The great detox debate

The great detox debate

Gwyneth Paltrow relies on the Clean Program, Beyonce Knowles is said to follow the Master Cleanse and Demi Moore is a fan of the Raw Food Detox. But the list of fad cleanses doesn’t end there; there’s also the Martha’s Vineyard Detox, Lemon Detox Diet and Fruit Flush to name a few.

Every year another new detox trend joins the queue, the latest craze being young coconut water, which is reported to naturally cleanse the liver.

Despite the obvious popularity of a regular internal body cleanse among A-Listers and regular folk alike, are they really necessary? Is there any research supporting the practice? Do these diets benefit our health or do more harm than good?

Detox demystified

The detox concept involves fasting or following a strictly limited diet in order to ‘cleanse’ the body of unnecessary contaminants found in everyday foods. Think: flavour enhancers, food colourings and artificial preservatives.

But no research proves that following a specific diet for a week or so will eradicate ‘toxins’ from your body.

“The scientific evidence behind the benefits of commercially available detox programs is close to zero,” ClickFit dietitian Pennie Jones says. “Additionally, there is no physiological need for a detox program. The body has a very sophisticated way of metabolising and excreting toxins, using organs such as the liver and the kidneys, as well as mechanisms to keep the body’s pH in balance.”

Weight loss wonder?

Many detox devotees are more interested in rapid weight loss than flushing out poisons, but is it a fast way to a fit body?

“Some detox programs are promoted for their weight loss,” Jones says, “but the weight loss is really a consequence of cutting out many foods from your diet and ultimately reducing your calories for the period of the detox. And, once the detoxing is over, you go back to old habits and therefore lost weight is easily regained.”

Put yourself on a starvation plan and there’s no doubt that your calorie intake will shrink. Drinking nothing but vegetable juice for a week might make you shed kilos but are you losing fat, muscle or simply water?

Hala El Shafie, an expert nutritionist and registered dietitian who co-founded Nutrition Rocks (nutrition-rocks.co.uk), claims that while detoxing leads the scales to register you have lost weight, it is not true weight loss. Plus, it's not sustainable and, in the long run, could actually contribute to weight gain.

El Shafie explains, "During a detox what you actually lose is water, glycogen stores and muscle mass, rather than body fat. When you stop detoxing you then put all this 'weight' back on leaving you feeling more deflated and demoralised than you were to begin with." El Shafie also attributes this potential weight gain to the fact many detoxes involve little food, slowing down the body’s metabolism.

"Detoxing is, in fact, a misconception, because the liver naturally cleanses the body. If it didn't we'd be seriously ill – simple as that." El Shafie claims it has a placebo effect: misleading you to feeling you're doing something healthy for your body, without really making much difference – if anything you’re doing more harm than good.

There can also be more serious consequences of extreme detoxes, especially for those who are overweight, El Shafie warns. "Detoxes can lead to fluid loss, which can upset the balance of electrolytes. At best, this results in headaches and irritability, but at worst it has a detrimental effect on the heart, liver and other internal organs." Detoxes can also cause deprivation, a feeling of lack of control and fuel eating disorders, behaviours and addictions.

That clean feeling ...

So, are there any plus points to this fashionable practice? Jones says that going “cold turkey” on some of the more negative elements of your diet can be a good way to reset your habits. But a more sustainable approach, she argues, is “no toxing”, which means to reducing your intake of contaminants like alcohol, caffeine, and highly processed foods, and replacing them with brightly coloured fresh vegetables and fruits, wholegrain breads and cereals, quality vegetable and animal proteins like legumes, fish and lean meats and, of course, plenty of water.

“This approach is something that you can do for life, and doesn’t require you to purchase expensive pills or potions,” she says. “And by feeding your body with quality, nutritious foods, you will be providing it with all the essential tools it needs to function optimally.”

El Shafie's recommendation for a healthy, sustainable detox is no different from a long-term nutritious diet, as provided by Fitness First Online. “The most effective detoxes allow the body to perform the best job it can by eating well and staying hydrated.” She advises maintaining a balanced diet consisting of fruit, vegetables, lean meat and plenty of water, eating regularly, enjoying your food and committing to mindful eating: chewing, tasting, eating slowly and focusing on building a better relationship with food. Eat simply and you will reap all the rewards that are claimed by the most outlandish detoxes – and you will feel fantastic.

Spotting a dodgy detox diet

Before embarking on a cultish diet, ask yourself ...

  • Does it cut out core food groups like dairy or meats?
  • Does it encourage consumption of just one food group each day like fruit, or vegetables or soup?
  • Does it ask you to buy expensive supplements like drinks, tablets or powders?
  • Are the claims “wonder" or “miracle” claims?

The “no tox” approach

Take a healthy hint of detox and opt for ...

  • Plenty of bright coloured vegetables and fruit.
  • Varied vegetable proteins, such as tofu, kidney beans, chickpeas and cannellini beans.
  • Lean meats and fish several times a week.
  • Wholegrains, like wholegrain breads, wholemeal pasta and brown rice.
  • Plenty of water every day, at least two litres.
  • Limited caffeinated drinks.
  • Fewer highly processed foods and drinks, including foods high in saturated fat, high in added sugar and high in salt.