The Detox Debate...

My blog post today was inspired by friends, clients and fellow health care practitioners: the debate on the “detox diet”.

As with many nutritional aspects, the verdict on this one appears to be a little grey, and grey areas confuse. So, I have attempted to shed some light on the situation.

Perhaps one thing first needs to be clarified: our body is constantly detoxifying itself of anything that it doesn’t want or need – preservatives, trans-fats, medication, alcohol, processed foods, smoke, colourants, fragrances, car exhaust fumes, heavy metals, chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides, cleaning products and glues, allergens such as dust, pollen and mould, as well as any parasites, bacteria and viruses which may be fighting to make us ill. Then we haven’t even gotten to environmental toxins, such as overstimulation from technology, stress, isolation, being disconnected from nature… The list of toxins around us is endless.

On the other hand, we have been designed with a body that is constantly adapting and changing to ensure that everything stays in order – also known as “homeostasis”. It involves every single system of your body (not only the kidneys and liver), working to maintain balance at all times. There are constant changes happening every second of the day, and your body is perfectly equipped to deal with these changes.

Commercial detox diets are nothing new – they have been around for years, and are showing no signs of retracting their heads just yet. They promise bright eyes and minds, clear skin and energy by the bucket full.

By just googling “detox diet”, almost 3 million results come up – from the lemon detox diet, to the juicing diet, to the grapefruit diet, to the “painless detox diet”. These diets are often pursued without any scientific backing, and leave followers feeling optimistic at first, but nowhere closer to health by the end of it. In fact, many of these diets can cause harm, such as electrolyte imbalances and nutrient deficiencies, especially if followed over a longer period of time. There are also certain groups of people in which commercial detox diets could be especially dangerous – diabetics, pregnant and breastfeeding women, children, and people with liver and kidney disease.

Questions to ask when deciding whether to pursue a detox diet:

  • Why do I want to pursue this?
  • Is this diet safe? What are the risks?
  • Does it exclude a wide variety of food groups over a long period of time?
  • Is there evidence to support this therapy?
  • Does it make exaggerated promises around feeling better/having amazing results
  • How expensive is the process?

All of these questions could probably give you a little insight into the world of detox diets. The last point especially – if you are paying large amounts in order to have bloods done, and it can only be done through “one special doctor in America”, your alarm bells need to start going off. Rather spend the money on buying good, whole foods.

Which brings me to my next point… Yes, our systems seem to be overloaded at the moment, and our environments certainly appear to be a whole lot more toxic than they were in the past. However, the evidence for following commercial detox diets is lacking, and therefore not something I would recommend.

Evidence for diets that support the body’s system in its detox processes however, is vast. General consensus on the exact protocol around this is being investigated - however the best advice I can give is the following:

  • Eating whole, clean foods, which are unprocessed and rich in nutrients. (Also known as food prepared by Mother Nature).
  • Include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables (antioxidants help with detox processes), whole grains (fibre helps rid the body of toxins via stools), nuts, seeds and beans
  • Make sure you are drinking plenty of good, clean water. There are studies around the importance of the quality of water, and therefore if this is something you are concerned about, your best bet is water purified by reverse osmosis (many shops now have water tanks in them where you can fill up your own water bottle). If possible, stay away from plastic!
  • Cut out sugar, sweeteners, excess coffee and tea (green tea is a powerful antioxidant)
  • Use spices when cooking – such as cumin and cayenne pepper.
  • Exercise. Yes. Exercise. Every day if possible, for at least 30 minutes to an hour. This is probably one of the best ways to support your body in all of its functioning. If you can combine it with being out in nature, even better!
  • Ensuring that you sweat, either during exercise, or by using a sauna/steam room. Sweat is one of the ways our body rids itself of toxins.
  • Assess your environment for toxins, and look for anything that is not natural and which might be adding strain to your body.
  • Smoking and heavy drinking create havoc on our body systems, and are therefore best avoided.
  • Sleep, sleep, sleep. You know what your body needs, but generally anything less than 7 hours or more than 10hours is problematic (there comes the moderation rule again)!
  • Have clear boundaries around the use of technology in your home: switch off your cell phone, make your bedroom technology free, switch the TV off during dinner time.

The above guidelines WILL be a “detox” diet for many people, as we often engage in activities and eat foods which strain our systems.

Detoxing is therefore so much more than just drinking salt water, it’s about being mindful of everything around you, and the impact thereof on the body.