Do Detox Diets Deliver?
By Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN
So-called “detox diets” have become go-to quick fixes for many who want to look their best for a red carpet walk or upcoming event. But do we really need to go to extremes to achieve a cleaner, leaner body?
To get the low down (and some dirt) on “detox diets”, I turned to Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, author of the new book Doctor’s Detox Diet—The Ultimate Weight Loss Prescription. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
How do you define a “detox diet”?
There’s a disconnect between how the scientific community and the popular press define “detox diet.” According to the dictionary, “detoxification” refers to the metabolic process by which substances such as drugs, alcohol, ingested food additives, heavy metals, cigarette smoke, pesticides and other pollutants (aka toxins) are changed into less harmful or more readily excretable substances. To me, a “detox diet” combines balanced meals and regular physical activity to help your body’s immune system perform at its peak to use SKILL© (the five major immune organ systems including Skin, Kidney, Intestine, Lymphatic and Liver) to naturally detoxify the body.
What do you think of the “detox diets” many swear by? Are they safe?
Most “detox diets” restrict major food groups including grains and fruits (rich in carbohydrate), meats and dairy foods (rich in protein), and fats and oils. They also tend to limit calories to 1,000 or less per day. Many also rely on expensive and unnecessary supplements including diuretics, laxatives, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. These diets are really just crash or fad diets in disguise--they’re too low in calories to meet energy needs, nutritionally imbalanced, and potentially dangerous.
What are some of the short-term effects of “detox diets?”
These types of diets are easy to follow over the short term because they’re so restrictive. They also promote rapid water weight loss, often due to decreased sodium intake and increased potassium intake (from fruits and vegetables).
What are some of the potential risks associated with “detox diets”?
When you fast, you may experience headaches or become moody; doing so for several weeks can contribute to anemia and an irregular heartbeat due to electrolyte imbalance. Using enemas and diuretics can contribute to kidney and liver disorders. Colon cleansing can weaken the immune system and destroy gut microflora (good bacteria that protect against bad bacteria). Taking too many mineral supplements can contribute to organ failure due to accumulation of the minerals in organ tissue. Taking herbal supplements can lead to adverse reactions such as allergy or ingestion of high levels of lead or arsenic. Not consuming enough food or calories can make you feel week and lethargic from low blood sugar, and may even contribute to a feeding frenzy when the detox is over. In some cases, these diets can contribute to a heart dysrhythmia or bowel perforation that can lead to death.
Is there a healthy way to detoxify your body?
It may sound boring, but consuming a balanced, nutritious diet that provides adequate calories to achieve and maintain a healthy weight (for example, one that’s consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPyramid) naturally strengthens your body’s immune system, and therefore detoxifies your body.
Can physical activity and exercise also help?
Absolutely! Being physically active helps blood circulate to all your organs so that they can do their jobs and keep your body free from wastes and toxins. Weight training exercises to keep muscles strong and healthy (about 2 hours a week) and aerobic activity-- walking or bicycling (at least 2.5 hours a week), along with stretching and relaxation (yoga or Tai Chi, for example), will help strengthen the immune system’s SKILL©.
What are your last words for those who want to try a “detox diet”?
Consumers need to understand that “detox diets” that encourage starvation or food restriction slow your metabolism and weaken the immune system. Not getting enough calories also makes the body break down lean muscle tissue to provide fuel and keep it going. Such diets also limit or prevent vital nutrients from getting to the SKILL© organs. Eating balanced meals most of the time, staying active, and getting back on track when you stray from a healthy lifestyle are the best immune boosters and defense against toxins.
Do you detox? How do you do it?
Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, is a nationally recognized registered dietitian and award-winning author of "Nutrition At Your Fingertips," "Feed Your Family Right!," and "So What Can I Eat?!." She is also a past national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. For more information, go to www.elisazied.com, and www.nutritionatyourfingertips.com. Follow Elisa on Twitter/elisazied and on Facebook.