Well, it worked for Beyoncé

Countless meals in the line of duty led one of our intrepid restaurant critics to resort to the famous, fearsome Master Cleanse.

Reviewing restaurants is not exactly digging ditches, but it does require focus and stamina. You need to sample everything at the table, take discrete notes, and be careful not to drink too much. For the past year, I’ve been eating four or more rich courses a few times a week, most of them paired with wine. After each dinner, I suffered what I called reviewer’s regret—a comedown that left me dulled and exhausted. Then someone (alright, my mom) told me about Master Cleanse, which claims to rid your body of toxins and give your digestive tract a new lease on life. It seemed like the perfect cure for my occupational hazard. 

This austere liquid diet—essentially a fast adhered to for ten days or more—was invented in the 1940s by nutritionist Stanley Burroughs to relieve ulcers and other maladies, but it did not catch on until his book, The Master Cleanser, was published in the late ’70s. A few years ago, singer Beyoncé Knowles said she lost 20 pounds on the diet, and since she said it live on Oprah, you can imagine the response.

The recipe could not be simpler: To 8 ounces of filtered water, add 2 ounces of fresh lemon juice, 2 ounces of grade B maple syrup (Burroughs thought the higher grades filtered out the useful nutrients), and a dash of cayenne. You can drink as much a day as you can stand—in my case, about a gallon. That’s all you’re allowed—except for a laxative tea at night and in the morning. That was the miserable part.

Master Cleanse has been criticized as a starvation diet, and after I skipped three or four meals, I could see why. Office colleagues took one look at my face and started inviting me to lunch, offering me glazed doughnuts and chocolate cake. I glumly declined them all. My girlfriend stayed away from my apartment, terrified of the mood she would find me in. My only company was my roommate, who fasted in solidarity with me.

I got used to sideways glances as I sipped muddy-yellow water all day from a mason jar. Strangely, the “lemonade” grew on me. The maple syrup nicely cuts the tart lemon. The cayenne tends to float, as I discovered when I took a gulp while checking e-mail. Tip: Shake well. 

On my second morning, I felt a bit light-headed, but also light on my feet. On the way to work, I saw a woman sipping an iced latte and a kid gnawing on a muffin, but I realized I wasn’t hungry. My energy level was higher; I certainly didn’t miss my usual post-lunch lethargy.

On day five, I came across a picture from a haute-Greek restaurant near my office of a pork-and-lamb burger on a brioche bun with spicy feta sauce. I e-mailed the picture to my roommate. Master Cleanse literature warns you to come off the regimen slowly, but once we saw that picture, we were done. We devoured those thick burgers as part of a hearty three-course lunch.

Real hunger sharpens your senses. I felt strangely energized during those five days. Two inches disappeared from my waistline. I’d like to say I have since tapered my appetites, but that is not true. I’m happily back to reviewing restaurants and eating liberally from everyone’s plate. If I’ve cleansed myself of anything, it’s the notion that willed austerity is a virtue.

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