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Diet Detox: Helpful or Harmful?

Detox diets can be harmful to your health.

Almost every day I hear of a new detox diet or cleanse: Master Cleanse, Beauty Detox Solution, Diuretic Diet, Fat Flush Diet, Hallelujah Diet, Inside Out Diet, Lemonade Diet, Mucusless Diet (ew?), Swiss Secret, Weight Loss Cure and the list goes on. It seems like just about every celebrity from Beyonce to Oprah have sworn by them.

In fact, one of the most common questions I get asked is: “Well, I want to get rid of all these toxins that build up in my body – which one do you recommend?”

My short answer is this: None of them. 

Want to live on cayenne pepper, maple syrup, lemon juice and salt water for 14 days? Yeah, me neither. But, countless people are turning to these cleanses as a way to lose weight quickly.

Do they work? Yeah, you’ll lose weight, but it’s all water weight. You’ll gain it all back when you start to eat regularly again. It's a frustrating way to yo-yo diet.

What is a Detox Diet?

Fasting or consuming a specific array (typically pretty strange concoctions) of foods, herbs, spices, or drinks, while avoiding large groups of foods. Typically, the detox diets are very low in calories and remove many macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates) from the diet as well as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These diets typically last around two weeks and claim to have detoxifying effects in particular organs (i.e. liver, gastrointestinal tract or colon). 

Cleansing/detoxing is not supported by science, has had no medical benefit demonstrated and is based upon individual testimonials extolling the virtues of the product.

Helpful or Harmful?

Mostly harmful. Most of these diets add no nutritional value to your life. In reality, researchers from Harvard Medical School have found that the majority of detox diets or cleanses may deplete the body of important electrolytes, and if people go on these diets frequently they 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," according to a July 22, 2008 report by the Harvard Medical School HEALTHBeat publication.

While a short detox (a few days) may not be very harmful, staying on a detox diet for longer may lead to compromised health. The first symptoms of these types of diets include impaired bowel function, muscle cramps, headaches, irritability and dizziness. That’s your body saying that it’s had enough!

Best Practices

The only “detox” I support is consuming fruits and veggies with lean protein, such as fish, tofu, or beans. Fruits and vegetables are nature's multivitamin, providing the body with the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants it needs to function well, maintain health and help prevent disease. When you cut out:

  • Most refined sugars: candy, pastries, juice, ice cream, sorbet, doughnuts, French fries and too much pasta and rice in one sitting, 
  • Trans fats: processed and fried foods, and 
  • Most saturated fats: from high fat animal products...

... then you’ll probably start feeling better, more energized, and more ‘regular’ (if you know what I mean. *Wink wink*).

In general, the body is very good at naturally detoxifying itself, but fruits and veggies help it along. In fact, cruciferous vegetables – which includes broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy, kale and other hearty leafy greens – actually have antioxidants that stimulate the activity of enzymes in the liver which work to detoxify the body.

Before changing your diet, speak with your doctor or to a registered dietitian to ensure that the changes are compatible with your health and medications.  Also, a more intense diet such as this should not be done for an extended period of time (no longer than 3-5 days). Increasing fruits and veggies is very healthy, but cutting out whole grains may be detrimental to your health, especially if you're a very active individual or athlete.

And every color fruit and vegetable does something different for our body, so choose all different colors – the deeper the color, the more nutrients that fruit or vegetable has!

Last Words

Diets have the word ‘die’ in them…they don’t last!

Any diet that cuts out too many groups of foods is unbalanced and may be difficult to sustain. Plus, nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all; what works for your friend or family member may not work for you.

For the most success, find a healthy eating pattern that satisfies you, makes you feel energized, includes foods you love, and most importantly – one that you know you can continue to eat for a long, long time.

It’s a lifestyle change, not a diet. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

DBC July 12, 2012 at 03:53 PM
This is a fantastic article, well-researched and well-written. Thank you for providing such a comprehensive and articulate report on this subject. Our bodies know how to run their "business," as long as we don't constantly try to impede its successful operation. Granted there are health compromises and system defects which at times need to be addressed but that should be handled by a trusted physician, not by your own limited understanding, perhaps based on commercially-based knowledge without your benefit in mind. Our bodies normally just need the natural flora developed organically in our bodies to protect our internal organs without any "outside help." Thank you again for sharing this with the readership on the Patch!
Rachel Gargano, MS, RD, LDN, CSSD July 12, 2012 at 04:46 PM
Thank you for your comment! You're completely right, our bodies were built to succeed and be healthful; it's what we add to them (chemicals/foods) that may throw off their balance. We need to respect ourselves and invest in our health so that we can live happy, healthy lives!

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