January may seem the perfect time for a detox, but is there any scientific basis behind the concept of washing away our calorific sins, asks Sharon Ní Chonchúir.
CHRISTMAS has left us all feeling a little the worse for wear. Dark circles under the eyes from too many late nights, extra weight around the stomach from over indulgence, and a spotty complexion from an excess of turkey sandwiches, mince pies, and alcohol.
Surely this means it’s time for a detox? But is there any scientific basis behind the concept of washing away our calorific sins? Does our body really store toxins and impurities? And do any of these raw food diets, juice cleanses and colonic irrigation treatments work? Or are they cynical marketing techniques targeting consumers who feel guilty after their yuletide blowouts?
Dr Mary Flynn, the Food Safety Authority’s chief specialist in public health nutrition, is convinced it’s the latter. “It’s crazy,” she says. “Scientists have done research on behalf of consumers into detox foods and none of these companies even have the same definition of what detox means, let alone any evidence for their claims. It’s pseudo science and some of it is based on pretty serious misinformation about how the body works.”
All healthy bodies should be able to excrete toxins through the kidneys, liver, lungs and skin. A body that accumulates toxins will soon manifest serious problems, according to Dublin-based dietician and spokesperson for the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute Sarah Keogh.
“If you really needed to detox, you’d be hooked up to a dialysis machine or waiting for a liver transplant,” she says. “Your body is busy processing and eliminating waste all the time. Provided that you feed your body properly, it will detox all by itself.”
She also thinks it’s a question of marketing. “Years ago, the media pushed the idea of people losing weight in the new year and now it’s all about detox,” she says. “People love the idea of leeching poisons from their bodies but there’s not a whole lot of truth or science behind it.”
This was backed up by a study by the Voices of Young Science Network in Britain in 2009. They subjected 15 products ranging from bottled water to a five-day detox diet and detox patches to rigorous scientific tests and found many detox claims were meaningless.
Tom Wells, a chemist who took part in the research commented: “The minimum sellers of these products should be able to offer is a clear understanding of what detox is and proof that their product works. The people we contacted could do neither.”
At best, this study found these products were a waste of money. At worst, these products and treatments could be actively dangerous.
None of this surprises dietitian Aveen Bannon. She thinks detox diets are actually a waste of time and money.
“We need to spend money and time on long-term health solutions which involve eating healthily, exercising, keeping hydrated and getting enough sleep,” she says. “Skip the detox and kick-start a healthier regime instead. Drink plenty of water and include herbal tea in your diet. Eat fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and pulses. Limit your alcohol intake. None of this involves expensive supplements and potions and it will make you feel better.”
Going one step further, Sarah Keogh thinks we should incorporate the best bits of detox diets into our daily lives. “I don’t like the idea that we can all do exactly what we like and then clean ourselves out every couple of weeks,” she says. “But some of these diets work because they are high in fibre, which is obviously going to clear out the system. Fibre is something 80% of us don’t get enough of in our diets and a lot of the patients I see have constipation, haemorrhoids and piles as a result. They’re at higher risk of bowel cancer and they feel tired and run down. The idea of a high-fibre diet is knowledge we already know dressed up in a different way. It’s something we should be doing anyway.”
A healthy body needs 25g of fibre a day. “This means it’s crucial to have fibre at every meal; a bowl of porridge in the morning is never going to be enough,” says Keogh. “Getting enough fibre is doable but you have to think about it. Make sure you eat five portions of fruit and vegetables, have a high-fibre breakfast cereal and eat wholegrain breads and grains, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils.”
Both Keogh and Bannon can see positive aspects to some so-called detox diets but both are quick to point out negatives too.
“You may feel better after some detox diets because you are better hydrated and getting more fibre from fruits and vegetables,” says Aveen. “You’ll probably lose weight from consuming fewer calories.
“But you’ll probably be cutting out important foods too. If you cut out dairy, you need to make sure you get calcium from another source. If you cut out meat, you need to be sure you have an alternative source of protein. If your calorie intake is too low you’ll feel tired, light-headed and nauseous. All of this is dangerous.”
Keogh is equally cautious. “Some of these diets are so unhealthy,” she says. “They cut out protein, carbohydrates, iron, B vitamins and calcium and they weaken the body. I’ve got people coming to me with diverticular disease in their 30s because they’ve cut out carbohydrates for so many years. This is something you normally see when people are in their 60s.”
Neither expert recommends colonic irrigation either. Bannon has two reasons to discourage it. “It washes away the good and bad gut flora,” she says.
Keogh has seen patients with injuries from such treatments and also hesitates to recommend them. “If you don’t eat enough fibre, you’ll end up back in the same position,” she says. “Treat the problem, not the symptom.”
Overall, the message is that detox diets are too restrictive, sometimes dangerously so. “The last thing we should do is go from one extreme to another, from the excess of Christmas to a restrictive detox diet,” says Dr Flynn. “Fads and regimes such as complete fasts and juice diets are not healthy. Instead, it should be all about balance.”
Keogh suggests a gentler approach. “I’d love a quick fix, to have glowing skin and bright eyes after just one week but it’s not realistic,” she says. “Instead of doing a detox diet this year, why not change one habit? If you eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day this year, that will do more to improve your body’s own detox system than any faddy diet could ever do.”
Finally, Dr Flynn encourages us to ignore the marketing. “We’ve very vulnerable in January, having spent Christmas celebrating with lots of excess with our family and friends,” she says.
“But there’s no point feeling guilty now. Be glad you met them. It was good for your mental health. Instead of a restrictive detox diet in the cold dark months of winter, cut back on sweets, biscuits and cakes and eat more fruit and vegetables. Take a slow burn approach. You’re only human.”
Top tips on eating healthily all year round
1. Shop carefully and don’t keep a stock of sweets, biscuits and fizzy drinks at home. You can’t eat it if it’s not there.
2. Eat enough fibre. This will help your gut’s detoxification system to work at its optimum level. We all need 25g a day, which means we should have a high-fibre cereal for breakfast, eat wholemeal carbo- hydrates and include a range of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses in our diets.
3. Don’t cut any food groups from your diet, unless you are allergic to them.
4. Be careful with carbohydrates. The body needs them for energy but too many refined carbohydrates can lead to too much energy and too many calories. Choose wholemeal bread and wholegrain carbo- hydrates when possible. These are more filling and give a slower release of energy.
5. Variety is always key. Instead of focussing on so-called super foods like blueberries and broccoli, eat as wide a variety of different coloured fruit and vegetables as possible. “If I believed in the idea of super foods, I’d say my super foods were a rainbow of different fruits, salads and vegetables,” says Dr Mary Flynn. “Reds, greens, purples and yellows — they’re what give me all my different vitamins and minerals.”
6. Vary your carbohydrates and protein sources too. Eat rice one day, followed by millet, potatoes or bulgur wheat the next. Vary your protein between chicken, fish, red meat, pork, cheese and pulses.
7. Drink water. “The herbal teas and juices recommended as part of detox diets keep you hydrated but so does water,” says dietitian Aveen Bannon.
“Ultimately the best thing to help eliminate waste products from the body is water, which allows our body to get rid of waste materials naturally.”
8. Consume alcohol in moderation. Studies have shown that moderate and occasional drinking has a protective effect.
Teetotallers and those who drink excessively have a shorter life expectancy than those who drink moderately. This is thought to be because alcohol has a sedative relaxing effect and because it keeps the liver’s detoxifying enzymes primed to deal with any other toxins that come their way.
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