Debunking detox diets

It sounds like a good idea: go on a detox diet to shed kilos and “purify” your body by eliminating waste products and “toxins” in your intestines. Internet ads and TV infomercials promise: “Ten days to a whole new you!” “Rapid weight loss and rejuvenation!” “Make your health problems vanish!” - all with cleansing regimens that combine extreme kilojoule reduction and laxatives.

Even celebrities have gotten on the bandwagon: Beyonce shed quite a bit of weight on the Master Cleanse programme, drinking salt water in the morning, a concoction of lemon juice, cayenne and maple syrup throughout the day, and topping it all off with laxative tea at night. But really, is this a smart way to lose weight?

Experts say no. Katherine McManus, a registered dietician and director of nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston (affiliated with Harvard Medical School) recently conducted a study comparing a variety of weight loss diets.

“I have not seen any science that substantiates the health claims [made by proponents of detox diets],” she says. “These [cleansing] diets are a very limited, short-term fix, and the research shows that the [weight] loss cannot be sustained.” What’s more, McManus has seen no scientific evidence that detox diets boost energy, rev up your metabolism or aid your health in any other way.

More harm than good

Detox diets help you lose weight by draining your body of fluids, depriving you of nutrients and triggering repeated bowel movements. But the truth is, the human body is a well-designed machine, perfectly capable of getting rid of waste and defending against occasional overindulgences of alcohol or trans fat without the help of “intestinal cleansing".

“You may feel good from losing a few pounds and clearing out your intestines, but detox diets and purgatives can be dangerous,” warns Dr Mitchell S Cappell, chief of gastroenterology at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan.

“Getting rid of stool and water [in this manner] can lead to diarrhoea, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, which could lead to [cardiac] arrhythmia.” And when you flush the “toxins” from your intestines, you’re also getting rid of the good bacteria that help keep your digestive system healthy.

What really works

Instead of wasting money and possibly endangering your health with detox kits, “you can achieve these same goals of weight loss, increased stamina and cleansing through nutritious foods and regular exercise", says McManus.

Here, some pointers that will help you achieve your goals sensibly:

Think “DASH” or “Mediterranean”

For lasting weight loss and improved overall health, try the DASH or Mediterranean-style diets, both of which are backed by sound scientific research. DASH stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension".

The DASH diet was developed by researchers at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods that are heart-healthy and low in sodium. Mediterranean-style diets feature fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and healthy fats (found in olive oil, nuts and fish).

These plant-based, high-fibre diets, along with plenty of water, will help keep you “regular” while promoting weight loss and reducing your risk for cardiovascular disease, colon cancer and a host of other ills.

Shop the perimetre of the grocery store

This is where you’ll find fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat and non-fat dairy foods, and lean protein, such as fish and poultry. Then check out the bread and cereal aisles, keeping an eye out for whole grains.

Consume the least-processed foods available

That means fewer packaged, canned and processed foods.

Get regular physical activity

Even a 30-minute stroll helps. “Exercise is such a powerful tool because it promotes physical, spiritual and emotional health,” asserts McManus. Not only will it burn kilojoules, but studies show that regular exercise helps you maintain your weight, improves immunity and keeps you regular.

The Bottom Line

Cleansing diets don’t work for long-term weight loss, boosting energy or resilience, or improving overall health. In fact, such diets will likely make you sick. “Stick with lifestyle patterns that are safe and support good health,” notes McManus. If you do, you won’t ever feel the need to “detox”.

- (Nancy Gottesman, Live Right Live Well/Health24, January 2011) 

Read more:

Using the DASH diet in South Africa
Go the Meditteranean route
10 rules for a balanced diet

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