Written by Hilary Rock BSc, Nutrition
Reviewed by Andrea Miller MHSc, RD
These days, consumers are paying closer attention to ways to improve their health and prevent disease. At the same time that interest in health is growing, so is the ease of which consumers can access health-related information to support self-care, online. The Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition Tracking Nutrition Trends survey revealed that 46% of Canadians use the Internet to find food and nutrition information; 76% use magazines, newspapers and books; friends, relatives and colleagues are the source for 66%. In other words, many of the most common methods for obtaining food, nutrition and health-related information are not necessarily science-based and may not be reliable. One area of current popular interest where misinformation abounds is detoxification (detox) and cleansing diets and other procedures supposedly designed to rid the body of toxins. Detox diets are popular strategies that claim to facilitate toxin elimination and weight loss, thereby promoting health and well-being.
Today, detox has become a catchall term for any number of non-traditional diets, fasts, or procedures that have claims to reset your metabolism, remove unwanted pounds, and eliminate so-called toxins from the body. Detox diets often refer to refined sugar, caffeine, red meat, alcohol, gluten, and various environmental contaminants as toxins. They cite wide-ranging conditions such as obesity, fatigue, skin rashes, various cancers, bloating, depression, insomnia, joint pain, and chronic nasal congestion as evidence of toxicity in the body. Most detox practices focused on the colon stating that toxic substances supposedly attach to and irritate the colon’s lining, increasing the risk of illness unless they’re removed by a special diet or cleanse. However, these notions are inaccurate, as fecal matter does not harbor toxins that can make you ill and cleansing your colon is unnecessary at best, and dangerous at worse.
There are many herbal products and detox diets with these claims however, bowel cleanses are not recommended and there is no evidence that they will help. Specific detox diets vary, but they typically include a period of fasting that is followed by a strict diet of raw vegetables, fruit and fruit juices, and water. In addition, some detox diets advocate using herbs and other supplements along with colon cleansing (enemas) to empty the intestines. Your body does not need bowel cleanses to remove stool or toxins as your body does this naturally. Bowel cleanses should be done under the supervision of a doctor and should only be needed to prep for a medical procedure.
If your goal is weight loss, a benefit promised by most if not all detox plans, evidence suggests that detoxing can actually ruin your efforts in the long-term. While the severe calorie restriction that most detox plans entail may make you thinner temporarily, the weight you’ll lose is mainly water weight, not body fat, the loss of which is essential in order to maintain weight loss over time. Indeed, studies have shown that both men and women who lose weight by fasting or dramatically reducing calorie intake routinely gain the weight back and often end up even heavier.
Some detox cleanses claim that drinking a lot of water will help the body flush out toxins. However, drinking more water than is necessary to stay hydrated and supress thirst can impair the ability of the kidneys to properly exchange electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and chloride. That in turn can lead to potentially life-threating problems like cardiac arrhythmias. It might seem reasonable to assume that the more water you pour in to your body, the more bad stuff you flush out, but that is simply not the case. As long as you are producing light-coloured urine and don’t feel excessively thirsty, you are drinking all the water you need.
Detox diets that severely limit protein, fatty acids, other essential nutrients or that require fasting can result in fatigue and other negative side effects. Long-term fasting and restricted diets can result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Colon cleansing can cause cramping, bloating, nausea and vomiting. Daily detoxes can cause dehydration, deplete electrolytes, and impair normal bowel function. They can also disrupt the natural intestinal flora, microorganisms that perform useful digestive functions. A person who goes on detox diets repeatedly may run the risk of developing metabolic acidosis, a disruption of the body’s acid-base balance, which results in excessive acidity in the blood. Severe metabolic acidosis can lead to coma and death.
Although the detox industry is booming, there is very little clinical evidence to support the use of these diets. A handful of clinical studies have shown that commercial detox diets enhance liver detoxification and eliminate persistent organic pollutants from the body, although these studies are hindered by flawed methodologies and small sample sizes. No randomised controlled trials have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of commercial detox diets in humans. This is an area that deserves attention so that consumers can be informed of the potential benefits and risks of detoxes.
Finally, keep in mind that fad diets aren’t a good long-term solution. For lasting results, your best bet is to eat a healthy diet based on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein. Healthy food choices combined with a healthy lifestyle can help you maintain your weight and as well working digestive system. The kidneys and liver are effective at filtering and eliminating most ingested toxins. The human body can defend itself well against most environmental insults and the effects of occasional indulgence. If you’re generally healthy, focus on giving your body what it needs to maintain its strong self-cleaning system with a wholesome diet, adequate fluid intake, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and all recommended medical check-ups. If you experience changes in your health, visit your doctor instead of turning to detoxes.
Resources: www.todaysdietitian.com, Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, www.eatrightontario.ca, www.healthstandnutrition.com, Registered Dietitian article at www.mayoclinic.org, www.health.harvard.edu, www.dietitians.ca