Rather than being a month of new beginnings, for me January is a month of regret. Why did I eat three helpings of pecan pie after dinner for six nights in a row? Was it really a good idea to follow a martini with a glass of bourbon before popping open a bottle of Champagne? Did curing my hangover actually require a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish? Those cigarettes did nothing to curb my orgiastic appetite.
So goes the inner monologue in rueful post-holiday minds across America, which is why those same minds so easily alight upon the cheerful idea of cleansing. You gummed up your system something fierce and you did it quickly, so why not erase that damage with equal speed by not eating for days on end?
At least that was my thinking after returning from a winter vacation spent raucously touring up the East Coast with my all-lady punk rock band. And so it was that I decided to do five days of what is arguably the most well-known liquid fast out there, the Master Cleanse.
Created by an alternative health practitioner named Stanley Burroughs in the 1950s and laid out in a book called "The Master Cleanser," the "Lemonade Diet," as it is also called, requires that a person consume nothing but six to 12 glasses daily of a mixture of 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 2 tablespoons maple syrup and one-tenth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper for 10 days in a row.
The program is augmented with nightly laxatives and morning salt water flushes. The idea is that when the body is no longer using its energy to digest food it will begin using that energy to purge toxins.
I've had many friends who have done the Master Cleanse and boasted stellar results. Granted, these same friends -- mostly musicians and artists -- generally spend their days nursing low-grade hangovers, so it's little wonder that a diet made them feel reborn.
And that is precisely the point that doctors and nutritionists latch on to when they discuss an extreme cleanse like the Master Cleanse.
"When flash diets come around, they say you will eliminate all these toxins and you'll feel better," my doctor, Shinobu Kaneko, told me. "But that week off all the junk that you eat may be the reason that you feel better. "
Dr. Kaneko told me this over the phone on the fifth day of my cleanse. It was a Friday and I had dropped 6 pounds. I had also gained an unhealthy obsession with staring at other people's food.
Having deprived my sense of taste, my other senses became more acute. Especially my sense of smell. I also gained a jittery energy that made me take long evening walks.
One night I walked around Echo Park Lake three times before veering off onto Sunset Boulevard, past the Tacos Ariza taco truck with its sizzling, spiced meats; past the bacon-wrapped hot dog vendor and the almost unforgivably rich scent of cooking onions and fat; past the woman who sells boiled corn slicked with mayonnaise and chile; past the churro and champurrado stand, the smell of hot milk drifting in the chilly night air.
By the time I turned the corner at Patra burger, staring through the window at the savory, cheese-covered patties searing on the grill, I felt positively lightheaded. I reeled back and forth down the sidewalk like a drunk person, tripping on cracks, half floating, half falling until I arrived back in my little kitchen and squeezed out two lemons into water, added some maple syrup and a dash of cayenne pepper and drank it down. Ah, supper.
In this way I developed a haughty sense of superiority. Let everyone else eat cake. Life gave me lemons and I was making weird, peppery lemonade. I would gain transcendence through asceticism.
Unfortunately, my nutritionist, Steve Gomberg, shook my smug resolve. "The Master Cleanse, that's like the detox from the '50s," he said.
Yeah, but it's so now, I protested, everybody's doing it.
"Do you know why the whole starvation thing is not such a good idea?" he asked.
I was contentedly cutting a new hole in my leather belt with an old pair of scissors, glowing with the radiance of deprivation, while we chatted on the phone.
"If you're doing it to lose weight, you're going to lose," he said. "The body has to know it's being nourished. Once people go off these starvation detoxes, they hold onto every calorie and gain back every pound."
Alarmed, I lay my scissors down. The cleanse had made me feel mentally clear, like a room had been cleaned out in my brain and all my emotional baggage had been unpacked and put away nicely in compact drawers. But it also made me fragile, and this talk about hoarding calories was unnerving.
Dr. Kaneko also says that she would never put a patient on a cleanse without making sure they work in lock step with a qualified nutritionist. "You truly can do more harm than good," she said.