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To Detox or Not

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January 29, 2015

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You’ve probably seen the media ads touting the health benefits and weight loss of Detox, or detoxification, diets, but they can pose many health risks and aren’t particularly effective.

Detox diets are touted as a way to remove toxins from the body helping you to feel more energetic and focused. While there are a number of detox diets available, most advocate extremely low-calorie, liquid diets (only fresh vegetable and fruit juices and water) for a few days to several weeks. Some may also incorporate herbs and supplements to be used along with the diet, and colon cleansing is often recommended as well. But, is there any scientific support for a detox and what might be some of the risks?

First, the alleged purpose of detox/cleansing treatments is to remove harmful “toxins” that the body cannot remove on its own but these “toxins” are never named. The human body is a wondrous machine and its detoxification system is remarkably sophisticated and versatile. The liver is incredibly efficient at using enzymes to convert toxic substances into less harmful ones which are then dissolved in water and removed in the urine. The kidneys eliminate many toxic substances that are soluble in water. They reabsorb essential chemicals and excrete unwanted chemicals in the urine within a few hours to prevent them from accumulating. The gastrointestinal tract is a harsh environment and prevents many harmful bacteria from entering the body. The colon is responsible for expelling unwanted solid matter from the body.

For healthy individuals (i.e. those without serious medical conditions), all systems function as normal. The benefits from a detox come from not drinking alcohol or eating processed foods that are loaded with fat, sugar and chemicals. In other words, a healthy diet. DUH….

Second, a detox diet may be dangerous to some and cause unpleasant side effects. Detox diets that severely limit protein or require fasting, for example, can result in fatigue. Long-term fasting can result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Colon cleansing, which is often recommended as part of a detox plan, can cause cramping, bloating, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and may use laxatives and diuretics which can cause dependence if abused. Dehydration can upset the body’s delicate fluid and electrolyte balance. And, following an extreme detox diet for a long period of time can actually harm the organs that really do have detoxification functions.

Detox diets can interfere with blood sugar regulation and cause electrolyte (sodium and potassium) imbalances. They are not recommended for people with diabetes, heart disease, liver or kidney disease or other chronic medical conditions. Pregnant and nursing women should also avoid detox diets.

Third, like most fad diets, detox cleanses are not an effective way to lose body fat. Sure, you may drop pounds if you cleanse for several days, but this is primarily due to water loss. Longer detox diets can cause loss of muscle mass. And, once you complete the detox, if you resume your usual diet you will regain the weight. And, following a detox that severely limits your caloric intake for long periods can slow the metabolic rate, making it harder to maintain weight loss. Needless to say, exercise is not recommended during this time since you will not have the energy for it and because you’re not getting that many calories. Also, you are going to go without a lot of the foods you usually eat. Detox diets are typically very rigid and involve eating the same few things over and over.

Finally, keep in mind that fad diets aren’t a good long-term solution. You cannot cleanse away poor lifestyle choices of a poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, lack of sleep, and alcohol or drug use. For lasting results, your best bet is to eat a healthy diet based on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein along with moderate alcohol intake.

So, the bottom line: Save your money. Detox diets not good for people with certain medical conditions, they could be harmful. The only detox diet worthwhile is one that limits processed, high-fat, and sugary foods, and replaces them with more fruits and vegetables. Clean eating is the best detox diet!

Sources: WebMD Medical Reference, EAS Academy

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