Detox diets may appear to bypass the hard yards of eating well every day, but effects can range from mildly disruptive to dangerous. Refresh your system with tactics endorsed by medical science.
Lemon. Cayenne. Tree sap. Kale enemas. When it comes to attempts to reset after the year’s excesses, it seems desperation will stop at nothing. Detox has become a catchcry for the clean eating generation – despite lacking the blessing of medical science. There is little medicinal evidence that detox diets remove toxins from the body, says GP Dr Fran Bruce of Wesley LifeShape Clinic (wesleylifeshape. com.au). Your body’s kidneys and liver are designed to effectively do this job by filtering and eliminating most ingested toxins – your body doesn’t need added help to complete this process, Dr Bruce says.
Yet purging waste isn’t the only raison d’detox. Ask any detoxer when they’ll know they’ve cleansed enough and the truth is likely to nod not to shinier kidneys but a more diminutive butt. Which is similarly ill-founded, Dr Bruce says. While on a detox, most people will have a fluid shift initially but this apparent drop in weight typically isn’t fat loss, rather a water loss, and is not maintained at the end of the diet once you return to normal eating habits, she says.
Gastroenterologist Dr Phillip Chang from The Sydney Clinic for Gastrointestinal Diseases says detox diets operate in the same way as other fad diets. Almost all of the currently available detox diets will result in some weight loss. This is because they all utilise a severe caloric restriction approach. However, the weight loss that results is a combination of water loss and some muscle loss due to the very low caloric nature of these diets, Dr Chang says. Apparent weight loss can be amplified by muscle loss during longer fasts and cleanse plans that severely limit or eschew protein. Worse, detoxing can set the scene for weight gain. Your metabolic rate may also be lowered by frequent bouts of fasting, which essentially reduces any weight loss benefits each time you try a fast, warns Dr Bruce. Dr Chang says catabolism can culminate in difficulty maintaining body weight. When the detox diets finish, there is often a rebound effect,
as the body is firstly preferentially storing fat as it believes it is in a starvation state, Chang says. And secondly, the muscle loss leads to a negative shift in the fat/ muscle ratio within the body, and this muscle then needs to be regained through oral consumption of calories and exercise. Therefore, the weight loss promised by detox diets is only short term, and should not be considered as part of a long-term weight program.
Dietitian Lyndi Polivnick is similarly scathing of popular culture’s perpetuation of the detox trend. You can expect to lose weight, but mainly due to water and muscle loss after depriving your body of essential nutrients such as protein, she says.
Dr Bruce says the mythologised image of supermodel radiance and fitness model energy are unrealistic. Although some people report feeling more energetic during and after detox diets, there is little scientific evidence that detoxes can improve your health long term.
Dr Fran Bruce, GP, Wesley Life Shape Clinic:
As a doctor, I would not recommend any detox diet. Instead, she suggests healthy, long-term food options. One thing many people get wrong when detoxing is starving their body thinking it’s the only way to cleanse. Detox diets that severely limit protein or require fasting can result in fatigue, dehydration, lightheadedness, headaches, mood swings and constipation. Long-term fasting can result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies, while colon cleansing can cause gastrointestinal symptoms including nausea, vomiting, cramping and bloating. You may experience gastrointestinal problems while detoxing too, so it’s also important to keep up your water intake to ensure you’re not dehydrated. Water is essential to help carry away waste from the body, transporting nutrients that help muscle function. Dr Bruce also issues a caveat about herbal concoctions, which can be detrimental to those taking medications for conditions such as high blood pressure.
Dr Phillip Chang, gastroenterologist, The Sydney Clinic for Gastrointestinal Diseases (nssc.com.au): Based on our current knowledge of human physiology, in an otherwise well adult, we have no real need
to detox per se. Physiologically, we have a brilliantly complex system of toxin removal within our bodies that connects the intestinal system, the liver and the kidneys, which work together to systematically process and excrete by-products and unwanted waste from our system. There are no scientifically valid studies to show that any of the current forms of detox truly result in any long-term benefits for our health and wellbeing. Detoxes that involve laxatives should be avoided and osmotic-type laxative use particularly should be discussed with a medical professional as they can lead to serious medical problems down the track if not used properly. It’s important to check if dieting or herbal teas contain senna, which is a naturally occurring laxative that is very effective for purging the bowel but does have long-term consequences for the gut.
Lyndi Polivnick, dietitian: In short, no one needs to detox. Detox diets promise enticing benefits, but most are medically meaningless. The belief that your body needs help ridding itself of toxins is not based on science; the human body is truly amazing in its ability to eliminate toxins naturally, Anything is better than laxative use because laxatives mess with your digestive system, absorption of nutrients and generally impede on your quality of life. Juice fasts and cleanses do provide hydration, nutrients and minerals, but they don’t contain any protein and when your body doesn’t have enough protein, it eats away at your hard-earned muscle to get what it needs. Losing lean muscle tissue actually lowers metabolism – not useful if you’re trying to lose weight. Juicing also robs you of your greatest arsenal in detoxing and weight loss: fibre.
Karina Stewart, naturopath and doctor of traditional Chinese medicine and cofounder of Kamalaya (kamalaya.com):
Don’t think detoxing is a magic bullet; think of it as a starting point. When it comes to detoxification, our approach at Kamalaya ensures every guest impacts their health in a positive way and these new health levels are sustainable over the long term. A detox that is based on medical traditions and current research on cellular metabolism and liver function ensures that not only are old habits exchanged for better ones, but during a short period, health imbalances in various functional systems such as digestion, immunity, circulation, and even nervous systems can be brought back into balance.
Dr Bruce: To healthily detox your body, simply avoid highly processed foods that are high in fats and sugar, reduce your alcohol intake (if it exceeds the recommended guidelines) and limit caffeine consumption for a week or so.
Often this is all your body needs to feel cleansed and refreshed, leaving you with a sense of wellbeing. If you are going to detox, it’s important to choose one that promotes the intake of fresh, nutrient-dense wholefoods to ensure you can maintain your energy and not feel tired or lethargic. Maintaining regular meals and snacks is important to eliminate large gaps and avoid fluctuations in your blood sugar levels.
Dr Chang: Chang concedes that the standard Western diet combined with busy schedules are often responsible for digestive issues such as constipation or colonic inertia. This does lead to negative symptoms and deleterious effects on the body due to changes in intestinal permeability (leakiness) and also the native gut flora. Despite the justifiably negative portrayal of detoxes and diets among medical professionals, there are certain aspects of detoxes and cleansing diets that draw on our knowledge of how the body works, and there can be some benefit for us, both physiologically and also symptomatically, and it’s these aspects that we should aim to employ rather than the detox, or particularly the diet’ part, Dr Chang says. Most doctors would recommend a more long-term approach with regards to health, and this is no different with regards to the idea of detoxing; the general principles of lowering caloric intake, increased consumption of water, and a trend towards the consumption of natural, minimally processed foods such as fruit, green leafy vegetables (i.e. cabbage or kale) and psyllium (natural insoluble fibre), which are present in some part of many of the detox diets today, are beneficial.
Lyndi Polivnick: Short term is better than long term because less is more when it comes to dramatic detox diets; the shorter the amount of time spent detoxing, the better, as you will do less harm. Raw foods are a better choice because unlike trendy juice diets, they provide fibre, which is the body’s natural cleanser. If you are going to detox, remember to keep your fluids up. This is extremely important if you are using laxatives to detox as there is a high risk of dehydration. And if you’re following a detox meal plan, don’t undereat. Undereating will only cause your metabolism to slow down further. The body is programmed to keep your weight stable and works hard to ensure that you do not lose weight quickly; if you suddenly consume drastically less kilojoules, your body perceives a lack of food as a threat and goes into starvation mode. Restrictive diets can also cause a preoccupation and intense concern with food, which can lead to a complete breakdown in control. The best way to detox is to eat more fibre, drink plenty of water and get exercising as keeping fit will supercharge your body’s natural ability to clear toxins. It may not be as glamourous as sipping laxative tea, but it’s your best bet to feeling and looking better for good.
Karina Stewart: Everybody can benefit from taking the time to re-evaluate their health habits and reset their health. This is the starting point for any detox: taking the time to break old habits, to begin new habits that are more health affirmative and move forward with a renewed state of health and vitality. I would recommend elimination of all animal proteins including eggs as these are known to slow down the detoxification process. Among commercial programs, The Liver Cleansing Diet has merit as it focuses on providing high-quality nutrients in the form of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes to the body, which will provide very high-quality nutrition for metabolism. It is also a gentle cleanse over an eight-week period, which means the results are more stable and generally more lasting. The emphasis on plenty of water, raw juice and tea is also very good support to the kidneys, lymphatic system and skin as it will dilute toxins being released and facilitate their removal. The addition of liver-cleansing capsules will support the liver in the elimination of waste and toxins through the process of detoxification.
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