The truth about detox diets

10 February 2014
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It has been over a month since you made your New Years resolution to lose weight and be healthier, but despite your best attempts, you realize your summer wardrobe is still feeling a little tight and you are still carrying the extra 2 kg you gained over the Christmas season.  The only question is ‘how am I going to get rid of this the quickest way possible?’

“Detox” is certainly a popular buzzword in the dieting world, and I am constantly asked my opinion about which one and for how long will be most effective.  The idea behind ‘detoxing’ is to encourage your body to rid itself of chemicals and toxic by-products alleged to accumulate in the tissues as a consequence of stress, poor dietary habits, pollution, cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, too many late nights and lack of exercise i.e. we need to cleanse the “toxic waste” from our body in order to stay healthy.  Detox diets promise to aid in weight loss, improve digestion; improve hair, nails and skin; improve energy levels; boost immune system and banish cellulite.  They can last from one day to one month and can involve:  Fasting for short periods of time or only eating certain foods and cutting out others – especially the ones we like!

The truth is our bodies are capable of getting rid of toxins – that’s the function of the liver, kidneys and skin. The gut prevents bacteria and many toxins from entering the body. When harmful chemicals do enter the body, the liver breaks them down combining them with its own chemicals to make a water soluble compound that can be excreted by the kidneys. The body is re-hydrated with water and is refreshed with a good night’s sleep! In actual fact, when you starve your body of calories it will start to build up chemicals called ketones.  This can result in nausea, dehydration, weakness, light-headedness and irritability.  The rapid weight loss which occurs is due to loss of water, glycogen (the body’s carbohydrate stores) and muscle, rather than fat.

There is no scientific evidence to support the effects of detox diets aimed at cleansing your bowels and helping you lose weight, but that doesn’t stop thousands of people from trying them.  In my opinion the benefits people feel are not due to their body getting rid of excessive toxins but are due to changing from what is likely to have been a “poor” diet and unhealthy lifestyle.  Reports of fewer headaches and better skin and bowel movements, is probably the result of being fully hydrated by drinking more water and eating more antioxidant and fibre-packed fruit and vegetables.

The greatest benefit of detoxing is the avoidance of excessive intakes of caffeine, alcohol and high-fat, high-sugar, processed foods.  One of the most poisonous chemicals we consume is alcohol.  Scientists report that even if you drink almost lethal doses of alcohol (which I don’t recommend) your liver will clear it in 36 hours without any assistance from detox tablets.  The most effective way to help your liver after a period of indulgence is to stop drinking alcohol and drink water to re-hydrate.

Detox diets are not a nutritional reality. They sound like a great concept and it would be fabulous if they really delivered all that they promised!  If you do decide to try a detox diet it is important to consult a registered dietitian who will devise a detox plan to suit you and will monitor your intake and ensure you are getting all the nutrients your body needs for optimal health and wellness.  Be careful not to follow diets which eliminate whole food groups from your diet (i.e. carbohydrates) as you will also be eliminating important vitamins and minerals which is detrimental to your health.  Do not detox if you are: pregnant or breast-feeding; recovering from illness; a child or teenager; elderly; underweight; anaemic and most importantly if you have diabetes, heart disease, kidney or liver disease or other chronic health problems.

So what’s the magic cure for getting rid of the extra pounds and keeping them off? You need to think about the food you eat and also your lifestyle.  To maintain optimal health and wellness, the best approach is a balanced diet, with at least five portions of different fruit and vegetables a day; plenty of wholegrain cereals; lean meat, fish and alternatives and low fat dairy products. If you are looking to lose weight then consider reducing portion sizes, and don’t forget to take plenty of exercise.

If you would like expert dietary advice to suit your individual needs seeking advice from a registered dietitian is advisable.  I consult in my offices at the Netcare Waterfall City Hospital, Waterfall Estate, Kyalami, Midrand.

Nicola Drabble

Registered Dietitian

(BSc Diet, Post Grad Dip Diet, Cert in Exercise Science)



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