The truth about detoxes

I was asked to write this article as an ‘unbiased piece on the popular detoxes on sale after christmas’, showing which worked, which to avoid and including my advice on the matter. I found it impossible to remain unbiased – the ‘popular detoxes’ on the market aren’t healthy and could in no way be recommended to anyone. At best they’re a waste of time and money, and at worst they could do you some damage. Have a read and let me know what you think!

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If you Google ‘post Christmas detox’, you get 2,970,000 results. Some of the advice is helpful (eat your greens, don’t eat too much cake) but some of it could be downright harmful (cut out all wheat/sugar/dairy/food from your diet). It’s not uncommon for people to gain a few pounds over Christmas. Students, especially, when they come home from perhaps not the best diet (halls food and/or budget meals) to home made roast potatoes and their favourite desserts, are likely to indulge on the free food – hence that ‘Christmas bulge’. As you may remember, before Christmas there was a piece in Epigram on whether or not you should allow yourself to indulge in all the Christmas food you like, or whether you should show restraint and perhaps not go back for seconds. The overwhelming message was that Christmas is there to be enjoyed, and part of the joy is eating excellent food until you pass out on the sofa, unable to eat any more. Or at least that’s me. So what do you do when you’ve gained a few kilos over Christmas (I personally gained 3kg from eating over 3000 calories a day) and want to perhaps tone up a bit from New Year onwards?

There are basically two options:

  • Detox: This usually involves cutting out a lot from your diet, often entire food groups, eg. wheat/dairy/sugar/alcohol/red meat (my mum cuts them all out for 2 weeks) in an effort to ‘cleanse’ and ‘detox’ your body. Maybe you’ll even try a ‘skinny/detox tea’ because the transformation pics are great.
  • Continue to eat normally, but healthier. Cutting down on unhealthy foods/drinks such as refined sugars, saturated fats and alcohol and allowing your liver to do the rest.

As a scientist and advocate of balanced eating, I am a firm believer that DETOXES DO NOT WORK. A quick note on how our body removes toxins (or ‘detoxes’) itself: the lymph removes larger waste products and liver removes and inactivates most other toxins, such as alcohol. The water-soluble ones move to the kidneys to be excreted in urine. The last major part is your digestive tract, where fibre can help move toxins through until they are eventually excreted. Yum.

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Natural detoxification

What even is a ‘toxin’? Interestingly, the companies that benefit from detoxes and diets can’t all agree on what is meant by detoxification. Essentially it means removal of toxins from the body, through diets and cessation of ingesting toxins, in this case unhealthy foods, alcohol and cigarettes. The aim is to reset the metabolism and allow the body to function at full capacity without being inhibited by these ‘toxins’. Unfortunately due to some poor science and misunderstandings, the term ‘toxin’ has been broadened to include anything that the diet might remove. This can include harmless substances such as wheat or dairy (unless you’re intolerant).

 

Here are some of the more popular and misunderstood ‘detoxes’ being sold on the market, especially after New Year.

 

Juice cleanses: We’re all aware that fruit and vegetables are good for us, and therefore many people believe that, by extension, a diet of purely fruit and veg MUST be even better. Juice/smoothies diets advise nothing but fruit and veg smoothies/juices for days or weeks. Of course you will lose weight, but only because you’re probably only achieving a maximum of 800 calories a day. You could eat 800 calories of cheeseburger a day and you would lose weight. You would still not be ‘detoxing’. On such a low calorie diet, our bodies start to use up stored glycogen, before burning fat. A lot of water is stored in glycogen, so significant amounts of weight may be lost quickly, although most of the weight would be water, not fat. After a few days of detoxing, energy levels would be rock bottom and irritability sky high as your body uses the last of its glycogen and starts moving to burning fat (and muscle). Luckily liquid diet detoxes usually don’t last long enough to cause vitamin/mineral deficiencies, and probably won’t land you in hospital. However, the result tends to be a very hungry person who may or may not feel the need to eat more upon finishing the diet. Sometimes electrolyte imbalances can occur, leading to fatigue and dehydration. Usually, all weight lost is regained within a few days, mostly from eating real food which holds more water. Thus both weight lost and gained is mostly water.

 

Detox/diet/skinny teas: Most detox teas make you lose weight because they contain laxatives or diuretics. Laxatives ‘work’ by releasing anything in your gut along with a lot of water, allowing you to lose weight for the first few days of using them, although none of this is fat. Diuretics increase the amount you pee, effectively dehydrating you and allowing you to lose more water weight. Laxatives are among the more harmful diet aids, as they can dehydrate and cause mild nutrient deficiencies if used over an extended period of time, as food spends less time in the gut, so not all the nutrients are absorbed. In addition, your body may compensate by decreasing your natural ‘movements’ – so when your detox finally ends, you may find yourself feeling pretty uncomfortable. Ew.

As you can see above, I also fell prey to the glamour and marketing of detox/skinny teas. Lyfe and boo-tea were two that I was sent and happily showed off on my Instagram. I’m not hiding this as I think it’s important to show that without educating yourself, anyone can believe what they’re told. For someone who was, at the time, recovering from an eating disorder, these sorts of ‘detoxes’ were quite damaging. 

Diet shakes: These work in a similar way to juice cleanses, in that they produce a calorie deficit that means that you lose weight. Often the instructions are to replace one or two meals a day with a replacement shake. These shakes were incredibly popular around 10 years ago and have thankfully gone out of fashion a little. They are attractive to people wanting to lose weight as they don’t require thought into eating healthily, and are quick and easy. However, the advice to ‘not drink your calories’ whilst trying to lose weight is useful – when you drink high calorie drinks, often your body doesn’t ‘realise’ the amount of calories being consumed. With diet shakes, it’s easy to think it doesn’t have many calories as it’s just a drink, meaning that you’re more likely to eat more later. It’s possible that you’ll actually end up eating more calories later in the day to compensate, resulting in weight gain.

 

Instead of a diet? So if you want to ACTUALLY relieve your body of the stress caused by excess aforementioned toxins, what can you do? The great thing is that you CAN help your body, but it might not be as fancy as a detox/cleanse/diet/whatever. Supplying your liver with enough nutrients to function properly is very important. Essentially you need to aid your body in its own detoxification process. This means:

  • Eat more vegetables, which will boost your immune system, fibre intake, feed your liver and make you feel better in general.
  • Drink more water – this can flush out toxins, and help the excrement process, so that your body can detox itself faster.
  • Exercise. This increases your metabolism and means your body can function at full capacity. If you’re not into working out, try walking more – even just standing up and walking about every 30-60 minutes can have a positive effect.
  • Sleep. We need 7-9h of sleep a night for optimal functioning. You’re also much less likely to crave unhealthy foods if you sleep enough at night. If you don’t, try a 30 minute nap (MAX!) during the day to catch up.
  • Don’t sabotage yourself. If you’re detoxing, remember not to add more toxins in – this means limiting caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and unhealthy foods containing high levels of fat or refined sugar. These sorts of food tire your body out, as the amount of processing that has to occur to digest them is more extensive than with healthy foods. The more you consume these substances the more you’ll crave.
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Supplying your body with natural, healthy food is the best way to aid it in the detoxification process.

The long and short of it is that quick fixes don’t work. Nothing beats a healthy diet and your body’s natural way of detoxing. There is NO evidence that the above diets remove harmful substances faster than eating healthily.

 

Note: There is something to be said for intermittent fasting, ie. missing meals here and there – if you’re interested in this then research it, as the science behind it is super interesting. I’ve never tried it myself but the research is extensive and seems sound.

 

Read this amusing diary of a 3 day juice cleanse: http://laist.com/2013/04/12/juice_cleanse.php

DAY THREE

8:59 a.m.: Wake up, want to die. I have absolutely no energy, and I’m depressed and miserable. I can’t believe I have to do this for another full day.

9:07 a.m.: Call my mom for moral support. She wants to know exactly what a “toxin” is and why I think this will rid my body of them. I think that’s a good question. She thinks I should quit the cleanse and says it’s for vain people with nothing else to think about. Kind of agree with her. She also suggests that people who want to rid their bodies of toxins should probably just eat healthier.”

Cover photo my Matt Lincoln (IG: @mattlincolnphoto)

2 thoughts on “The truth about detoxes

  1. georgiamaud says:

    AMAZING! I just found you via Gracefit instagram story – I to fall prey to the detox teas etc for a quick fix and now feel they have done more harm than good! I’m looking forward to doing the right things and educating myself better!
    Amazing post x

    Like

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