Detox diets - good or bad?

Overweight, constipated, lethargic and just downright unhappy with life? It's at this point that many people turn to detox diets, and products and treatments such as colonic irrigation to rid themselves of their guilt and accumulated fat. It is actually mind-boggling what some people would do in an effort to reverse the effects of overindulgence. No wonder the detox industry is worth millions throughout the world.

 But just how good are detox diets, products and treatments? And do they do more harm than good?

Detox diets
A search on the internet revealed an article by Alyson Greenhalgh writing for the BBC on this topic. Alyson points out that many of us believe that food and drinks contain toxins that accumulate in the body, which need to be flushed out to restore good health.

Actually, the human body is perfectly well equipped to deal with toxins on its own, with the liver and kidneys doing a perfectly good job without our interference.

In general, detox diets vary from strict avoidance of all solid foods by only drinking various liquids such as fruit juice, vegetable juice, black coffee or tea and water, to solid-food diets that concentrate on fresh, raw fruit and vegetables, yoghurt and water. These diets are followed for periods varying from three days to two weeks in the belief that they will purge the body of all toxins.

People who use such detox diets usually do lose some weight and start feeling marginally better due to weight loss, but not toxin shedding. Adherents of the liquid-only diets will probably also tend to feel faint because of low blood sugar levels, and may become irritable and develop headaches. The latter symptoms are signs of caffeine withdrawal, not toxin purging.

There is very little scientific evidence to support the use of strict detox diets. In fact, it would be much healthier and more sensible if we rather avoided excessive intakes of rich, fatty foods and alcoholic drinks all year round instead of indulging and then trying to fix our poor eating habits with a minimalistic diet which can lead to other problems such as feeling faint.

According to Greehalgh, the greatest irony is that the human liver, which is primarily responsible for ridding the body of toxic substances derived from alcohol, functions best on a diet rich in proteins such as meat, fish and dairy products. So by starving yourself, you are not actually assisting the liver to get rid of toxins! Do you really want to starve your liver when it needs proteins to function properly?

It would seem that detox diets are not what they are made out to be and if used unwisely can cause problems.

Never use a liquid detox diet for longer than 2-3 days and make sure that you can rest and relax while you are on such a diet to prevent accidents due to low blood sugar levels. Rather change your eating and drinking habits all year round to ensure that you ingest a balanced diet at all times, then you won't feel the need for detoxing.

Detox products
There are literally thousands of herbal and over-the-counter products that promise 'safe, natural detoxification', many of which are being advertised enthusiastically at this time of year. Most of these products contain harsh laxatives and/or diuretics, which can cause more harm than good.

Harsh laxatives, including those touted as 'safe and natural' or 'herbal' will interfere with the natural function of the bowels and in extreme cases can lead to loss of peristalsis (the normal muscle contraction of the bowel wall that moves waste products through the digestive tract).

Individuals who overuse harsh laxatives lose their normal bowel function and get hooked on these laxatives for life.

Diuretics used in excess can lead to dehydration, which can be fatal in some cases. If your 'safe, healthy, natural' detox product makes you urinate all day long, it probably contains a strong diuretic and should be avoided.

The only detox products that will assist you in terms of constipation are probiotics or 'beneficial microorganisms' such as Bifidobacteria and Lactic acid bacteria, which help to restore the natural flora in the digestive system. Use probiotics to get regular and combine them with a high-fibre diet to prevent constipation.

Detox treatments
The BBC recently uncovered a major detox scam. One of the popular detox treatments available in the UK is a treatment called 'Aqua Detox'. This entails having a foot spa at beauty salons and health resorts where a small electric current and some salt are added to the water. After 30 minutes of treatment, the patient is supposed to be detoxed, proven by the fact that the water in the food spa has turned brown!

The BBC Watchdog Team took this seemingly miraculous treatment to a scientist, Dr Ben Goldacre, who explained that all the treatment was causing, was a chemical reaction called electrolysis. When an electric current is passed through water that contains salts, the so-called electrodes start to rust, which turns the water brown - no detoxification, just a hoax! But the treatment can cost £50 or about R700,00 per treatment. What a rip-off!

I am sure that there are many innocent people around the world who are falling victim to this kind of advertising hype, thinking that treatment X or machine Y will 'detoxify the body, or stimulate the immune system'. Please don't spend your hard-earned cash on this type of quackery.

So what should you do?
It is evident that the most sensible approach is not to overindulge over the 'Silly Season', but to rather stick to eating a well-balanced diet that includes all foods in moderation and to do regular exercise all year round.

By all means include probiotics in your diet, either as a supplement or in the form of yoghurt with live cultures. Increase your dietary fibre intake to promote good bowel habits and prevent constipation. Simple solutions are still the best and they won't ruin your budget, damage your colon, and dupe you. Don't be a Detox Sucker!

-(Dr Ingrid van Heerden, updated February 2010)

(Aqua Detox. BBC Consumer Report, 9 January 2007; A Greenhalgh, 2001. Do detox diets work?

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