Cleanses and detox diets take many shapes and forms, but are similar in that they claim to remove toxins from the body and cause drastic weight loss. Many people even report high levels of energy and euphoria as well as feeling more spiritual overall. Sounds good, right?
For someone like me who loves to eat, it's not as easy as it sounds. Typically, a detox diet will incorporate fasting with limited amounts of raw fruits and vegetables and juices. Sometimes the plan will also include using enemas or laxatives to clean out the colon.
Let's tackle the weight loss part first – how does it work? That initial drastic drop on the scale is most often water weight. Carbs stored in the body are packed along with water. When the carbs are broken down and used, the water is removed, too. Motivating, yes. True weight loss, no.
What we're really aiming for is fat loss; when the body doesn't get enough calories over time, it's forced to rely on stored forms of energy, like fat. But during weight loss we also burn muscle. Muscle can serve as a source of energy and also a source for protein if we're not getting enough in the diet.
This is true regardless of how we create that calorie deficit, although it can be prevented by eating enough protein and incorporating strength training.
Unfortunately, the extreme nature of detox diets ends up working against us. Normally the body does fine if we're only short a few hundred calories. But during periods of fasting, the body goes into starvation mode and dramatically slows metabolism. This makes it harder to lose weight and stimulates muscle breakdown, which is worsened by the fact that detox diets are usually quite low in protein and you're not going to have much energy to spare for exercise.
Overall, less muscle means a slower metabolism and fewer calories burned, making it easier to gain weight when the detox is over. At the same time, weight loss becomes that much more difficult. Although detoxing and cleansing might work in the short-term, the results are fleeting and can lead to a yo-yo dieting cycle.
Beyond weight loss, detox diets and cleanses purport to remove toxins. Thus far, detox diets haven't been studied much. Also, the word "toxin" isn't very specific so it's hard to know if they are successful in that regard.
What we do know is that the human body has several mechanisms in place for detoxification. The liver filters blood from the digestive tract before it can be sent out to the rest of the body. The liver also detoxifies substances (such as prescription drugs) by changing them to benign forms. The kidneys also filter the blood. Through this process, wastes are removed and excreted through our urine.
Drinking nothing but juice can certainly empty you out – not because you're stimulating your body to remove toxins but because foods and beverages that are very concentrated in sugar can cause diarrhea.
Of course, a large amount of waste will also be removed when you use enemas and laxatives. Normally, waste would leave in a slower and more regulated fashion, but getting rid of it quickly can give the impression of getting cleansed. This can definitely contribute to feeling light and clean, but you also risk dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
While I can see how the idea of detoxing could give a sense of control and motivation to someone wanting to "reset" their lifestyle, at this point I think the potential disadvantages far exceed the positives.
If the goal with cleansing is to get rid of things that are unnaturally in the body, it seems to me that the best way to detox would be to do so as naturally as possible. That is, by taking advantage of the body's natural processes to move things along.
Priority #1: Make friends with fiber. Most Americans get about 14 grams per day, falling far short of the recommended 25-30 grams. Add more fiber in the form of fruits, vegetables, whole grain foods, beans, seeds, and legumes. Incorporate fiber gradually to minimize gas and bloating.
Priority #2: Drink plenty of water. No magic formula needed; pay attention to your thirst and the color of your urine (if it's darker than pale yellow, drink up).
Priority #3: Get your body moving with regular exercise. Physical activity stimulates bowel movements.
Not only are these methods tried and true (and backed by research), but I think they're infinitely easier to do than a detox diet.
Besides, a girl's gotta eat, right?
Today's post was written by Leia Kedem. Leia Kedem, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and Nutrition & Wellness Educator covering Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties. She appears weekly on WCIA-3/WCIX-49 and is a biweekly contributor to the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. She also maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts where she regularly posts health tips and answers nutrition questions for free.