‘Detoxes’are pointless, deceptive and downright dangerous
Are you thinking of going on a detox diet to lose weight in time for the flurry of parties and picture taking these holidays? Or will you be going on a detox regimen to ‘cleanse’ yourself after the holiday food binge? If these are your plans, think again.
Most detox diets and regimens are elaborate hoaxes, health experts warn yet again, almost 10 years after sounding the first alarm.
Over the past decade, ‘detoxes’ have grown from obscure alternative treatments into a multibillion-dollar industry promoted by celebrities like Beyonce Knowles, Angelina Jolie and Demi Moore.
Beyonce Knowles attributed her 20-pound weight loss for the movie “Dreamgirls” to the Master Cleanse—a starvation diet that has adherents eating nothing for 10 days, except for a concoction of lemon juice, maple syrup, water and cayenne pepper, as well as salt water and a laxative tea.
Even Prince Charles has joined the bandwagon, according to new reports, by marketing a Duchy Originals herbal ‘detox tincture’ featuring globe artichoke and dandelion.
Examples of detox diets abound. Aside from the Master Cleanse, there’s Fruit Flush, 21 Pounds in 21 Days, Juice Fasts and Raw Diets. A Google search for ‘detox diet’ brings up at least 16 million results.
Detox diets are popular because they make two claims widely sought by people today: rapid weight loss and the quick, easy and effortless restoration of health.
Detoxes are also popular because they latch on to recent trends of achieving health holistically, or in a more natural and environmentally friendly way.
Detox regimens also tap into growing concerns over toxins, pollution and other perils of modern life, taking advantage of these fears and a general lack of understanding of these issues.
Detox proponents claim that the body is under constant attack from smog, pesticides, artificial sweeteners, sugar, alcohol and other ‘toxins’. They claim that, without periodic cleansings, these poisons accumulate in the body and cause headaches, fatigue and all sorts of chronic diseases.
The idea behind these detoxes, which can last anywhere from three days to about a month, is to rid the body of these toxins absorbed from the environment and from eating less-than-healthy foods. Cleansing is also supposed to leave adherents feeling energized.
Popular detox diets—which restrict all solid foods and instruct dieters to survive on only low-calorie beverages for days at a time—promise to purge excess fat, flush poisons, clear complexion and bolster the immune system.
Other detox treatments, like ionic food detoxes, detox body wrap, detox facials and detox massages, among others, claim to cure a range of vague ailments, such as tiredness, headaches, bloating, back pain and skin problems, by cleansing the body’s blood and organs of a jumble of accumulated ‘toxic’ chemicals.
Marketing nonsense, flawed science
But do you really need to rid your body of dietary ‘poisons’? Do your colon, liver, and lymph nodes need to be flushed and cleaned?
No, says Dr. David Bender, a professor of nutritional biochemistry at the University College London, who lambasted detox diets and treatments in an article, The Detox Delusion, published in the British Society of Biology’s The Biologist journal.
“The term ‘detox’ has gone from describing a chemical reaction involved in the production of urine to a meaningless marketing term,” he says in the article, which takes apart claims made by marketers of detox diets.
And while ads for detox products spout a lot of scientific jargon aimed to bamboozle consumers into buying these, Dr. Bender says that in terms of human biology, the idea of ‘detoxing’ is absurd.
“Detoxing simply does not work, says” Dr. Bender. “At best, it’s expensively pointless; at worst, it’s highly dangerous.”
The basic fallacy, notes Professor Bender, is that “large amounts of toxic waste accumulate in our bodies and must be eliminated by some kind of dietary regime.”
“The whole philosophy of detox is based on the unlikely premise that accumulated toxins cause a sluggish metabolism, weight gain, general malaise and so on,” he says.
But people already have an excellent system for getting rid of potentially harmful substances, the professor pointed out. “It’s called the human body.”
In fact, “the human body processes and removes toxins very efficiently,” Dr. Bender says.
This waste disposal system has evolved over millions of years and works day and night to remove unwanted substances, he notes.
The gut prevents bacteria and many toxins from entering the body. The body’s organs are constantly creating highly complex chemical reactions that turn food and drink into hormones, energy and even medicines, the professor says.
Human metabolisms are also highly efficient at dissolving unwanted substances harmlessly into our urine and bile so that we can void them when we visit the toilet.
Thus, the idea of ‘bad’ chemicals simply sitting around in our bodies waiting to be removed by expensive detox regimen is nonsense, Professor Bender says.
“I am not sure what ‘self-healing’ is and the idea of ‘raised energy levels’ is nonsense,” he adds.
The global scientific community stands fully behind the professor’s conclusions.
The science behind the ‘detox’ theory is deeply flawed, says Dr. Peter Pressman, an internal medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The body already has multiple systems in place—including the liver, kidneys, and gastrointestinal tract—that do a perfectly good job of eliminating toxins from the body within hours of consumption.
“There’s no evidence at all that any of these approaches augment the body’s own mechanisms,” Dr. Pressman tells WebMD.
“The body’s own detoxification systems are remarkably sophisticated and versatile. They have to be, as the natural environment that we evolved in is hostile,” notes Professor Alan Boobis OBE, Biochemical Pharmacology professor and Director of the Imperial College London’s Health Protection Agency Toxicology Unit.
“It’s remarkable that people are prepared to risk seriously disrupting these systems with unproven ‘detox’ diets, which could well do more harm than good.”
The campaign group Sense About Science, in fact, has investigated 15 detox products, ranging from foot patches to ‘detox’ hair straighteners, and asked manufacturers for evidence to justify their claims.
“No one we contacted was able to provide any evidence for their claims or to give a comprehensive definition of what they meant by detox,” says Sense About Science.
“If ‘detoxing’ really did work, it would be simple to prove its effectiveness,” argues Dr. Edzard Ernst, recently retired professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter.
“All you would need to do is to take a few blood samples from volunteers and test whether this or that toxin is eliminated from the body faster than normal,’ he says.
‘But there are no studies that demonstrate this effectiveness. The reason is simple: these products have no real effects.’
‘Detox’ diet = many dangers
Most detox regimens urge dieters to strip down their diets to raw fruits or vegetables and water. Some diets also recommend laxatives, enemas, or colonic irrigation, which are supposed to speed up the detox process.
Gallons of water or specially formulated drinks with herbs— typically only available on the diet’s website—are usually the only liquids allowed.
While there’s a grain of wisdom in detox diets, the problem is these diets are so restrictive that they’re ineffective for long-term use, says Dawn Jackson-Blatner, a licensed dietitian in Chicago IL who writes regularly for the USA Today, The Dr. Oz Show, Dateline, Newsweek, Cooking Light and WebMD.
It’s true that the average person doesn’t drink enough water or consume enough fruits and vegetables, she tells WebMD. But any weight loss that occurs during ‘detox’ diets is likely to be temporary.
“When people think about losing weight, they think about losing fat,” she says. “But this is water lost and water gained.”
“The limited variety of foods and beverages and minimum calories is of concern because it’s very difficult to get all the nutrients and energy you need for good health with such restrictive regimens,” says Dr. Christine Gerbstadt, American Dietetic Association (ADA) spokeswoman.
Unless there are religious or cultural reasons to fast or follow detox programs, she advises against them.
“Massive fluid losses upset the delicate fluid and electrolyte balance, can cause gastrointestinal distress, headaches, fatigue (and) irritability, and can lead to dehydration,” says Dr. Gerbstadt.
Dr. Gerbstadt also warns that fasting or following very restrictive detox diets can slow your metabolism, making it harder to lose weight once you start eating again.
Although people can quickly shed kilos on detox diets, most people regain all the weight they lost from highly restrictive diets, according to recent research published in American Psychologist, the American Psychological Association’s journal.
While people can lose five to 10 percent of their weight in the first few months of a diet, up to two-thirds of these people regain even more weight than they lost within four or five years, the researchers found.
What’s worse, “you will lose weight, but it’s the not the unhealthy fat you will lose but precious body protein and fluids,” says Dr. Michelle May, MD, author of Am I Hungry? What to Do When Diets Don’t Work.
“Extreme diets generally do little more than cause frustration, are potentially dangerous, and are in general are a waste of time and money,” she told WebMD.
Vitamin deficiencies, muscle breakdown, blood-sugar problems and frequent liquid bowel movements are some risks from lengthy or repeated fasts.
“Long-term fasts lead to muscle breakdown and a shortage of many needed nutrients,” says Lona Sandon, a Dallas dietitian and another spokesperson for the ADA.
Depriving the body of vitamins and minerals we get from food can “actually weaken the body’s ability to fight infections and inflammation,” she says.
Because crash diets can upset blood sugar, potassium and sodium levels in the body, people with diabetes, heart or kidney disease or women who are pregnant or nursing shouldn’t try them, experts also warn.
These groups are especially vulnerable to intestinal and even cardiac problems stemming from malnutrition, Dr. Pressman notes.
“Weight gain is due to an imbalance between food consumption and energy expenditure. There’s no magic shortcut for weight loss—you have to eat less and exercise more. It’s that simple,” Dr. Bender points out.
Dangerous ‘detox’ regimens
Colons don’t need flushing unless you are prepping for a medical procedure like a colonoscopy, says Dr. Gerbstadt, even as she warns that colonic enemas tamper with the body’s natural fluid and electrolyte balance and can lead to infection, irregularity and dehydration.
“The liver and kidneys are nature’s best-kept secret, because they are weapons to eliminate toxins from your body,” says Gerbstadt. “If you are concerned about certain substances in your diet, it’s easier and safer to simply eliminate (those substances) rather than engage in unhealthy detox plans.”
“Eating more fiber in whole grains, bran, fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts is a safe and natural way to add bulk to your diet,” she says.
Experts also frown on the use of laxatives in detox diets, noting that laxative abuse is a common sign of an eating disorder.
The belief that laxatives are useful for weight control is a myth, the U.S. National Eating Disorders Association says.
In fact, laxative abuse can cause severe dehydration and heart or colon damage, the association says. Colonic irrigation, another fixture of some detox diets, carries the risk of bowel perforation or infection, both of which can cause death.
Other ‘detox’ regimens are downright harmful
Last August, one woman died at a detox spa and another was rushed to hospital in Canada after they had spent hours wrapped in mud and plastic intended to draw ‘poisons’ from their skin, the Daily Mail reports in a recent article.
Medical officials in Quebec said their tests showed that the dead woman, Chantal Lavigne, 35, had suffered heat stroke and asphyxiation.
‘Detoxing’ foot spas are not only hoaxes, but can be downright dangerous, Dr. Bender says.
“All you are witnessing is the salts in the footbath reacting with the electrodes in the machine,” he explains. “The water in the footwell of ‘detoxing’ foot spas doesn’t turn brown because they have drawn nasty colored toxins out of the body,”
“If you don’t put your feet in the water, it will still turn brown after 30 minutes,” he said.
He warns that these foot spas can be dangerous: “Far from removing toxins in the body, the process of electrolyzing sodium chloride creates substances that are actively hazardous to human health — explosive hydrogen gas and poisonous chlorine gas.”
What you should do
Detox diets promise a quick fix, but are hoaxes. Still, you can really change your life in 10 days, says Dr. Jackson-Blatner to those wanting to lose weight and optimize their health.
“Instead of going on a detox diet, use those 10 days to make the transition to a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables—and then stick to that diet for good,” she says.
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