Published: Nov. 12, 2009
Updated: May 17, 2010
By June Spence
Like your lemonade with a dash of hot pepper and maple syrup? Enough to consume it exclusively for days or even weeks on end?
That’s the sum-total menu of the "Master Cleanse," current king of the so-called "detox diets," which purport to rid the body of harmful toxins while helping it shed unwanted pounds.
Detox diets typically involve fasting or food restriction and may include some combination of nutritional supplements -- products that could also contain laxatives, diuretics, or stimulants. Some regimens recommend frequent colonics or enemas as part of the cleansing process.
The evidence supporting detox diets is slim to none, but they’re often touted as holistic and popularized by celebrities small and smaller. Scores of slender starlets can’t be wrong -- can they?
Beth Reardon, MS, RD, nutritionist for Duke Integrative Medicine, gives us the skinny on a recurring diet craze.
It’s not merely the lure of plummeting pounds that draws people to detox diets. There’s powerful appeal in the promise that these diets will cleanse our body of toxins, observes Reardon.
"We are so bombarded by our food supply, what’s in it, what’s not. We hear about additives, preservatives, dioxins, carcinogens; we see some horrific pictures from the Internet of something that supposedly came out of a colon; and we’re just overwhelmed.
The fear factor is pretty convincing. People are grasping to do what makes sense, and the notion of detoxifying the body sounds right. But there just isn’t good science behind detox diets."
Most detox diets are awash in fluids; the Master Cleanse’s liquid-only regimen includes, in addition to six to 12 eight-ounce daily servings of lemon drink, a quart of water with added sea salt -- the "saltwater flush" -- as well as herbal laxative teas to combat the constipation that can result from the lack of food intake.
Reardon warns that overuse of these electrolyte mixes or laxatives can "disturb our natural balance, causing dehydration, nausea, cramps, dizziness. And excessive fluid intake can lead to hyponatremia: low sodium in the blood.”
She says that people who are taking medication for their heart or to regulate blood sugar are at great risk for this serious complication.
Reardon respects limited fasting as part of one’s religious or cultural practice, but as a dietary strategy, she stresses that fasting or extreme food restriction is ineffective -- and it can be dangerous. "Cutting calories ultimately slows down your metabolism, which prevents weight loss."
And what about that "natural high" some people ascribe to fasting? "Reaching some altered state, feeling euphoric -- it’s ketones, a metabolic disturbance. Soon you’ll start feeling low energy and fatigue.
Without food, in a matter of days glycogen stores are depleted and the body starts breaking down muscle tissue, harming the heart and other organs. It’s not healthy for extended periods."
The rapid and dramatic weight loss reported by some -- singer Beyoncé’s 20-pound dip in two weeks was the big buzz this year -- is largely due to fluid loss. And once you resume normal eating, the weight rebounds quickly.
A more effective approach to weight loss, and what our bodies really need, says Reardon, is a "plant-based, whole foods diet. That means aspiring to eat nine to 12 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and opting for most of your protein in the form of legumes and seafood, with occasional poultry or grass-fed beef. You will naturally 'detox' and feel better when you stop eating all the processed and packaged foods that cause jags in blood sugar."
Finally, says Reardon, you just don’t need to go to extremes to cleanse your body of toxins.
"Give your body more credit. We have evolved over two-and-a-half million years with highly effective detoxification systems -- such as the liver and kidneys. We naturally detox most substances that could be harmful. Our bodies are designed to do this -- if we give them proper food and hydration and don’t stress our systems by eating a diet that includes a disproportionate amount of processed foods."