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Do detox diets offer any health benefits?
Most of us have tried a detox diet at least once in our lives. The idea of ‘cleansing’ ourselves from toxins of unhealthy eating or pollution is an attractive one – but what is the science behind detoxification, and does it actually make us healthier? We asked 5 experts in nutrition, “Do detox diets offer any health benefits?”, here is what we found…
Do detox diets offer any health benefits?
What is a detox diet?
There is not one ‘detox diet’, but instead a whole range of regimes that claim to detox the human body. Dr Veronique Chachay, an expert in dietetics from Queensland University, says detox diets “cover everything from enemas and colonic irrigation, lemon juice detox or water fasts to exclusion of certain food groups, purging with herbs, large-dose nutrient supplementation and sweat lodges, among other things.”
What do detox diets claim to do?
All detox diets have one thing in common: they claim to purge the body from toxins. These toxins may come from different sources, Dr Chachay explains that external sources of toxins include “molecules resulting from baking, deep-frying and char-grilling, as well as alcohol and additives in processed foods. Then there’s medication, tobacco smoke and exposure to environmental pollutants, among other things.”
“‘Toxin’ build-up is supposed to be the main culprit for weight gain, constipation, bloating, flatulence, poor digestion, heartburn, diarrhoea, lack of energy and fatigue. ‘Detoxing’ is a way for the body to eliminate these toxins and as a result, a person will feel healthier and lose weight.” says Dr Tim Crowe, an expert in Nutrition from Thinking Nutrition.
Do detox diets fulfil their promises?
Is there any science behind these claims that these diets can detoxify the body? All the experts said ‘no’. Dr Meyerowitz-Katz, an expert in diabetes and public health from Wollongong University says “Broadly speaking, the idea that an intervention can 'detox' someone, or even that there are things in your body that you can and should 'detox' from is not well-evidenced. Most of these diets reference vague 'toxins' that, even if they were harmful, would not be removed by the chosen methodology of the diet.”
Dr Nicholas Fuller, an expert in obesity and nutrition from Sydney University says “substances are only toxic based on the quantities in which we ingest them. The situation in which ‘detoxification’ is required is when someone is being treated in a hospital for a dangerous level of a substance that is life-threatening.”
Dr Chachay adds that “the human body is a comprehensive, self-mending, self-detoxing apparatus. It will perform its detoxification tasks regardless of whether you’re undertaking a rigid detox cure, or a gourmet food and wine tasting marathon. But providing the right ingredients for optimal function daily, rather than opting for a quick-fix detox, is the key.”
What are the benefits of a detox diet?
Despite detox diets not being able to ‘detoxify’ the body as they claim to, do they have any other health benefits? Dr Crowe says “Any person, especially someone who has a poor diet to start with, who eats more fruits and vegetables, drinks more water and eats fewer foods high in fat, salt or added sugar, and drinks less alcohol will naturally feel better.”
Weight loss is often noticed during restrictive detox diets, but Dr Crowe says that “this is easily explained by the restrictive nature of detox diets, which can cut kilojoule intake dramatically” and the “weight will go back on as soon as a person resumes their normal diet and carbohydrate stores are replenished.”
One potential benefit of detox diets is psychological, “Detox diets can also help people to think more about what they are eating. For some people, a detox diet can be the start of a change to a more healthy diet and lifestyle long term” says Dr Crowe.
What are the downsides of detox diets?
There are several documented downsides to detoxing, Dr Crowe summarises them as:
"Feelings of tiredness and lack of energy initially
The expense of buying organic food which many of them advocate consuming
Cost of the detox kit if a commercial program is followed
Purchasing of supplements if they are recommended by the diet
Needing to be more organised than usual to ensure plenty of ‘allowed’ foods at home and work
Difficulties eating out and socialising as most restaurants and social occasions do not involve detox-friendly meals"
On top of these, the short-term nature of any beneficial effects, such as weight loss, can be demoralising and not encourage longer-term healthy eating. Dr Crowe concludes “The detox fad may encourage the idea that a person can lead an unhealthy lifestyle most of the year and then undo the damage in a few days with a rapid detox. A theory that simply does not work.”
In most cases, the downsides of detox diets outweigh the benefits.
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