Hardly a day goes by when we're not reminded about one of the many sins we commit when it comes to eating. Certainly there's gluttony (too much of a good thing), love of processed foods (too much of a bad thing) and toxicity (ingesting chemicals with our foods).
We're also incredibly busy, often too busy to take care of ourselves with healthy homemade meals. That's why, says Carolanne Nelson, a registered dietitian and assistant professor in the department of family and nutritional sciences at the University of P.E.I., many of us jump at the promise of quick-fix periodic purification programs for our bodies – and consciences, perhaps. Proof: Sales of detox products for the past two years at Canada's largest natural health products chain, Nutrition House, were $1.5 million. And the plethora of detox diet books is almost certainly predicated on demand. It doesn't hurt sales either that savvy marketing plays up the weight-loss benefits of detoxifying; clearly, some of us are hoping to purge more than toxins.
Dana Schnirer, a scenic coordinator and artist in Calgary, is a devotee of a detox diet called Renew Life – produced by an American company of the same name. Dana, who is already a healthy eater, doesn't struggle with the reasonably well-rounded diet recommendations, just the supplements; the company offers various formulas that, depending on the kit used, contain herbs – including laxatives – that purportedly detoxify the body. "When you first try it, you have to get used to being near a toilet during a certain time of day," says Dana. Despite this downside, she swears by the program and uses it annually. While she loses about three to five pounds every time, it's the boosted energy, the vitality, from the combined herbs and diet that she really enjoys. "You just feel lighter, like nothing you've ever experienced before."
Do we really need to detox?
The liver, the body's key detoxifying organ, actually does a terrific job of cleansing the body all on its own, says Dr. Kevork Peltekian, a liver specialist and associate professor of medicine at Dalhousie University in Halifax. A healthy liver processes most of the things we throw at it, sorting out compounds and chemicals, and sending unwanted stuff to our intestines to expel as stool, or to our kidneys to excrete as urine.
Because there is no scientific research showing that any detox regimen (fad diets or herb kits included) delivers on its promises, you'll be hard-pressed to find any traditional health-care provider who supports detoxifying (though most naturopaths encourage supervised detoxifying). That said, the basic premises of any detox regimen – upping fluid intake and cutting out bad habits such as processed foods, cigarettes and alcohol – are positive measures we can take to give the body the only break it really needs to feel better, says Nelson. As for a few of the more popular detox kits and books, read on to find out if they hold up to our expert scrutiny.
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21 Pounds in 21 Days: The Martha's Vineyard Diet Detox by Roni DeLuz, naturopathic doctor, nurse and founder of Martha's Vineyard Holistic Retreat in Massachusetts.
What it is: A detox diet book that touts weight loss as a bonus. The liquid-only program consists of fresh vegetable juices and purées, which you prepare; supplements, including antioxidant-rich powdered vegetable and fruit drink concentrates, available at health food stores; and plenty of colonics and enemas.
Duration: You can choose from the 21-day program (recommended annually), seven-day cleanse or two-day weekend cleanse.
Claims: The 22 servings of fruits and vegetables taken daily, every two hours in small doses, help you shed toxins. Because they exceed nutritional needs, you feel full, stop obsessing about food and lose weight.
The theory behind it: The juices are supposed to stimulate the cells to cleanse themselves and flush toxins out of the body (how, specifically, is not clear). Weight loss is a perk.
Restrictions: No chewing is allowed. You have to love vegetables to subsist on them, puréed, for 21 days.
Most outrageous claim: "When we don't chew, our digestive system can rest," states DeLuz, freeing up energy to engage in more "repair and rebuilding."
What the experts say: The only redeeming quality about this diet (or any detox diet), according to Nelson, is that it encourages increased fluid intake, which is healthy because most of us do not drink enough fluids. However, the list of dangers is long.
• First, no expert recommends colonics or enemas for healthy people.
• To lose a pound a day, you would have to eat nothing and burn an extra 1,800 calories per day for a total deficit of 3,500 calories. Yet you're supposedly consuming 2,200 calories daily in vegetable purees (though there are no serving-size instructions). It's impossible, says Nelson. "You would have to be awfully close to starvation to lose that much weight."
• The diet also excludes entire food groups such as dairy, protein, essential fatty acids and insoluble fibre (which, ironically, is the kind found in the whole grains we need to keep our intestines healthy, says Nelson).
• Our digestive system does not need a break – and, for the record, it still has to work to digest purées. An all-liquid diet lacking in key nutrients over more than a day or two can actually impair the body’s natural ability to repair and rebuild itself, she adds.
Page 2 of 5Wild Rose Herbal D-Tox Program, formulated by Terry Willard, a Canadian clinical herbalist
What it is: A herb-based detox kit with three supplements, Biliherb, Laxaherb and Cleansaherb, and a liquid tincture, CL Herbal Extract. The suggested basic diet consists of specific lists of foods, only certain portions of which you can eat during the day.
Duration: Twelve days (twice a year)
Claims: Helps your body eliminate toxic material, dramatically increasing energy and sense of well-being.
The theory behind it: By detoxifying every spring and fall, your body's natural channels of elimination (liver, colon, etc.) and metabolic processes (how we break down foods, etc.) are able to function more efficiently.
Restrictions: There are enough foods on the list to create healthy, tasty meals over a 12-day period, though no dairy is allowed.
Most outrageous claim: None. This is a simple guide with no exaggerated (or weight-loss) claims.
What the experts say: Afsoun Khalili, naturopath and clinic faculty member at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto, says a few herbs in the kit, such as dandelion root, are believed to help detoxify the liver. However, she's concerned about others: the cascara sagrada bark in the Laxaherb may cause explosive diarrhea in some people; the red clover in the Cleansaherb functions like estrogen in the body and is given to perimenopausal women to balance hormones (begging the question, Why is it in the kit?), and the licorice root in the CL Herbal Extract should not be taken by anyone with high blood pressure. Her verdict: "People shouldn't go out and buy a herbal detox diet just because they want to cleanse and because the products are all-natural and supposedly safe. They should always consult with their health-care provider."
Page 3 of 5The Raw Food Detox Diet: The Five-Step Plan for Vibrant Health and Maximum Weight Loss by Natalia Rose, nutritionist, nutrition director for the Frédéric Fekkai Spa in New York
What it is: A thinly veiled weight-loss book (with some cleansing promises) that shifts your daily menu to mostly raw foods in five steps – the diet's principles. It differs from hard-core raw food diets by allowing some cooked foods.
Duration: Depending on your "raw food transition number," the program shifts a certain percentage of daily cooked foods to raw foods gradually over one month. Eventually you can choose to become a 100 per cent raw food eater for life.
Claims: Waste matter in the body is the main source of excess weight: if your digestive system is able to move food quickly (thus eliminating it quickly) you will "avoid weight gain for the rest of your life."
The theory behind it: Eating raw foods with still-intact "live" enzymes (proteins that catalyze chemical reactions) helps "scrub" the body. Eating them in combinations that ensure quick exits will help you keep the weight off. Supposedly, some foods, such as starches and meat proteins, take longer for the stomach to digest when they're eaten together.
Restrictions: You eat fresh fruit or homemade fruit juices in the morning, and a raw salad at lunch and dinner when, depending on your transition number (determined by a quiz), you can also eat a cooked meal of healthy, unprocessed or all-natural foods, including organic meat, taking care to avoid certain combinations. Dairy is excluded.
Most outrageous claim: Only a raw food diet will address a sluggish digestive system – the reason you can never lose weight.
What the experts say: The notion of eating only fresh foods is commendable because we eat too much processed food, says Nelson. And we know that compounds in raw food – for example, flavonoids in citrus fruits and legumes – boost the activity of the body's natural enzymes, which work to break down toxins. (We still get enzymes in cooked food, just fewer.) The challenge, of course, is finding and affording the freshest produce and specialty raw foods. But do you need to eat them in different combos? Khalili says some people find various food combinations, such as meat and wheat, or dairy and wheat, give them gas, but there's no research-based evidence that types of food counteract to speed or slow digestion. And even if there was, adds Nelson: "What they are saying is that if you can induce diarrhea you won't get fat. They're right. A lot of people will find they spend all day on the toilet after eating all these fruits and vegetables. So 'speed of digestion' prevents you from gaining weight, but it will also prevent you from absorbing all the essential nutrients you need to keep you healthy."
Page 4 of 5Dr. Joshi's Holistic Detox: 21 Days to a Healthier, Slimmer You – For Life by Dr. Nish Joshi, osteopath
What it is: A book promoting a detox diet regime – with no red meat, no dairy, no fruit, no wheat, no alcohol, no coffee, no sugar and no artificially processed foods.
Duration: Twenty-one days (recommended once or twice a year)
Claims: Removes toxins you ingest for a minimum of three weeks, giving your body a rest from struggling to digest and eliminate poisons.
The theory behind it: Rooted in ancient Ayurvedic medicine, the detox program alters your pH (acid/alkaline) balance to its ideal, slightly alkaline state by eliminating all acidic foods, so your body rids itself of toxins more easily.
Restrictions: As it happens, many acidic foods that are not allowed are also our naughty favourites: ice cream, chocolate bars, pizza, etc. But fruit isn't allowed either. Joshi says that fruits are normally alkaline, but because many are picked before they are ripe, they're too acidic. That leaves mainly dark-green leafy vegetables, eggs, tofu, white meat, fish, some cheeses, beans, peas, lentils, brown rice and olive oil.
Most outrageous claim: "So drastic are the effects of this rebalancing exercise that you may no longer need certain prescription medications because your elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels will have both dropped." This claim is dangerous: Do not quit medications without consulting your doctor.
What the experts say: The real plus of an alkaline diet, points out Khalili, is that we are effectively getting rid of all the high-fat, sugar- and sodium-laden processed foods from our diet. However, says Nelson, the acid/alkaline theory doesn't hold water: "Our body's pH is between 7.35 and 7.45, which is already slightly alkaline. And there's no evidence food can change pH levels beyond that narrow range."
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