When consumers hear the word “diet,” they probably think weight loss. The dictionary’s primary definition of diet is what you usually eat, your usual intake of food and drink. When consumers hear “detox,” they think detox diet, a term that has come to signify something curative.
Can what you eat or drink “cleanse” your body of built-up toxins that supposedly inhibit weight loss? Does evidence exist to show that detoxifying is effective and safe?
Toxins are by-products of food, air, and water. We process toxins and eliminate them through sweat, urine, and feces every day. We go merrily along, eating, drinking, and functioning without paying attention to what happens “behind the scenes.” However, when we overload—when we eat too much “stuff” and drink too much alcohol or sugar—or otherwise abuse our body, we often gain weight, feel tired, and look worse.
However, even a healthy diet produces toxins, which we eliminate naturally as part of the digestive process.
Type “detox diets” into a web browser, and up will pop more than 40,000 web sites selling programs and substances that hold the promise for increased energy, newfound youthfulness, and enhanced sexuality and potency, in addition to weight loss. Detox appeals to consumers who are impatient for quick results and buy into advertisements for potions, pills, or dried substances marketed to cleanse and purify the body.
Tell your clients to save their money and their health. The human body is a “detoxifier,” with the liver, kidneys, and respiratory and gastrointestinal systems all working together each day to detoxify the body. Depending on a person’s usual diet, just making smart modifications can act as a “neutralizing” diet. Deciding to eliminate unhealthy foods is a great idea, but eliminating all foods in favor of powders or liquids is not.
To detoxify or to detox traditionally meant “to treat (an individual) for alcohol or drug dependence, usually under a medically supervised program designed to rid the body of intoxicating or addictive substances.” For example, a person addicted to alcohol may (under supervision) undertake a detoxifying regimen to wean from dependency. This includes weaning from the addictive substance, as well as behavioral counseling to learn new healthy habits.
Most commercial detox diets and programs are nutritionally unsubstantiated and do not provide even the minimal daily needs for calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrate. By definition, you do not need to follow a detox diet for any specific length of time.
Recommend that your clients avoid programs that promote “cleansing” substances to “purify,” “cleanse,” or “detoxify.” These are buzzwords for laxative and diuretic substances. Warn them also to stay clear of programs that claim to cure diseases or medical conditions.
Some proponents of fasting state that it rejuvenates the body and rests the digestive tract. However, fasting is never recommended for people with diabetes, pregnant women, or for children or the elderly. Fasting is another term for “starving,” and most health experts would not recommend it. Fasting produces headaches, fatigue, and “fruity breath” from ketosis. It is not pleasant and not healthful.
Although juice provides energy from fructose (fruit sugar) and provides some vitamins and minerals, it is less than sufficient for sustained health. Some plans promote a couple of days of freshly prepared juice and water, perhaps to psychologically prepare individuals for a healthy regime to come, but the fast should not last more than 1 or 2 days. As previously mentioned, people, especially those with insulin-dependent diabetes, should never fast.
Cleansing products and supplements
Many detox regimens involve “cleansing the colon” with herbal supplements that promote bowel movements. Citing “waste buildup,” these products usually contain laxative ingredients, including senna, which sometimes is habit forming. Overuse can harm the colon and permanently change the digestive track.
Some detox plans promote “high colonics,” an enema-type procedure where a rubber tube is inserted into the colon. This treatment carries risk of damage from perforation. Regular bowel movements are important, but artificially inducing them is not advised.
Some foods have less nutritional value when raw, and cooking is recommended for optimal nutrition. For example, cooking tomatoes increases the availability of lycopene, the antioxidant that helps immunity. Eating raw foods exclusively presents a problem of taste, texture, and boredom.
Delaying medical advice
Clients may attempt a detox regimen to try and cure themselves of an undiagnosed or diagnosed condition. This could delay important treatment.
Some medications require taking them with food. Clients also may decide to forgo medications in a misguided attempt to detox, which could lead to dangerous health complications.
The most effective substance to include in a “purifying” diet is water. Most people drink less than the recommended eight 8-ounce glasses and may suffer the effects of dehydration, including poor elimination and unhealthy looking skin.
References and recommended readings
Adams M. Detox diets debunked. http://www.bidmc.org/YourHealth/HolisticHealth/DietCenter.aspx?ChunkID=100544. Accessed March 9, 2011.
Klein AV, Kiat H. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2015 Dec;28(6):675-86. doi:10.1111/jhn.12286.
Zeratsky K. Do detox diets offer any health benefits? Mayo Clinic website. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/detox-diets/faq-20058040. Accessed May 11, 2016.