What Is the Master Cleanse?

Master cleanse

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff 

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

The Master Cleanse is perhaps the original detox diet. Also called the Master Cleanser or the lemonade diet, this liquid fasting plan was introduced all the way back in the 1940s, when alternative health practitioner Stanley Burroughs developed it as a weight loss method. As his ideas became more popular, he eventually published a book outlining them, The Master Cleanser, in 1976. The book (and the fast) became popular among people trying to lose weight.

The Master Cleanse aims to cleanse the body of harmful chemicals and toxins by drinking a lemon beverage made with maple syrup and cayenne pepper for 10 days. Besides this homemade drink, a saltwater solution and herbal laxative teas are also encouraged on the diet. In effect, it’s more of a fast than a diet.

The idea goes that detoxification helps the body "reset" and shed weight. However, while you might lose weight quickly by fasting in this way, scientific evidence doesn’t support cleansing the body for better health.

What Experts Say

"Anything that uses the term 'cleanse' is likely not the healthiest choice. The Master Cleanse is a gimmicky diet, and while you’ll likely lose weight, a lot of it will be water weight and you’ll lose muscle, too. Plus, it’s just not enjoyable to eat this way and definitely should not be sustained."

Kelly Plowe, MS, RD

What Can You Eat?

On the Master Cleanse, the question of what you’ll eat is more a question of what you’ll drink. This detox plan is an all-liquid fast. Its suggested 10-day duration primarily features a spicy DIY lemonade made with water, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. Other optional drinks include a saltwater solution and laxative teas.

If you’d like to extend your fast, Burroughs’ Master Cleanser book suggests a maximum of 40 days. Additionally, according to the book, people can repeat the fast three to four times a year.

What You Need to Know

The recommended protocol on the Master Cleanse is to start your day with a saltwater flush, drink 6 to 12 cups of spicy lemonade during the day, and finish off the evening with a senna-based laxative tea.

The fast’s focus on a lemonade beverage stems from the fact that lemons are rich in vitamins and minerals. Burroughs and some other alternative health practitioners believe that lemons are an especially cleansing food.

It’s true that lemons contain high amounts of vitamin C, as well as some potassium. One 2021 study found that very high doses of vitamin C improved liver health and glucose metabolism in people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that lemon juice can clear your body of toxins.

Meanwhile, other foods are equally high in vitamin C, and many are significantly higher in potassium. A single banana, for example, contains about as much potassium as all the lemon juice you’re likely to drink in a day on the Master Cleanse.

The addition of maple syrup and cayenne pepper also don’t do much to round out your daily calorie and nutrient intake (and there’s no reason to believe these ingredients have special cleansing properties). Maple syrup does add some carbohydrates, which may help give you a small boost of energy throughout the day, but its carbs come mostly from sugar (about 24 grams per two-tablespoon serving).

At the end of your fast, the Master Cleanse recommends easing back into normal eating gradually. On day one after your fast, you can add orange juice. On day two, you’ll continue with orange juice and vegetable soup. On day three, you can resume eating fruits, vegetables, and salads. Finally, on day four, you’ll return to eating normally.

What to Eat
  • Special-recipe "lemonade"

  • Saltwater

  • Senna-based herbal laxative tea

What Not to Eat
  • All other foods

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Quick weight loss

  • May provide a mental reset toward healthier eating

Cons
  • Does not provide adequate nutrition

  • Food is not allowed, so hunger is inevitable

  • Provides a quick fix, not sustainable weight management

  • May cause gallstones

  • Scientific evidence doesn't support detox claims

According to The Master Cleanser, you can expect to lose about 2 pounds per day. This is a drastic weight loss trajectory—many medical professionals will advise losing 1-2 pounds per week, not 2 pounds per day. Still, any fasting diet is likely to induce weight loss, and there’s nothing especially effective about this one.

If you’re looking for a mental, as well as physical, reset, the Master Cleanse may also be helpful. Going without food for multiple days can be a time to reflect on your health goals, as well as what you’d like your diet to look like in the future. Some people report extra mental clarity from fasting.

Of course, as with any fast, hunger is inevitable on the Master Cleanse. Depending on your level of willpower, you may find it extremely difficult to make it through 10 days of a liquid-only diet. Meanwhile, a lengthy fast requires you to override your body’s own hunger cues. This can disconnect you from your physical needs, rather than tune you into them. Extreme diets like the Master Cleanse can be a slippery slope toward disordered eating habits.

For most people, it’s technically safe to go a few days with very few calories (assuming the situation is medically supervised and advised), but the Master Cleanse’s daily total is a very low 650 calories per day. This isn’t a sustainable calorie intake for adults. And the weight you lose on the Master Cleanse very well may come back quickly, since this diet doesn’t teach anything about eating right for weight loss after 10 days.

Six glasses of the spicy lemonade drink provide around 650 calories a day, resulting in a substantial, unsustainable, and unhealthy calorie deficit.

Is the Master Cleanse a Healthy Choice for You?

One evidence-based way to evaluate any diet is to determine whether it meets the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines recommend following a balanced, varied diet that supplies fruits, vegetables, grains, lean meats, plant proteins, dairy foods, and healthy fats.

Deviating from this type of eating plan can occasionally serve your health goals. In the short term, the Master Cleanse may be effective for a quick drop in body weight, though a drastic drop is often not advised by health care professionals. It’s not a sustainable weight loss solution and it doesn’t provide adequate calories. It also doesn’t educate followers on how to eat well after the cleanse is over.

The Master Cleanse does not adhere to USDA guidelines and it is therefore not considered a healthy eating plan.

Use the following tool to calculate how many calories you should consume each day to hit your weight loss goals.

Health Benefits

On any fast, you’ll create a calorie deficit that’s likely to result in weight loss. If you’re hoping to drop pounds in a flash, the Master Cleanse could be the quick fix you’re looking for. Unlike an all-water fast, this plan provides a some calories and a few nutrients from lemon juice and water.

Still, it’s important to note that most mainstream medical and nutrition experts don’t recommend it for weight loss.

You’ll want to be prepared, too, for the effects of the Master Cleanse’s nightly laxative tea. Some users may feel frequent bowel movements are cleansing, and those who struggle with chronic constipation could find relief during the Master Cleanse. However, overloading the body with laxatives can lead to yo-yo-ing bowel habits.

Health Risks

Prolonged fasting of more than a few days comes with some health risks. Even in the first few days of the Master Cleanse, you might experience dizziness, fatigue, and lightheadedness. A longer-term deficit of calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients can lead to malnutrition.

Additionally, people with health conditions like diabetes, anemia, cancer, underweight, or intestinal obstruction should consult a physician before trying the Master Cleanse, as it’s probably not appropriate for anyone with these issues. The fast could also put you at increased risk of developing gallstones as a result of losing weight too quickly.

Because of the daily laxative tea, diarrhea is another common drawback of the Master Cleanse. If you lose too much fluid from diarrhea, you could become dehydrated.

Finally, if you have a history of disordered eating, the Master Cleanse puts you at risk of unhealthy thoughts and behaviors around food. Its restrictive nature and narrow focus on weight loss has potential to adversely affect your mental and physical health.

A Word From Verywell

The Master Cleanse holds a place in history for jump-starting the detox diet movement. But despite its potential for short-term weight loss, it doesn’t have a lot to offer your health. In fact, scientific evidence doesn’t support the idea that any foods or ingredient combinations will detoxify your organs. And going without calories for too long can leave you with more disadvantages than benefits.

If you're considering the Master Cleanse for weight loss or to treat a health condition, make sure to consult your healthcare provider first.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary—many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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