I’ve never been one to make a new year’s resolution regarding my body so I surprised myself when I decided to try the Clean 21 program at the top of 2022. Every year on January 1, I briefly think to myself, Maybe I’ll eat healthier this year, but the thought is always fleeting. This year, however, I took a much-needed visit home to Ghana, West Africa, and after almost three weeks of eating rich home-cooked meals, devouring flavorful street meats, and drinking basically every tropical cocktail known to man, I felt my body was in need of some sort of detox.
After a bit of research, I settled on Clean Program’s 21-day reset regime, loved by celebrities including Zoe Saldana, Meghan Markle, and Gwyneth Paltrow. The program, founded by cardiologist Dr. Alejandro Junger, claims to support optimal wellbeing by resetting the body and producing transformative results, namely renewed energy, deeper and more restful sleep, improved digestion, reduction of bloat, and glowing skin.
While I was looking forward to the physical benefits of this cleanse, what I wasn’t expecting was a revelation about my eating habits and mindset on discipline — namely my mental ability to maintain healthy consistent habits.
What Does Clean 21 Entail?
Let’s start with what the kit entails: 42 vegan, gluten-free shake packets, 21 electrolyte packets, 63 supplement packets, and 42 digestion pills.
Each day on the cleanse is designed to look about the same: for breakfast, one glass of water infused with electrolytes, one shake, and one supplement packet. Lunch is one Clean Program-approved meal with another supplement packet and two digestion pills. And, lastly, dinner is a repeat of breakfast sans electrolyte packet. My first thought was that there seemed to be a lot of steps involved. But I figured that was just my naivety to cleanses kicking in. Each aspect of the program is actually meticulously thought out for optimal results — down to the ingredients in each packet and how they interact in your body.
“The cleanse shakes are a nutrient-dense, plant-based protein source. They also offer fiber and pre and probiotics to assist in a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut, to promote optimal digestion and gut health,” Clean Program Director of Wellness & Support Emily Feurring tells TZR. “The inclusion of broad-spectrum enzymes [in the supplements] offers additional digestive support, further freeing up energy in the body for detox and repair. Lastly, we’ve introduced a hydrate [step] in this program; a unique vitamin and mineral blend to help with hydration levels.”
The cleanse does allow for the addition of snacks in between meals if you get hungry. “When participating in the cleanse, it's important to snack when you are truly hungry, rather than eating out of boredom, habit, or thirst,” Clean 21 details on their website. “Snacks are especially helpful for those who are more active on the cleanse. Any foods on the Cleanse Diet can be enjoyed as a snack between meals.”
I was definitely overly ambitious in opting for the Clean Program’s 21 day cleanse. But, after reading what life would look like for the next 21 days, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. I’d never restricted and regulated my eating to this extent — the most I’ve done is give up foods like sugar or meat to observe a religious fast, so in hindsight the seven-day cleanse would have been more suitable. Nevertheless, I persisted in the name of research.
The First Few Days
Although I had high hopes in kicking off Day 1, I was met with a slew of cravings around 10 a.m., just hours after starting the day. My normal diet isn’t necessarily unhealthy, though I don’t often restrict myself from certain foods. I typically try to aim for three meals a day that are high in protein, complex carbs, and vegetables. Occasionally, I indulge in sweets and alcohol — because, balance.
The cleanse includes one full meal a day which you are allowed to choose at your discretion, however these meals should meet the Clean 21 guidelines. The program emphasizes elimination not deprivation, pointing to, “A wide range of delicious, colorful, and nutrient-dense foods, while avoiding those that cause inflammation or sensitivities,” the brand explains on its site.
So what does this entail? Well, whole foods like vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and healthy fats are encouraged, while meals including gluten, dairy, processed snacks, sugar, and alcohol are to be avoided.
On the first day I set out to make a kale salad, which was actually pretty good. But, by day three — and a few variations of that salad later — I felt like I was already getting bored of this option. This is likely mainly due to my lack of creativity in cooking, but also the fact that I didn’t have more than an hour to spare in making and eating lunch before I’d have to get back in front of my computer for work. It actually felt easier just to skip the meal all together.
Normally, I eat a filling breakfast, often work through lunch or have a light snack, followed by a big dinner. With that in mind, I thought about modifying the cleanse routine so I could have a cleanse shake for breakfast, another one for lunch, then have a big dinner, as I found that the evening shake was not enough to keep me full through the night. However, according to the plan guidelines the two daily shakes have to be consumed 12 hours apart. For the first few days I stuck to the plan’s guidelines and would cut up a few veggies at night to throw into a quick salad for the next day’s lunch. Nevertheless the nighttime shakes just weren’t filling me so by day three I resorted to having a light dinner in addition to the shake.
“The 12-hour window is an important part of the program’s protocol. Digestion ties up an incredible amount of energy in the body. We free up this energy by incorporating easy-to-digest meals, such as smoothies, into our protocol,” Feurring explains. “Without the heavy lifting of digesting our typical dinners prior to bed, we free up energy in our body to be redirected towards a very important time that our bodies are hard at work, while we sleep. The 12-hour window gives our bodies the time to digest our evening shakes, plus additional hours to allow for the deeper detox and repair work to happen in the body.”
What To Expect During The Cleanse
Being that I’d never done a cleanse of this magnitude I expected a few waves of cravings but I was unprepared for how much of a toll it would take mentally, because I’ve never associated food with my mood.
“If this is your first cleanse, you may experience some physical and emotional effects. Breakouts, fatigue, even mild flu-like symptoms may occur within the first few days,” Clean 21 details in a blog post. “You may also find that cravings and mood swings hit once you’ve given up caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. Give yourself time to settle into new habits; giving up junk and processed foods for the first time is a major life change.”
By day three of the program I found myself feeling vaguely irritated and just low energy. My cravings were at an all time high, with sweets being top of mind. I didn’t equip myself with enough cleanse-approved snacks to eat in-between the shakes and one meal, and the overall change in routine threw me for a loop and caused a dip in my mood. All this resulted in me having a negative attitude about the cleanse. I wasn’t doing much besides working from home at this time which contributed to the general lack of energy.
Working from home can get a little mundane and I usually use eat or snack to break up the day a bit, so not being able to do that in the ways I was used to made the days feel really long. Thankfully, it didn’t result in a lack of productivity in my work, but more than usually I’d fervently count down the hours until I could just get in bed and sleep.
Conession: I gave up the cleanse after day five with plans to start over in a few days with reinvigorated focus. My days felt increasingly long and in addition to feeling low energy, I just felt hungry a lot of the time and found myself constantly thinking about food. I don’t think I foresaw how intense my cravings would be, and how much discipline I truly lacked. On the day I gave up I left my apartment just to walk 10 minutes to the closest CVS for a bag of gummy bears (my comfort snack). That’s when I knew I couldn’t keep going on like this, though I didn’t want to completely give up on the cleanse so I figured giving it a second go after a few days, knowing exactly what to expect would give me a better shot at success.
If you’re anything like me and foresee yourself struggling to complete this cleanse, don’t completely give up or beat yourself up over not being able to complete the cleanse.
“Our programs are designed to allow for modifications as needed,” says Feurring. “Someone may need to adjust due to a health condition, work restrictions, personal preferences, or just someone experiencing trouble staying on track. In the case of someone feeling hungry or deprived, we’d recommend bulking up meals and/or smoothies, and the addition of snacks as needed. If someone is unable to have an evening smoothie due to a special event, traveling, etc., the program allows for a cleanse dinner to be swapped for the usual evening smoothie.”
It definitely would’ve helped to know about the modifications prior to starting the cleanse, and it truly speaks to the importance of proper preparation and research when doing this program — though at the state I’d gotten to by day five, I was beyond incorporating the modifications, my body just wanted to go back to old eating habits.
You also won’t be embarking on this health journey alone, there are a team of Clean Wellness Coaches available to support in answering any modification questions as needed. In fact, Clean offers free wellness call sessions with a Clean Coach any time before, during, or after a program. Though I didn’t opt for coaching when I started experiencing trouble, it’s definitely something I will be intentional about including, if I decide to try the full 21-day cleanse again.
About four days after my day five fail, I started the Cleanse again, this time incorporating some of the modifications — I was able to successfully complete one week of the cleanse which I was actually proud of myself for. I began adding fruits and vegetables like spinach and blueberries to the morning shake, turning it into a Clean 21-approved smoothie; this made it a lot easier to stay full throughout the day until lunch.
I took more proactive measures this time around like cutting up vegetables and doing light prep in the evening so my lunches were easier to put together the next day. Overall with this new approach I felt less hungry, had a bit more energy and enthusiasm to actually complete seven full days of the cleanse. It was still hard to complete the full 21 days (hence why I only made it to seven), the cravings still hit here and there and I found myself wanting to eat snacks like chips or candy just as something to do while working. The hardest part of all was not having my morning cup of coffee, and just saying no to random impulses to eat remembering that the impulse stems from boredom and not actual hunger.
What Changed After The Cleanse
The most notable physical change I observed after “completing” the cleanse was that my period (which came about a week after I finished Clean 21) was significantly lighter. My cycle is usually around seven days with the first and second days being the heaviest days of bleeding accompanied by painful abdominal cramps. This time around however, bleeding on the first few days was noticeably lighter and my cramps (though still present), were nowhere near as bad as they usually are.
I wasn’t completely sure if this could be attributed to the cleanse, but according to Feurring it's entirely natural, and even expected, to have some changes in one’s menstrual cycle for one to three months after doing a cleanse. “Consider that any changes to physiological processes related to detoxification (such as an upregulation with herbs) will also shift hormone levels, since hormones (like estrogen) go through the same detoxification pathways that an environmental toxicant does,” she explains.
I was still on a health kick for a few weeks after the cleanse and continue making healthy meals full of protein and vegetables. My sugar cravings subsided — I used to go through a pint of ice cream weekly and haven’t had (or craved) ice cream since completing the cleanse over a month ago. And my mood and energy levels definitely increased after finishing the cleanse, but that could just be because I was excited to be eating three full meals a day again.
What The Clean 21 Cleanse Really Taught me
If anything I thought the cleanse would give me insights into my eating habits, and how my body operates in regards to food and digestion, and though it did, I actually ended up gleaning a deeper lesson.
I’ve always had good discipline in most areas of my life — I stick to a workout routine, was always a good student in school and even pride myself on waking up at the same time every weekday. But the first few days of this cleanse made me question if I really was as well disciplined as I thought or if my motivations for discipline in other areas of my life are influenced by my attachment to the visibility of the results.
I find it easy to stick to a workout routine because I like the way it makes my body look and I always got good grades in school because I enjoyed the accolades and praise that came with it. While reflecting on that, I realized I had a hard time committing to the cleanse because there was no visible gratification in the results because they were mostly internal. Sure, I would feel good and healthier but there was no promise of an outward payoff. The possibility of the cleanse making me shed a few pounds wasn’t appealing because I like my physique and the chance at clear skin was also lackluster because I like the way my skin already looks.
The hard truth I had to came to terms with is that I was having a hard time sticking to the cleanse because I was doing it for all the wrong reasons, namely bragging rights just to say I did a cleanse of this caliber. Shifting my perspective to focus on the internal benefits of the cleanse and doing more research on gut health renewed my motivation — though completely shifting my mindset when it comes to visible gratification and discipline will admittedly take some time.