I never thought I would willingly do a cleanse. Even the word “cleanse” conjures up images of days and days of nothing but juice, and that is not for me. (Hello! I obsess about food for a living.)

But when a nutritionist in my neighborhood, Aynsley Kirshenbaum, advertised a whole-food cleanse on my local parents’ email list, I was intrigued. Though I’m a very healthy eater already, there’s always room for improvement. I wondered what a cleanse with food would look like.

Turns out it was a 12-day cleanse—with support from the nutritionist and fellow cleansers via email—that was basically an elimination diet, ditching major allergens and other irritating foods. It involved cutting out the following: wheat, dairy, soy, corn, white potatoes, peanuts, shellfish (uh oh), coffee (ouch), and refined sugar. Still, I decided I had to give it a try.

Still on the menu: Lots of fruits and vegetables (preferably locally grown and/or organic), high-quality whole grains (like oats, millet, amaranth, quinoa), and rice, along with eggs, poultry and meat (though we were encouraged to stick to organic, grass fed and if possible, locally sourced). This was not a raw foods cleanse; given the cooler weather setting in, the nutritionist encouraged us to eat cooked vegetables.

The nutritionist also sent us several challenges over the course of the cleanse, such as introducing fermented foods (done!) and drinking lemon water (check!).

Sound difficult? Here’s what I learned:

I eat a lot of cheese..maybe too much

Who doesn’t love cheese? But I realized that in the hour or two before dinner I would often grab a slice of cheese—or the cheese sticks I had supposedly bought for my daughter. On this cleanse, cheese was off the menu, so instead I would quickly peel a carrot or munch on an apple. Nothing wrong with cheese, but grabbing some extra produce is certainly a better choice.

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Corn, soy, wheat, and sugar are in EVERYTHING

Deep down I knew that, but it didn’t become real to me until I had to avoid all those foods. Since I don’t eat that many packaged snacks (just not really into chips, pretzels, etc.), I didn’t think I ate that much corn or wheat. I never really thought much about soy, except that I avoid soy protein isolate (and really, all isolated proteins).

But man, once I started reading labels, I realized just how much corn, wheat, and sugar infiltrate so many foods. As for soy, I missed tofu and tempeh, and also soy sauce. I had no idea how much soy sauce I used. As an aside, I found that umeboshi paste (a Japanese condiment made from pickled, pureed plums) sometimes makes a decent substitute for soy sauce. (I learned about umeboshi paste as a student at Natural Gourmet Institute; you can read more about its benefits here.)

I craved meat

I like meat, but I don't eat it all that often. Chicken isn’t my fave, so I find that for protein, I usually eat a lot of fish and eggs. But I really wanted meat…a lot. I asked the nutritionist, and she inquired whether I was still eating a lot of salads. Oops—I was. She encouraged me to try more cooked vegetables. That curbed the meat cravings somewhat. That, and a lot of sushi. (I didn’t stick to the shellfish part of the cleanse, that was the one thing I kept right on eating. Nobody’s perfect!)

Oh, how I missed coffee

This was truly the hardest part of the cleanse. It wasn’t the caffeine—I had weaned myself off it a few days before, and I had a cup of green tea every day during the cleanse. But I just really love coffee. I only have one small cup a day, in the morning—but wow, I really missed it.

I felt like a superhero

I run or lift weights early most mornings, and it’s always a challenge. Getting out of my cozy bed wasn’t any easier, but wowza, once I was out, I felt amazing. Like I could go on forever. I can’t remember the last time I felt that energized. I asked the nutritionist about it, and she said it was probably the elimination of wheat, corn, and refined sugar. Less starch and sugar, more energy. Who knew?

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It was easier than I thought

Going in, I expected to really miss all the foods I had to eliminate. But I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was. The cooking part was a fun challenge, and got me out of my comfort zone. If anything, it was occasionally a hassle if I wanted to grab a snack from the store while on the go (because of that aforementioned "insidious" processed wheat, corn, soy, and sugar). Overall, though, it was surprisingly no big deal.

Now that I’m off the cleanse (hello coffee!), I’ve been trying to stick to the plan, though not nearly as strictly. I pretty much only have dairy in my coffee (and, ok, the occasional piece of cheese), I've been avoiding wheat, and I'm checking labels more carefully for hidden processed wheat, corn, soy, and sugar. I thought I was always careful about the quality of proteins I eat, but the cleanse brought into focus that I could be better about it.

The same nutritionist offers a sugar purge in January and another 12-day cleanse in the spring; I'm excited for both.

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