The Lemonade Diet — Master Cleanse Miracle or Dangerous Snakeoil?

The Master Cleanse diet was developed in 1941 by Stanley Burroughs. It calls for the practitioner to starve his or herself except for a concoction of lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup. At night you’re to take a laxative tea and saltwater which, through a top-down enema, is said to remove toxins from the body, help one lose weight and even cure chronic diseases. Salt, salt, lemonade, turn the corner and you know the rest… Such famous celebrities as Robin Quivers, Jared Leto and Beyoncé Knowles have all used it to lose weight and it seems to be exploding in popularity.

Who needs the advice of doctors when you’ve got Howard’s sidekick, Jared looking like a magician and Mrs. Jay-Z?

So why is the dangerous diet so popular? Well, I live in California, for one, where all New Age hokum is defended with a “Don’t knock it til you try it” acceptance irreconcilable with my Show-Me skepticism. Also, I suppose, because of the very real effects coupled with observational and speculative science. Practitioners get, after not eating, light headed and euphoric, which Burroughs assured dieters was a byproduct of toxins leaving the system. But Burroughs was a dictatorial nudist who insisted his children not wear clothing, not a scientist or doctor. Blindly assuming some charlatan’s logic infallible is akin to accepting a lunatic’s observation that rain comes from a celestial being shedding tears because we eat cashews. It reminds me of Scientology more than science… only creepier.


    Leader of the Church of Lemonology (with clothing)                              Lemonologists’ version of Dianetics

There’s also an appeal to Americans, the people who pioneered eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia whilst sharing an ironic, insatiable hunger for fad diets. Our nation’s citizens have always favored the quick fixes of starvation, vomiting and surgery to the adoption of healthy habits and here’s a diet which people with eating disorders can hide behind that’s been championed by the continually unrealistic and un-aesthetic body-type promotion we’ve come to expect from Hollywood, the pop music industry and supermodels. Hell, Coca-Cola and Pepsi were both marketed as medicine and just look how healthy people become when they drink loads of soda! Coca-Cola, in fact, was developed by John Pemberton as Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. His idea was that by ingesting cocaine, kola (with its caffeine), damiana and alcohol, our bodies would reject it along with all those pesky toxins in our system. Sound familiar?

        John Stith Pemberton                  A good documentary                A kid on his way to acquire more health drinks

Doctors have instead suggested that the advocate-touted effects are merely the normal side effects of regular old starvation. Other nutritionists have pointed out that organs like the kidneys, liver, lungs and GI tract are the body’s best way of removing toxins and that they require essential nutrients and vitamins to operate properly– vitamins and minerals insufficiently present in the Burroughs’ Magick Slimming Detox Tonic. In effect, the theory behind the master cleanse is akin to draining your car’s engine of oil in order to improve engine function. Go ahead and try it before you knock it– just make sure you have a warm blanket in your trunk and a fully charged cell phone on you.

Dr. Ed Zimney in his article Master Cleanse = Master Scam has asserted that the prescribed mixture does nothing to remove accumulated toxins. Dr. Sunil Patel of the Queen Elizabeth Health Centre claims it is merely a placebo for deluded naifs. Coca-Cola’s admission that Dasani is just over-priced tapwater certainly hasn’t hurt its sales (except in Godless Europe, where they dared to question why they should pay for tap water!) so how much for a case of your placebos, Dr. Patel? Oh yeah, I’ve got an ionic footbath I’d like to sell you for a very reasonable ten thousand bucks. Guaranteed to produce cloudy water which, uh, is from toxins™ shooting out of your feet due to magnetism and stuff. Trust me, I’m a nudist.

On the other hand, the saltwater “flush” apparently does kill bacteria. Which sounds great if you think of bacteria as the kingdom of life reserved for bad organisms and not ones that help you survive. Yes, Virginia, there are beneficial bacteria. So, I may not be a doctor (although I tend to value their opinions more than anorexic celebrities) but I think the lemonade diet is merely a peer-sanctioned eating disorder. Look at how many people who do it find a partner to justify their dangerous choices. Here’s a thought– try eating more fruits and veggies with their detoxifying and disease-fighting phytochemicals and not only will you lose weight and get healthier but you also make lasting, beneficial changes in the way you eat.

So, don’t take my word for it. Make up your own mind. On the con side, you have a bunch of probably unattractive, not-famous doctors, nutritionists and common sense types. On the pro side you have celebrities a mountebank with a background in the lumber industry who was twice convicted of practicing medicine without a license and a convicted second-degree murderer… and a bunch of crazies that five years ago were eating buckets of lard at the advice of Dr. Atkins.

In the California Supreme Court case People v. Burroughs, 35 Cal.3d 824 the court found Burroughs responsible in the death of a patient. It seems Burroughs’ lemonade diet didn’t cure cancer after all. Hell, the victim probably just didn’t put enough good-ole fashioned maple syrup in their elixir. The court description follows:

During the first meeting between Lee [Swatsenbarg] and defendant [Burroughs], the latter described his method of curing cancer. This method included consumption of a unique “lemonade,” exposure to colored lights, and a brand of vigorous massage administered by defendant. Defendant remarked that he had successfully treated “thousands” of people, including a number of physicians. He suggested the Swatsenbargs purchase a copy of his book, Healing for the Age of Enlightenment. If after reading the book Lee wished to begin defendant’s unorthodox treatment, defendant would commence caring for Lee immediately. During the 30 days designated for the treatment, Lee would have to avoid contact with his physician.

Lee read the book, submitted to the conditions delineated by defendant, and placed himself under defendant’s care. Defendant instructed Lee to drink the lemonade, salt water, and herb tea, but consume nothing more for the ensuing 30 days. At defendant’s behest, the Swatsenbargs bought a lamp equipped with some colored plastic sheets, to bathe Lee in various tints of light. Defendant also agreed to massage Lee from time to time, for an additional fee per session.

Rather than improve, within two weeks Lee’s condition began rapidly to deteriorate. He developed a fever, and was growing progressively weaker. Defendant counseled Lee that all was proceeding according to plan, and convinced the young man to postpone a bone marrow test urged by his doctor.

During the next week Lee became increasingly ill. He was experiencing severe pain in several areas, including his abdomen, and vomiting frequently. Defendant administered “deep” abdominal massages on two successive days, each time telling Lee he would soon recuperate.

Lee did not recover as defendant expected, however, and the patient began to suffer from convulsions and excruciating pain. He vomited with increasing frequency. Despite defendant’s constant attempts at reassurance, the Swatsenbargs began to panic when Lee convulsed for a third time after the latest abdominal massage. Three and a half weeks into the treatment, the couple spent the night at defendant’s house, where Lee died of a massive hemorrhage of the mesentery in the abdomen. The evidence presented at trial strongly suggested the hemorrhage was the direct result of the massages performed by defendant.


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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