Detoxing: the path to wellness or waste of time?
Detoxing devotees believe the practice cleanses the body, and can promote weight loss. Does the science support these claims?
Commonly promoted as a weight-loss tool, detox plans are purported to cleanse your body, particularly your liver, of built up toxins that have accumulated due to a poor diet, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and exposure to pollution. Marketers of popular commercial detox programs may claim that these toxins can cause weight gain and other health problems such as poor digestion and a lack of energy.
What is a detox?
A detox can be as simple as eating only raw vegetables and fruits, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol, or as strict as eliminating meals altogether and replacing them with a program of teas, pre-mixed juices or powdered supplements. Detox programs can run from a few days to a few weeks and, in many instances, will facilitate weight loss because you’re taking in less calories.
The problem is that the results are usually temporary. “You can see a lot of weight loss very quickly but it’s not true weight loss,” says Dr Tim Crowe, a nutrition academic with Deakin University’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences. “In most cases, it’s a lot of fluid you’re losing, and you’ll replace that fairly quickly when you go back to regular eating.”
Even more troubling, says Dr Crowe, is that these programs are claiming to do something our bodies do naturally. “We have a liver and kidneys that [get rid of toxins] day-in and day-out, every time we eat and there’s no biological evidence that following a detox diet makes your body remove them any quicker.”
But I feel better…
You may well feel healthier as a result of detoxing, but that’s to do with changing your diet.
“A detox diet makes you eat healthier; stops you eating rubbish in the first place,” says Dr Crowe. “But I’m yet to see one that will actually name any of these toxins in your body that it can apparently help remove. It’s a wonderful phrase, ‘cleansing and detoxifying yourself’ – it resonates really well with our society and our increasing focus on wellness – but the biological basis just isn’t there.”
Accredited dietitian Melanie McGrice agrees. “Detox diets claim to do all sorts of things – weight loss, increasing energy, detoxifying the liver to help with our metabolism and to help us be healthier – but our digestive system already naturally works that way. If you drank alcohol last week, your liver isn’t going to be storing that a week later. It will already have detoxified itself,” she says.
Is there a point to detoxing at all? These diets are often low in kilojoules, McGrice says, which can help you lose weight, and also make you feel like you’re moving towards a ‘clean slate’, cleansed of indulgence-related guilt.
But the key to real wellness is choosing the right type of program – one that’s less about deprivation and more about balance, and one that isn’t so strict it can’t be sustained. “Stay away from extreme detoxes that make you purchase expensive pills and potions, or very restrictive eating programs, such as juice cleanses,” says Dr Crowe.
Instead, focus on your diet. “You can ‘detox’ from foods that are unhealthy for you (although they’re not toxins),” says McGrice, “sugar, salt, coffee, alcohol, fried foods and so forth – and have a period of time when you’re focusing on eating really well, including plenty of whole grains, fruit, vegetables and dairy.”
To get help creating a healthy meal plan, contact an accredited practising dietitian, or use an online resource like the Government’s Eat for Health website.
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