Cleanses have an instant allure, promising to expunge years of bad habits with a few days of asceticism. But what happens after the delivery of thrice-daily, portion-controlled meals or juice fasting ends? I’ve long been a skeptic of such unsustainable quick fixes—but following an endless holiday party circuit and a New Year’s vacation dedicated to taste-testing every type of cheese in Paris this past December, my body and brain were practically begging for some kind of reset in 2015.
As if sensing my sluggishness after a recent early morning workout, the New York City fitness guru Taryn Toomey mentioned that she was spearheading a game-changing ten-day cleanse called The Layer (a name meant to evoke peeling back layers of deep-seeded bad habits to reveal their causes and effects). The goal was to cut out common food irritants from your diet while learning to manage anxiety—the root of almost all bad cravings—through meditation and give your body a second chance at committing to a healthier lifestyle.
If the concept itself didn’t sound revolutionary, the methodology did: Instead of relying on pre-made meals or packaged juices to regulate their eating, participants would cook every one of their own breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. “Nothing is delivered,” stressed Toomey. “We just supply the recipes.” Why? “The program is about getting back to self-care and slowing down,” she explained, adding that the act of cooking changes the pace of your day enough to allow for reflection, while simultaneously providing more control over what actually goes into your food.
Let me explain: As a New Yorker, I regularly eat out for three meals a day. In a city where every hour can be filled with excitement, the idea of getting home or waking up early enough to chop my own vegetables or wait for water to boil has often seemed like a waste of time and energy. But the reality of such a frenetic lifestyle is an unhealthy exhaustion coupled with the persistent bloat brought on by the high sodium and butter content found in most restaurant dishes. Was a few weeks abstaining from my favorite eateries exactly what I needed? Could I actually benefit from re-familiarizing myself with my long-abandoned kitchen?
Fast-forward to a few days later at The Layer’s first and only meeting. We run through the menu of Ayurvedically minded meals—designed to be alcohol-, gluten-, caffeine-, meat-, dairy-, and refined sugar–free by Vancouver-based health coach Mikaela Reuben—and are handed a packet of recipes, a step-by-step daily guide, and a bag filled with tools for the other cleanse requirements: scraping our tongues every morning, buffing our skin with an exfoliation mitt in the shower, drinking an alkalizing morning tonic of turmeric, cayenne pepper, and lemon, taking an Epsom salt detox bath, and meditating for ten minutes before bed every night.
Before leaving, we are warned that, due to cravings and caffeine, we may experience mood swings, headaches, and irritability. We also practice coping techniques (meditative breathing, jump squats, pulsing our arms back and forth to pump-up jams) and are reminded to eat as much as we need, but to first pause when we are three-quarters full to allow our bodies time to feel full. “It’s not about deprivation,” stresses Toomey.
The next morning is filled with beginner’s optimism—I’m genuinely surprised to find that it takes exactly the same amount of time to make my own smoothie as it does to watch someone else make one for me. At first, not drinking a coffee is not a big deal because the cayenne pepper kick in the morning tonic wakes me up, but by mid-afternoon I feel like my brain is cloudy. At work I trip over my own sentences, speaking at the pace of a seasoned stoner. I sneak into the kitchen to do ten modified jump squats and play bad pop music when I return to my desk in hopes of an energy surge. It’s partially successful. In the late afternoon, I remember that I’ve RSVP’d to a friend’s farewell dinner at a Chinese restaurant; committed to not cheating, I go anyway and drink water, much to the waiter’s chagrin. When I get home, I help myself to leftover mushrooms and watercress, make my lunch, meditate, and go to bed.
Day Two finds me under a dark cloud of caffeine withdrawal. Taryn emails us to remind us how close we are to reaching the “first layer of detoxification,” which will free us from “the stickiness” of bad habits. It definitely feels sticky. I’m already bored by eating the same lunch two days in a row, and after practically inhaling my own homemade zucchini “flatbread,” I break down and venture out to buy chia seed pudding from Juice Press, which is found on Taryn’s approved list of restaurants for when you truly can’t avoid eating out. I do not check the ingredients. On my walk home, I feel especially murderous while passing outdoor diners enjoying conspicuous bowls of pasta at Bar Pitti and I count the days until I can eat bread again. (It’s seven.)
By day three, I wake up clearer-headed—and that’s not all. Each night that follows, I find myself more and more grateful to have an empty schedule. It’s amazing how easy it is to avoid a calendar overpacked with plans if you can’t eat out or drink alcohol. I listen to the evening news while I make spaghetti squash and edamame with lemon zest and garlic. I practice French. I take a bath. Even better, focusing on what’s on the stove makes it impossible for me to hold onto the stress of unanswered work emails and upcoming project deadlines. On Friday night, in an effort to be social, I invite some friends over to make a butternut squash curry soup as a girls’ night in. Slicing vegetables lulls us immediately into the kind of conversation that usually flows after a glass of wine.
The last three days of The Layer are easy, mindless, rhythmic. I have consistent energy and focused thoughts, if not the caffeine-fueled surges of creativity I’m used to. And while I don’t cut back on portions or snacking, by day ten, I am shocked to discover that I have lost an unprecedented total of ten pounds. In fact, every one of my coparticipants in The Layer will later tell me they lost weight (even one man who tried not to).
Since, long weekend in Paris aside, I’ve never overindulged in things like cheese, bread, sugar, and alcohol, I can’t help but think that the bulk of that weight loss came from the sudden absence of the mystery ingredients—unidentified oils, butters, fats, and dressings—found in my usual lineup of restaurant-made salads, roasted vegetables, soups, and sandwiches, along with a newfound attentiveness to portion size.
Weeks later, the effects have stuck: I feel more in control of my body and my time, and I’ve gained confidence in the kitchen—even going so far as to invite friends over for dinner every now and again. Admittedly, I’ve returned to living it up on caffeine, but I now schedule one night in for myself weekly, and make a habit out of weekend grocery shopping excursions—after all, I do have a few recipes in my back pocket.
Here, five of the best new healthy food apps so you will, too.
Designed to take the anxiety out of cooking, this all-inclusive app features recipes in the form of how-to videos and clean visual stills of step-by-step instructions, along with every tool you will need to complete them from a shopping list creator to a measurement converter and kitchen timer.
Helping you track down the nearest juice bar, and raw, vegan, or gluten-free restaurants in fourteen U.S. cities, Green Hopping directs you to the healthiest convenient snacks and meals while you’re on the go.
Forks Over Knives
The heralded whole food, plant-based recipe app just received an update, allowing you to sync shopping lists on all of your devices, so you can prepare your favorite dishes from vegetarian- and vegan-friendly chefs like Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Chef AJ wherever you go.
For the produce aisle novice, this app offers foolproof tips on what’s in season, how to select the best blueberries, and more at the farmer’s market, as well as how to store more than 120 fruits and veggies to maximize longevity.
Picking up where The Layer leaves off, this collection of 84 hearty, appetizing vegetarian recipes eschews the theory that eating healthy means forgoing flavor.