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Detoxing – Desirable or Dangerous?
Can you survive on juice?
"Detox" - it seems to be the latest buzzword on everyone's lips at the moment. With our lives getting busier and our diets more full of processed foods and alcohol, it seems that everyone from Hollywood movie stars to your best friend is getting in on the act.
But is detoxing the way to go, or is it really just another desperate fad that should be viewed through celery-coloured glasses?
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What is a detox diet?
Detoxing, fasting, juice diets, liver cleansing diets - detox-style diets go by many different names. There are also many different types of detox diets. Some require you to drink only fruit or vegetable juices, others must be supplemented with detox pills, and some just encourage you to eat plenty of wholegrains, fruits and vegetables.
While there's nothing wrong with an eating plan that encourages you to avoid processed foods and stick to fresh foods and wholegrains, there are some serious risks involved with the more radical detox diets.
Detox claims – Are they true?
Ever seen these types of claims before?
Most detox diets claim to fix your body from the inside and to have you feeling fabulous, full of energy and with glowing skin in just a short time period.
Detox advocates believe that our bodies develop a 'build-up' of toxins which make us feel unhealthy and lacking in energy, and that these need to be removed. It's easy to be tempted by a diet that promises to rid your body of poisons and toxins - after all who wants those in their body?
However, keep in mind that every day we bring 'toxins' into our bodies from the air we breathe and the food and water we consume. It's important to remember that our bodies are actually designed to deal with these toxins. Our livers, kidneys, respiratory and digestive systems are all purpose built to deal with anything unwanted in our bodies - and they do this quite successfully!
There is no scientific proof that detox diets or fasting can rid our bodies of toxins any more effectively than the way our body usually does. In fact, ironically, very strict detox diets can have the opposite effect! If you are not eating enough each day, your metabolic rate can slow down which actually reduces the rate at which your body can flush out toxins.
What about weight loss?
Detox supplements are usually just laxatives in disguise
Most detox diets are designed to only be performed for a limited period of time (which is just as well if hot water with a squeeze of lemon is your sole source of sustenance!). But what happens then? Twenty-one days of limiting yourself to cabbage soup or carrot juice seems like a sure-fire way to encourage a serious chocolate cake binge!
Temporary measures rarely provide effective solutions to weight or health problems. Weight loss on a detox diet is usually the result of one of the following reasons.
Firstly, many detoxes require you to take supplements. Often these are really laxatives in disguise, designed to make you visit the toilet more often. Laxatives reduce your body's ability to absorb the nutrients from the food and fluids you consume and can cause unhealthy weight loss if taken regularly. Taking laxatives is never a good idea, as it can lead to dehydration and problems with your digestive system.
Secondly, if you're fasting or severely restricting your food intake, your body will naturally struggle to maintain its weight - however most of the weight you lose will be fluid, soon to be replaced when you return to normal eating. This delightful combination of fluid loss and laxatives is never going to produce the trim, toned body that you'll see in advertisements.
Our bodies need a balanced range of sustenance, vitamins and minerals to function correctly. While cutting down on junk food and alcohol is a good idea, eliminating major food groups (such as carbohydrates or dairy) can only lead to serious health consequences. A lack of dairy products in your diet could cause problems with osteoporosis later in life, for example.
Some commonly reported symptoms of detox diets include headaches, dizziness, lack of concentration, bad breath and tiredness. Detox fans may tell you that this is a sign that you are ridding your body of toxins, but really these symptoms are usually caused by a lack of food!
Detox and exercise
Fasting or eating only minimal calories is a bad idea at any time, but especially so when you are exercising. When you are involved in physical activity your body uses the food you eat as fuel. If you're not eating enough, your body cannot cope with doing much at all - let alone running or pumping weights.
But I’ve seen detox diets on television…
You might have seen a number of television shows recently featuring strict detox or deprivation diets. On one such show, the 'health professional' described the detox diet that participants were on as "drawing out the poisons and toxins from their bodies" and that these toxins were "responsible for the pain and low morale they were feeling".
Allan Borushek, CalorieKing.com.au dietitian and best selling author, reminds us that just because you see something on television, doesn't make it true! "These claims are inaccurate and irresponsible," he says. "It's not the sort of regime that we at CalorieKing.com.au would recommend nor indeed would any other respectable health professional. For the high-intensity exercise the participants were cajoled into doing, it would have been far healthier to have a moderate diet of 1200-1500 calories with normal protein and proportionate carbohydrates. The participants' energy levels would have been maintained as well as their morale. There would have been little difference in their weight losses, and their exercise performance would have been much improved."
Borushek is not alone in his criticism of detox diets. Health professionals everywhere are warning about the dangers of detoxing. Dr Rosemary Stanton, well-known Australian nutritionist, agrees. "A prolonged detox that involves very little food and lots of water can disturb the body's balance of potassium or sodium, leading to serious changes in blood pressure and heart rhythms," she says.
A better path to healthy insides
As we all strive for a healthier lifestyle, extra energy and that special glow, it's easy to think that a detox can provide a quick fix. Of course, giving up smoking, excessive alcohol and junk food will certainly help you to feel healthier, but skip the expensive detox supplements and the fasting, and remember that the only true path to better health and lasting weight loss is a sensible well-balanced diet combined with regular exercise. This will help your body function properly and make you feel energised both physically and mentally - something a detox diet can never do!
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Last updated: March 9th, 2005
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