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To Cleanse or Not to Cleanse?

Break in the New Year by Giving Your Body a Break


If this holiday season had you leaving no soirée unattended, no appetizer un-tasted, no glass half full, I’ve got a kettlebell that says your New Year’s resolution has something to do with getting healthy. And, while party season’s greatest dilemmas might be crab cake or mini quiche, cookie or fudge, red, white, or sparkling, I’m thinking those questions have faded from memory like that box of See’s, empty save for the lone (and somewhat suspect) nut or chew, and have been replaced with another: to cleanse or not to cleanse?

The fact is, according to Santa Barbara’s Melissa Costello, culinary nutritionist, wellness coach, creator of the “Vital Life Cleanse,” and author of The Karma Chow Ultimate Cookbook, “It’s important to give our body a break from daily toxins and processed foods. The body has its own natural ability to cleanse, but that can become compromised by daily living and over-ingestion of sugar, salt, fatty foods, alcohol, and caffeine.” (Hi, entire month of December!) “Cleansing allows the body to reset itself so it can work as it’s meant to.”

If the thought of giving up that stuff has you feeling anxious (and suddenly considering polishing off that last piece of chocolate, despite knowing full well it’s probably a Scotchmallow or something similarly not worth it), consider: Not all cleanses are alike; not all of them deal solely in deprivation (or cayenne-spiked lemon water). In fact, many nutritionists advocate food-based cleanses, which will have you eating plenty of healthy, nourishing, whole foods, keeping you satiated — and probably introducing you to some delicious new edibles — while still giving your body a break.

At Alchemy Arts Center — S.B.’s mecca for all things wellness — cleansing gets even simpler: Alchemy offers four annual “Earth Season Cleanses,” group cleanses that include community treatments and classes in addition to seven or 14 days’ worth of food, timed to happen mid-season (the next one starts mid-January). If that’s not your thing, or if the mood strikes at pretty much any other time of the year, Alchemy is available to do the thinking for you — they’ll prepare all the food and drinks you’ll need; you just have to get down there once a day to pick up your basket of healthy goodness, packed full of the drinks, elixirs, and food that appear on Alchemy’s regular café menu.

If even that sounds too intense, Costello said, “Practice adding more whole foods into [your] diet through baby steps. Add one new food a week, and remove one unhealthy food or drink. I also use what I call ‘food upgrading,’ where you find a healthier version of one of your everyday favorite foods; baked sweet potato fries instead of french fries, whole grain sprouted bread instead of white bread, and so on,” she said. And even this vegan maintains there’s no need to forgo meat completely. “My philosophy is to eat a mostly plant-based diet (veggies, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds) with small amounts of high-quality animal protein.”

If you do go the cleanse route, you’ll be eliminating alcohol, refined sugars, wheat, processed foods, meat, pesticides, most dairy, and caffeine (sigh). And it’s not uncommon to go through a bit of withdrawal. Although that stuff is tough on the body — specifically the liver, stomach, intestines, and kidneys — initially, detoxing from it can leave you feeling “heavy, low-energy, or emotional,” said Eric Baumgartner, program director at Alchemy. The good news is that generally only lasts a couple of days. And then, it’s all benefits: Baumgarter said you can expect more energy, better skin, better digestion, reduced inflammation, lower cholesterol, better sleep, and better focus. Not to mention a better understanding of how to eat. And cleansing your body might just be the kickstart you need to cleanse other areas of your life.

As Emma Narachi, Alchemy’s founder and owner, said, over a cold-brewed coffee (less acidic that way) mellowed with house-made almond milk, “Sometimes we can get stuck in our life, so it’s a good idea to cleanse all the accumulated waste.” She’s talking about the relationship between our diets and our lives, and how making a big change in the realm of nutrition can lead to other big changes. Put another way, Narachi believes that getting your bodily house in order might just inspire you to get your actual house in order. “First, you have the desire to change, the imagination. Then nutrition is our next step. There’s that releasing of old baggage, not only physically, but emotionally, too. As that happens, our thinking shifts … to a ‘can-do’ attitude.”

“People just kind of wake up,” Baumgartner added, “feel like a different person, like themselves, maybe for the first time in a long time.”

Sounds pretty delicious, doesn’t it?

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