By Susan Burke March, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE
Last January, when this article first appeared, I reported that when I typed the words “detox diet” into my web browser search box I was astounded to see more than six million “hits” for all types of “detox” diet programs and products promising weight loss, energy, immunity… even virility.
Today as I update, it appears that this number has increased significantly to nine million, three hundred thousand.
According to MayoClinic.org, detoxification (detox) diets are popular, but there is little evidence that they eliminate toxins from your body. But, evidence never stopped hoaxers from marketing products as “amazing”, and “miraculous,” and it appears there is a growing desire for detoxifiers, both for diets and products.
Ridding yourself of toxic wastes is an idea rooted in human history; “purification” rituals date back to the ancients who followed the idea of autointoxication and made the unsubstantiated but simpleminded intellectual leap that because foods, by their very nature, eventually spoil and putrefy outside the body, it meant that all foods eventually will produce harmful toxins inside the body and thus are a major cause of many, if not all, diseases. Periodic purging was therefore necessary for good health.
According to the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, by the 19th century, “colonic quackery” was all the rage but, by the 20th century, it became clear that the “cleanses” and other purging methods were not only found to be useless in preventing or treating disease, but were downright dangerous.
Today, despite overwhelming evidence, it appears we’re regressing. Too many people are buying the bogus claims of colon cleansing “experts” and their pseudo-scientific jargon and anecdotes. They fall prey to the “impressive power of vested interests.” With numbers like I found on Google, it can be said, at least in this case, that that ignorance is triumphing over science.
But, we’re living in the 21st Century, and the pseudo-science is debunked by the best researchers in the field, including Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University. As quoted in the HuffPost.com he says:”…There are two types of detox: one is respectable and the other isn’t. The respectable one is the medical treatment of people with life threatening drug addictions. The other is the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated.”
Myths and Facts About Cleanses and Detox Diets
Myth: “Detox” your colon for better health:
Many “detox” regimens involve “cleansing the colon” with herbal supplements that promote or prod bowel movements. Citing “waste buildup,” they insist purging is necessary to free the body of “built-up toxins” and wastes – the gunk that accumulates in the colon. Many of these contain stimulant laxative ingredients, including senna, which, although natural, can have significantly dangerous side effects. Overuse of senna may harm the colon and permanently change the digestive track.
Some “detox” plans urge you to use “high colonics” which are akin to an enema on steroids: colonics that involve inserting a rubber tube into the colon. Debunked almost 100 years ago, experts call colonics, unless medically indicated, a “crappy idea”. This procedure runs the risk of colon perforation and permanent damage.
Myth: Detox with a mixture of vinegar, cayenne pepper, and honey or maple syrup:
Always avoid the so-called cleanses that have you drinking vinegar or pepper! These diets may create an unhealthy nutritional imbalance or worse. According to LiveStrong.com, vinegar can affect blood sugar, interact with medications and can cause damage to tissue and enamel. Cayenne contains high amounts of capsicum and can cause burns, upset stomach and can interact with medications. As reported on NBC.com, a “Master Cleanse” is a starvation diet, restricted to lemon juice mixed with maple syrup, water and cayenne pepper, as well as salt water and a laxative tea for 10 days. Vitamin deficiencies, muscle breakdown and blood sugar problems — not to mention frequent liquid bowel movements — are some of the seriously unpleasant drawbacks to these plans, which are skimpy on solid foods and often call for laxatives.
Any long-term fast leads to muscle breakdown and a shortage of many needed nutrients. Prolonged lack of essential vitamins and minerals from food can impair the body’s natural immunity and increase risk for inflammation.
If you insist on trying this and suffer any abnormal side effects while on the diet, seek medical treatment immediately.
Myth: Raw foods detox you naturally:
What stimulated human evolution? The ability to utilize fire to cook food, which led to bigger bodies and brains. Researchers recently found that even chimps will wait for food if it’s cooked, knowing that the taste of many raw foods is far enhanced by cooking.
No doubt, raw foods – fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, are important sources of nutrition including antioxidants and fiber – but many, many foods have far more nutritional value when cooked. Good examples are tomatoes: yes, they’re wonderful raw, but cooking, especially with a little healthy fat (olive oil), will boost the lycopene, an antioxidant that is enhanced by cooking. Limiting your diet to raw foods is boring; it diminishes the variety in tastes and textures that cooking provides.
Of course, overcooking decreases the nutrient value of food – read more about nutritional value of properly cooking foods and more in my article on raw foods in Cuenca HighLife.
Myth: By “detoxing” you can “stop your medications”:
Some detox programs say that after you’ve completed the regimen, you can “stop your medications”…isn’t that irresponsible? Never stop taking prescribed medications unless you speak with your physician. For example, if you’re prescribed life-saving insulin or your doctor has you on oral meds to help your pancreas secrete more insulin or to make your cells to become more insulin-sensitive, stopping your medications can be life-threatening. Heart regulation and blood clotting medications may be essential to your daily health, and must be regulated closely by your physician.
Yes, by losing weight by eating healthfully – more plant foods and especially fewer refined and processed carbohydrates like white bread, flour and rice and sugar-laden beverages – you are hopefully on the road to better health. Your blood sugars are likely to stabilize and your triglycerides and other markers of inflammation are likely to return to normal range.
However, weight is just a number on the scale, and weight loss is unfortunately not a guarantee that you’ll be able to stimulate your pancreas to produce sufficient insulin or that your blood fats will be normal. It is unlikely that a short-term fast or “detox” will undo a chronic disease.
Always check with your physician before quitting any prescribed medication. No doubt, all medications have side effects, and you may want to stop taking them. But consider the fact that not taking a medication that is necessary for your health could aggravate the condition…or far worse.
“Detox” is marketing, not medicine.
The human body is a natural detoxifier. The liver, kidneys, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems work together like a finely-tuned machine to detoxify your body daily. Even the skin plays a part in keeping your body healthy by providing a barrier against harmful substances including bacteria and viruses, heavy metals and toxic chemicals. The average person does not need a “neutralizing” diet. Better health is not available in an elixir, a pill, a powder or a potion. In the rare case that you do have heavy metal poisoning, your doctor will always confirm this condition with blood tests prior to treatment.
Health happens daily and you are what you eat—and drink. The most effective substance to include in your personal purification diet is water – Cuenca has the purest public water supply in Ecuador. Stay hydrated to promote healthy elimination and clear-looking skin.
Eat To Live
If you drink soda and alcohol to excess, and eat a diet high in sugar and fat, you’ll certainly feel like you need a detoxifying diet, but you don’t – instead, stay healthy, naturally.
Live within the boundaries for general good health by keeping treats and sweets as an occasional indulgence. Remember, rapid weight loss isn’t recommended; with fasts and cleanses you’re going to drop water weight quickly, but those who lose weight rapidly are just as likely to regain it quickly, too.
Resolve to eat more healthfully and allow your body a “rest” from junk food, processed foods, and added sugars. You will feel much better by avoiding excess sodium, additives, preservatives, and fried and fatty foods.
If you’re still not convinced, read The Detox Delusion. As the author wisely points out, the word “detox” is a good example of a legitimate medical term being turned into a marketing strategy.
My personal philosophy: All diets “work”, but no “diet” works permanently. Instead of “dieting”, resolve to “live it”, and create your own cleansing and “detox” diet by choosing to eat healthfully, daily.
Click here and learn what fabulous free website you can visit to create your own healthy meal plan and menus – or email me for my one-week natural eating plan – you’ll be well-nourished, not hungry, and will feel more energized and healthier.
Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally—a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to me at SusanTheDietitian@gmail.com