Is it time for a detox?

The New Year is a time to think about new starts, clean slates and better habits. If weekly magazines are anything to go by, it’s also a time of dieting yourself silly, to make up for the excesses of the holiday season.

Many popular diets at this time of year focus on the concept of ‘detox’. The idea is that toxins – from pollution, pesticides, food additives, sugar, caffeine and alcohol – accumulate in the body and cause problems such as headaches, fatigue and weight-gain. Detox proponents say we need to ‘let the body heal itself’ and ‘eliminate toxins’. Detox diets typically eliminate alcohol, caffeine, sugar, red meat and dairy. The most extreme, such as the lemon detox or ‘master cleanse’, eliminate food altogether, and have dieters subsisting on a mix of lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. Other detox regimes include supplements and/or colonic irrigation to ‘flush out’ toxins, and large amounts of water, fruit and vegetable juices.

The idea that the body needs a period of elimination in order to get rid of ‘bad’ stuff is appealing, especially when we’ve been hitting the booze and snack foods hard over the holidays. However, when you consider how the body works, it doesn’t make sense. Our bodies actually have their own built-in ‘detoxifiers’ – the liver, kidneys, skin, intestines and lungs. Toxins are excreted within hours of being consumed (in faeces, urine and sweat) and this process of filtering out, breaking down and excreting waste products happens constantly. There is no scientific evidence that a detox diet helps rid the body of toxins any faster.

If that’s the case, though, why do people lose weight and feel great when they detox?

Well, weight lost quickly is mostly water. Once you go back to eating a regular diet, the weight will go back on. Clearer skin could be from drinking more water, or just your hormonal cycle. Fewer headaches could come from reduced caffeine and alcohol or better hydration. Less bloating is often a result of simply eating less food. And that feeling of euphoria and energy that detoxers sometimes report? It could just be the body’s primal reaction to starvation. People who fast also report feeling this.

On the positive side, anything that gets us thinking about improving our diets, eating more vegetables and fruit, consuming less alcohol and staying hydrated is a good thing. Especially if you have been eating less than perfectly lately.

So instead of embarking on a drastic detox-style diet, why not just focus on three things, while sticking to normal balanced meals:

  • add an extra vegetable serve to every meal;
  • have at least four alcohol-free days each week; and
  • cut out as much refined, sugary, fatty food as possible.

Think of it as a ‘re-health’ instead of a ‘de-tox’ – one you can stick to all year.

First published: Jan 2013

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