from Tim Crowe …Tim is Associate Professor in Nutrition at Deakin University
If you’re looking for an antidote to your overindulgences during the holiday period, then a ‘detox’ program can seem pretty appealing.
It promises to rid your body of toxins – the result of poor diet and lifestyle – and leave you cleansed and revitalised. Depending on the program, it might also promise to help you lose a few kilos.
But is following a special detox regime, often involving the consumption of expensive powders and potions, really essential for good health?
Generally not, says Tim Crowe, Associate Professor in Nutrition at Deakin University.
“A lot of things they recommend cutting out are actually not a bad idea. If you cut out alcohol, stop smoking and eat less junk food, you will feel better. But that’s not because you’re eliminating toxins. You’re just putting less rubbish in your body.”
No scientific basis
You can find a wide variety of detox programs and kits, some last a day or two, others go on for several months.
Crowe says some simply aim to boosting your intake of raw vegetables and unprocessed foods, while encouraging you to cut out caffeine, alcohol and refined sugar. Others involve the use of supplements(such as vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements) or laxatives. Some even border on starvation diets, permitting you to drink only juice. Certain detox programs recommend you undertake a particular exercise regimes.
While some of the lifestyle advice included in detox programs is valid and useful, the premise that our bodies need to be “cleansed” of toxins built up from our lifestyle is “not supported by medical science”, Crowe says.
“We encounter toxic substances all the time, but our body does a perfectly good job of removing them.”
Fruit and vegetables, for example, contain natural insecticides that could be harmful to our bodies, he says. But our kidneys, liver and gut effectively neutralise such substances within hours of eating them, converting them into products that can be passed out of our bodies. Our lungs, skin and immune system are also primed to remove or neutralise toxic substances. And there are no special herbs, juices or diets that enhance that process, he says.
Companies marketing detox programs can’t even name the toxins they’re claiming to remove, he says.
“You won’t find any evidence that following any of these programs means you will eliminate more toxins full stop.”
Not only are detox diets not actually “detoxifying”, in some cases they can be harmful, Crowe says.
“Some can be very extreme; they can eliminate whole food groups, particularly dairy foods.” This means you can miss out on important nutrients.
He says drastically cutting kilojoules can also cause:
stomach and bowel upsets
feelings of tiredness
aches and pains
This is often claimed to be a sign your body is getting rid of toxins, “but it’s actually just a sign you haven’t had enough carbohydrates; you’re going into starvation mode.”
“While you will lose a lot of weight quickly, this is because you’re losing mostly fluid and your carbohydrate stores, rather than stored fat. You regain that weight as soon as you start eating normally again.”
Detox diets recommending you drink large amounts of water can also lead to dangerously low levels of sodium in the blood that can cause seizures, comas or even death. This is especially a problem if your salt intake is already low from severely cutting your food intake.
Consumer group CHOICE has identified a number of ingredients in some detox kits that are potentially harmful for people with conditions, such as high blood pressure, or those taking medicines, such as blood thinners. Warnings about these ingredients are often lacking.
CHOICE found one product, which sold for $89.95, contained ingredients you could buy in a supermarket for less than $25. In addition, it was noted the ingredients likely had “no real health benefits whatsoever”.
The bottom line
The bottom line, says Crowe, is that detox diets can be expensive, are unnecessary and possibly damaging.
They’re popular because they offer an apparent ‘quick fix’ solution to poor lifestyle and diet habits. “You’ve done the bad thing, now here’s the detox diet to absolve you of your sins so you can start a clean slate.”
“If a detox diet makes you start eating better that’s a wonderful thing,” he acknowledges. But if you’re serious about improving your health, you need to make changes that last beyond the few weeks or months of your detox program.
So instead of forking out your hard-earned cash on a questionable detox kit, Crowe advises focusing your efforts on long-term behaviour change.
“Eat more fruit and vegetables and less processed foods, cut back on alcohol, quit smoking if you’re a smoker, and do more exercise.”
Tim Crowe is Associate Professor in Nutrition at Deakin University in Victoria. He spoke to Cathy Johnson.