When you hear acai berries, the first thing you may think of is a bright purple smoothie bowl.
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Because of its reputation as a superfood, this vibrant berry has become a popular staple for healthy breakfasts and lunches. You may have also heard about something called the acai berry cleanse, which involves taking acai supplements as a tactic for weight loss. Despite the hype around acai berries, it’s best to skip this particular cleanse.
Registered dietitian Alexis Supan, RD, breaks down what you should know about this cleanse.
How does an acai berry cleanse work?
Contrary to what the name of the cleanse might imply, an acai berry cleanse doesn’t involve actually eating acai berries. What it really consists of is taking store-bought supplements over a certain amount of time — depending on the brand.
For example, some brands are tablets you take for two weeks or even daily. Another type comes as a detox drink, which you drink for a couple of days.
“If someone’s talking about an acai berry cleanse, they’re referring to taking supplements a couple times a day for a few weeks,” says Supan.
Like many other cleanses, the acai berry cleanse claims to rid your body of toxins during the time you do it. Fans of this cleanse claim that it can help with things like bloating, weight loss and regulating bowel movements. But there’s no scientific research backing up these claims.
Acai berry cleanse concerns and downsides
Another concern is that these supplements aren’t regulated, so you can’t be sure if what you’re taking is entirely safe or useful for your health.
“They’re pretty much barely regulated at all,” Supan explains. “And of all of those supplements that I’ve seen, acai berry is just one ingredient of several.”
Here are some concerns you should know about an acai cleanse.
While the acai berry has a good reputation for its nutritional value, the actual supplements in question don’t have that much of the berry in them. But what they do contain could be a cause of concern. Most of these supplements have large amounts of laxatives — a medicine that’s used to relieve constipation on a short-term basis. “The acai cleanse contains a stimulant laxative, which isn’t the same as something like a Benefiber® or some of the other more common stool softeners,” says Supan.
“A stimulant laxative is essentially just dehydrating you. And it’s very risky to take it for even a week. You can really mess with your electrolytes.”
Unsafe while breastfeeding
If you’re pregnant or nursing, doing an acai cleanse is downright unsafe. A common ingredient that these acai berry supplements contain is cascara sagrada — an herbal laxative. Studies have shown it can cause some serious harm when it enters a mother’s breast milk.
“This specific laxative can be really dangerous to breastfeeding moms,” warns Supan. “Not because of the effect necessarily on the mom, but the effect on the child. So, you definitely want to steer clear of these things if you’re breastfeeding.”
In general, you shouldn’t do any sort of cleanses while pregnant or while nursing. If you’re having nausea or constipation, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider or gynecologist to find a healthy solution.
Can mask other health concerns
You may have seen before-and-after photos of users of this cleanse claiming that it reduces bloating. And while this supplement may relieve a bloated belly temporarily, Supan points out that this may not be a good thing.
“It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a wound but not addressing what’s causing it.”
Any chronic bloating that you’re having could actually be due to a certain food intolerance. In other words, you may be sensitive to something like gluten or dairy. Supan recommends working with your healthcare provider or nutritionist to figure out which foods are triggering any symptoms.
May disrupt your gut microbiome
You’re probably not doing your gut any favors with a cleanse like this.
“The last few years, the more we study the gut microbiome, the more we know that gut health is important to your overall health,” Supan says. “So, by taking this kind of supplement to mask that bloating, you’re just kind of putting off what could be a serious issue.”
Supan explains that a healthy gut microbiome requires a delicate balance of good bacteria. You keep these bacteria in harmony by having a healthy diet that doesn’t feel disrupted. “Odds are, if you’re taking a supplement with ingredients that you just don’t know enough about, it could start to bother that good bacteria,” she continues. “And then you’re causing more of a problem than you had in the first place without it.”
Does the acai berry cleanse help with weight loss?
Short answer: Not really.
Long answer? It may cause you to think you’re losing weight, but in reality, it won’t be sustainable. Supan explains that as these supplements contain different types of laxatives, they act as a stool softener and cause you to go to the bathroom more. This can lead to rapid weight loss, which can be damaging to your health. Supan adds that you may gain that weight right back.
“Realistically, you’re taking a laxative that is dehydrating you. So, you’re weighing less for the couple of weeks you’re doing it,” notes Supan. “But the reason is because you’re taking a laxative, which isn’t necessarily the safest thing.”
Supan stresses that losing weight needs to be a slow process in order to be long-lasting and healthy.
Healthy ways to lose weight
The hard truth is, there aren’t any shortcuts to losing weight. A lot of it depends on many factors like your metabolism and health history. But Supan says that small steps can make a big difference.
“I encourage everyone to figure out two simple changes you could make to help improve your diet. Start from there and then build on that. It’s going to be a slower weight loss, but it’s going to be a more sustainable one.”
There are plenty of healthier alternatives to losing weight, including:
- Switching to healthy snacks. Opt for some baby carrots at snack time rather than a high-sugar granola or candy bar. Sometimes, it’s not the radical steps that make a difference, but rather the small, incremental ones.
- Trying a more Mediterranean-style diet. If you want an easy blueprint for including more healthy foods into your meals, this diet is highly recommended by doctors. It includes a good balance of lean proteins, whole grains and vegetables that keep your weight balanced and other parts of your body healthy.
- Keeping a light exercise routine. While exercise is just a piece of the puzzle to losing weight, it can be beneficial to stay active for multiple reasons. Try to go for about 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week (so, you’re looking at about 30 minutes a day for five days). A quick walk or bike ride with a friend each day can do the trick.
Benefits of acai berries
Acai berries are healthy fruits; though, more research is needed to truly understand if any claims of specific health benefits — from being anti-aging to improving sleep to easing arthritis — are backed by science.
“They’re great fruits to include in your diet,” says Supan. “They’re very similar to any other berries. Nutritionally, they’re probably closest to blackberries and they’re a little bit lower in sugar — they’ve only got a couple of grams.”
But it’s better to stick to having a smoothie bowl, rather than taking an over-the-counter supplement.
If it’s antioxidants you’re searching for, there are plenty of other fruits and berries to add to your rotation, like:
- Goji berries.
The bottom line? Skip the acai cleanse
It’s easy to get excited when you see a new trend in your social media feed. But Supan says the acai cleanse generally isn’t recommended as a healthy detox you should try. Due to the risk of dehydration, imbalance of electrolytes and possible harm for breastfeeding mothers, this cleanse involves supplements you’ll want to avoid. If you’re experiencing symptoms of constipation or are wanting to find healthy weight loss options, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider or nutritionist.