If you've overindulged and want to get back on track fast, a "detox" diet might sound like the perfect thing. Detox diets typically include a strict regimen of limited foods, juices, teas and/or a whole lot of nothing (i.e., fasting).
Oftentimes, these diets require you to purchase "detox kits" or prepared juices. The promise: to rid your body of toxins. It's a nice idea: Clear out whatever bad stuff might be lurking within your body and maybe lose a few pounds while you're at it.
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Unfortunately, detox diets may do more harm than good. If you're considering a detox diet or juice cleanse, read this first, then decide for yourself.
When it comes to food and nutrition, we can't eliminate every toxin. That's because, at some level, nearly everything we consume is toxic.
I'm not just talking about alcohol or sugar; even fruits and vegetables contain forms of toxins that would harm us if we consumed them in extreme amounts. Luckily, our bodies are designed to cleanse themselves. Our major "detox" organs include the digestive tract, kidneys, skin, lungs, liver, lymphatic system and respiratory system.
These systems enable us to eliminate toxic compounds via evacuation, sweat or breathing. The body does a pretty good job of this when we treat it properly.
Benefits of a Detox
Unfortunately, we can get in the way of our bodies' self-cleaning crews. Alcohol, tobacco, pollution, overabundance of medications or supplements, highly processed foods and other nasties can make it harder for our bodies to do their jobs.
With this in mind, detox diets typically recommend nutrient-rich "superfoods" such as:
- Green tea
- Omega-3 fats
- Colorful fruits and vegetables
All of these foods may help the body deal with incoming toxins and can be a healthy addition to your diet.
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Plus, most cleansing diets include food and drink that rarely triggers intolerances or allergies. So detox diets may have some benefits. But, generally, they don't live up to their promises — and that includes one of their biggest selling points: weight loss.
Don't Detox to Lose Weight
Detoxing will not help you lose weight. At least not the weight you want to lose — fat weight. In fact, it might even lead to weight gain in the long term. Here's why:
- Any weight loss from a detox diet is probably water, carbohydrate stores and intestinal bulk -- all of which come back in a few hours after the detox ends.
- Most detox diets and juice cleanses are extremely low in calories. In other words, they're starvation diets. Many cleanses are so low in calories that they'll negatively affect your hormonal health.
- The restricted eating involved in a detox diet can result in anticipatory deprivation and trigger preexisting food obsessions. If the thought of a restrictive diet makes you go on red alert and want to overeat ("my diet starts tomorrow so I'm going to fill up now"), let this be a warning.
- What seems like a harmless cleanse might cause your body to rebound and, even worse, harm your relationship with food. And that is a real step backwards.
Detoxing May Be Harmful
Weight loss aside, a juice cleanse could do your body more harm than good. For starters, it feels unpleasant. Some of the most frequently reported side effects include:
- Feeling weak, listless or dizzy
- Pounding headaches (possibly from an abundance of nitrates dumped into your body from an overwhelming amount of fruit and vegetable juice)
- Inability to sleep
In addition, high levels of fruit juices can cause major swings in blood sugar levels, which makes them dangerous for people with diabetes and potentially risky for others.
Meanwhile, the juicing process strips fiber from the fruits and vegetables. Fiber slows down digestion and aids absorption of nutrients. If you want to "clean out" your body, the last thing you want to do is eliminate fiber.
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Many cleansing diets are also low in protein. Protein deficiencies can inhibit the body's ability to eliminate toxins. So if you want to "clean house," temporarily eliminating this macronutrient doesn't make sense.
How to Detox Naturally
Here are 10 steps you can take each day to detox naturally:
1. Eat reasonable amounts. If you're eating too much, you're probably accumulating more toxins. Eating one cookie instead of six is a detox diet. Slow down and chew your food. We all have "anatomical juicers" -- our teeth and our stomachs. Use them.
2. Build your plate around plant foods and eat organic when possible. This minimizes exposure to toxins. Veggies and fruits contain compounds that can help the body deal with all of the incoming chemicals.
3. Stay lean. Certain fat-soluble compounds can accumulate in body fat. Less body fat means less real estate for potentially problematic chemicals.
4. Drink enough fluids, including water and tea. And use a filter for your tap water: The kidneys are major organs of elimination, so keep them clean.
5. Allow time between dinner and breakfast. If you finished eating dinner at 7 p.m., maybe you could eat breakfast at 7 a.m. This gives the body a 12-hour break from food for every 24-hour cycle, and it might improve your sleep too.
6. Get outside in the sun and fresh air each day. We synthesize vitamin D from the sun, plus we benefit from fresh air and the stress-reduction power of good old Mother Nature.
7. Exercise and sweat regularly. Our skin is a major elimination organ.
8. Limit unnecessary dietary supplements. Supplements don't automatically equal health; some might be another burden for the body. Make sure each supplement in your cabinet serves a purpose.
9. Eliminate your problematic foods. If one cookie is too many and 10 is never enough, maybe it's time to restructure your relationship with cookies. Seek out support if you need it.
10. Check your body products. Our skin is our largest organ, and each day we lather on hundreds of chemicals that enter our blood and circulate throughout the body. Check the Environmental Working Group's website for a useful database of body products.
The Simple Truth
A magical weekend juice cleanse might sound nice in theory, but in reality it's not going to do you any favors. Aside from anecdotal reports, there is very little unbiased research on detox diets.
Truth is, we already know how to improve our bodies and health: Cut down on excess calories and heavily processed foods and eat more whole foods, including fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.
That's it. No fancy juice machine. No expensive diet kits. Just smart daily choices for better health.