Everything That's Wrong With Doing A 'Detox' Diet

It’s a brand new year. You want to get fit and healthy, and now’s the time.

Could giving up eating altogether — with the exception of a few ounces of lemon juice and a dash or two of cayenne pepper — help you lose weight and rid your body of all the crap you’ve consumed in 2014?

While detox diets sound promising, they are wholly unnecessary and can cause you to gain weight and lose muscle in the long-term. Here are a few of the reasons “cleanses” are total bogus.

1. No one actually needs to detox. Unless you’ve been poisoned, we already have a super efficient system for filtering out most of the harmful substances we eat. It’s made up of two toxin-bashing organs: the liver and the kidneys.

While our kidneys filter our blood and remove any waste from our diet, our liver processes medications and detoxifies any chemicals we ingest. Paired together, these organs make our bodies natural cleansing powerhouses.

“Unless there’s a blockage in one of these organs that do it day and night, there’s absolutely no need to help the body get rid of toxins,” family physician Ranit Mishori of the Georgetown University School of Medicine, who has spent years reviewing the medical literature on cleanses, told NPR.

The original detox diet, called The Master Cleanse, was thought up in the 1940s by Stanley Burroughs as a natural (unproven) way to treat stomach ulcers. (He published a book describing it, “The Master Cleanser.”) The cleanse consists of a daily regimen of 6-12 glasses of water mixed with lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup, plus a laxative at bedtime. That’s it.

Cleanse proponents like Peter Glickman, who helped resurrect it in 2004 with a book called “Lose Weight, Have More Energy and Be Happier in 10 Days: Take Charge of Your Health with the Master Cleanse,” say dieters begin to feel “euphoric” and “serene” after about a week of not eating.

We could think of better words to describe the sensations of incipient starvation.

2. Juicing is ridiculously expensive. Other less-extreme alternatives to Burroughs’ and Glickman’s self-deprivation plans exist, from swapping a few meals a day for a $US12 pre-packaged bottle of green liquid to juicing up a few bags of fresh produce at home each day. 

Unlike the Master Cleanse, a juice diet won’t totally starve your body, but it will drain your wallet, and the benefits are dubious at best.

For starters, you have to practically buy out your grocery store’s produce department for just a few days of juicing. Take the list of ingredients for this recently-posted 3-day juice cleanse from the Dr. Oz show, for example: 4 carrots, 4 apples (type not specified), 2 Golden Delicious apples, 2 1-inch pieces of ginger, 3 cucumbers, 6 celery stalks, 14 kale leaves, 1/2 lemon, 1 lime, 4 plum tomatoes, 2 red bell peppers, 1/4 small red onion, 2 cups parsley, 1 large sweet potato, 2 large red beets, 1 orange, 8 Swiss chard leaves, and 6 clementines. Disclaimer: this list is only for one day on the 3-day cleanse. ($US40 at our local grocery store, multiplied by 3 days = $US120.)

Or you can buy the premade version: Suja offers a bottle of its cold-pressed “Green Supreme” kale, apple, and lemon juice for $US9 a pop. (Three days of 3 bottles of Suja each day = $US81.)

3. Juicing removes some of the healthiest parts of fresh produce. When you juice fresh fruits and veggies, you remove all of their fibre, the key ingredient that keeps you feeling full and satisfied until your next meal. What you keep is the natural sugar in the produce (a bottle of Suja’s “Green Supreme,” for example, has more sugar than a can of Coke).

The immediate effects of a high-sugar and low-protein, low-fibre diet, are felt almost immediately your head: You’re constantly hungry because there’s no fibre to fill you up. Meanwhile, the sugar you’re consuming is temporarily raising your blood sugar, but with no protein to stabilise it, you’re on a roller-coaster ride of high and low energy. The longterm effects are more severe: a lack of protein, when prolonged for even a few days, can cause you to lose muscle rather than fat, since protein is what your muscles feed on for energy. 

4. Cleanses can set you up for more dangerous eating habits. Aside from potentially wrecking your body in the short term, detox dieting can set you up for a lifetime of dangerous eating.

Cleanse advocates describe their plans as quick fixes that clean up the mess of processed carbs, sugar, and booze we throw in our bodies each day. In reality though, this type of eating pretty closely mimics the dangerous binge-and-purge style of eating recognised globally as indicative of an eating disorder.

For people who are prone to disordered eating, juice cleanses could serve as a gateway to bigger problems.

At one eating-disorder treatment clinic in New York City, more than half the patients report having tried a juice cleanse, Marie Claire reports. “Maybe a patient tried it and became obsessed, or maybe the eating disorder was already there and the juicing became part of it,” the clinic’s director of nutrition services, Debbie Westerling, told the magazine.

Eating nothing but juice for several days can also trigger former eating problems from the past and cause them to resurface, writes registered dietitian Megan Holt in a post about cleansing on her clinic’s website.

“I tend to discourage fasting because it can reactivate disordered eating behaviours,” Holt writes, “whether that’s restriction or feeling out of control with food or feeling disconnected from hunger and fullness cues when one does start to eat again.” 

In other words, you can’t simply drink your way to health — hundreds of dollars’ worth of freshly liquefied produce or not.

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