Detox Diets: A New Kind of Spring Cleansing
Spring cleaning often begins with our closets. We organize and reorganize in hopes of downsizing our wardrobe temporarily before restocking with fresh styles and colors. Some individuals have taken this concept to a whole new level of spring cleansing, targeting their pantries, and more specifically their guts, for detoxification. The literal definition of detox is the “removing of a harmful substance (as a poison or toxin) or the effect of such.” Generally, a detox diet is said to be a dietary regimen involving a change of consumption habits in an attempt to remove toxins from the body, with proponents claiming benefits ranging from improved health, energy, and digestion to decreased inflammation and weight loss. But can the promises of detoxing or fasting lead the public into dangerous nutritional terrain?
Although detox diets have little scientific evidence supporting their efficacy, fasting has been around for ages. Most commonly used among religious ritual (such as Lent, Ramadan, Yom Kippur), the Chinese have used fasting as a part of preventive healthcare. But detoxing in the United States has taken on a more varied meaning, with detoxing signifying anything from a three-day juice fast to a 10-day meal plan consisting of cayenne pepper, maple syrup, and salt water as staples.
The Master Cleanse, also known as the Lemonade Diet, has been around since the ‘70s. Yet it has recently been made popular by Beyoncé Knowles, who attributes her near 20-pound weight loss to this plan. For a minimum of 10 days, followers adhere to a strict diet of a lemon juice, maple syrup, water, and cayenne pepper concoction, drinking salt water and laxative tea as well. Side effects such as cravings, tiredness, irritability, hot bowel movements, and headaches are common but often shrugged off as symptoms of the body’s detoxification process. Although some proponents say they feel lighter and “cleaner” and have more energy after detoxing, Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, CSSD, CDE, a spokesperson for the ADA has stated, “these diets range in nature from being both ineffective and extremely dangerous to just ineffective.” Long-term detox done without the consultation of a healthcare professional can cause serious, life-threatening electrolyte imbalances. The body needs to be detoxed if you are exposed to radioactivity or heavy metal or poisons, not food. Eating a healthy, balanced diet based upon variety and moderation such as less saturated fat, sodium, and simple sugars and more plant-based [foods] is the best way to stay healthy.
Although many people may feel free to decide on their own whether detoxing is the right choice for them, there are certain people for whom detoxing or fasting can be downright dangerous. People with diabetes, low blood sugar, eating disorders, children, teens, pregnant women, and older adults are among those who should avoid these diets. If you are taking diabetes medications, you may put yourself in danger of too low blood glucose levels by cutting out food groups but continuing to take your medication. You should never alter your diabetic medications or make drastic changes in your diet without consulting your doctor or dietitian. Medications must be balanced with the food you eat. Pregnant women, children, and teens need enough calories and protein every day for proper growth and development. Older adults have unique nutrition needs that are sometimes difficult to meet, even on an unrestricted diet.
Because the research on detox dieting is lacking, its benefits are unknown at best. If fasting or modified fasting is done in the proper manner and under the supervision of a healthcare professional, it may be beneficial. Anecdotal accounts of people who have experienced everything from being able to break addictive cycles to people who have been occupationally poisoned with some type of toxic chemical emulate some of the potential benefits of detox. A three- to five-day detox diet plan is not likely to lead to problems and may even help motivate someone to make dietary changes in a healthier direction, such as eating more fruits and vegetables. This is not a long-term solution to a weight problem nor is it considered disease prevention. The use of herbal laxatives, enemas, syrup and saltwater solutions should be avoided, as these are not proven methods to remove toxins from the body. Instead, gradually increase fiber and water intake and perhaps try some probiotic yogurt drinks for improving intestinal health.
Keep in mind that fasting itself is not particularly good for weight loss. It’s what you do after the fast or after the cleanse period that ends up affecting your overall body weight. It’s only going to really benefit you if you follow it with healthy eating afterwards. Many professionals concur that detoxing has no place in nutrition care. A better message would be to eat a healthy meal plan based upon variety and moderation as a means to keep the body healthy.