alcohol, white sugar, and white flour.
“Giving up caffeine can be earth-shattering for some people. That can be enough of a fast for them,” she says. “Or just committing to eating healthy, seasonal, local, whole food for a week, banning any processed foods.”
Francescani says that fasts or cleanses “must be individualized depending on your background and body type and preexisting conditions.”
Those who shouldn’t fast: pregnant or nursing women, those with eating disorders, severe anemia, kidney or liver disease, serious cardiac issues, children under 18, those on diuretics or blood thinners, and those with chronic illnesses. Consulting with a physician or nurse practitioner first is advised.
“From a medical point of view, fasting is not good for a lot of people like those with diabetes or hypertension,” she says. “But I think for people who are generally healthy, it can be wonderful to give your digestive system a break.”
When finishing a fast, Francescani suggests that not only should you gently reintroduce foods, but take advantage of this change in your routine.
“You have the choice to go back to old habits or use this as a catalyst for change,” she says.
Francescani says the end of a fast also provides an additional opportunity.
“As you bring back foods into your diet, note if you have any rashes or bloating,” she says. “You may find you have food sensitivities you’re not aware of.”
As for further enlightenment, Francescani advocates the holistic nature of a fast.
“By creating space and time in your life to preparing food, you bring awareness,” she says. “Physically, I felt great. My energy levels were strong all day. When everything was eliminated i didn’t have food cravings. I slept more soundly (which may be why I wasn’t tired). And my meditation practices was more clear.”

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