Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The problem with detox diets

Detox diets are immensely popular, especially with celebrities. According to the claims, detox diets are meant to 'detoxify' the body. Essentially, companies marketing products to this tune will tell you that your body is brimming with toxic chemicals that accumulate through the food you eat, the air you breathe, and the water you drink, stressing your body and causing health issues. A detox diet is meant to flush all of these toxins out of your body and allow it to function better as a result.

Do they work?

The answer is a clear and resounding no. The idea that you could eat or drink a specific product and that product would be able to draw toxic waste out of your body is not much different to the old medical technique of leeching. Back in the days of old, before doctors really knew what they were doing, you would head on down to your friendly medical professional to have him apply a couple of hungry leeches to your body. The idea was that these leeches would draw out the 'bad blood' to cure you of whatever sickness ailed you. Detox diets are the modern rendition of this logic.

The problem with detox diets is two-fold. Firstly, the toxins mentioned, don't necessarily exist in the first place. When you feel run-down and out of balance, you should first look at your diet, sleep hygiene, and levels of activity before you decide you have poison flowing through your blood. When you barely sleep before waking up to a full day's work, skipping breakfast and munching on junk food all day to keep going, there's your problem. Make changes to your general health regime and you'll likely be feeling ten times better before you even resort to the leeches.

The second reason why detox diets don't work, is because the ingredients used to make a detox formula, have absolutely no ability to soak up said poisons, nor remove them from your body. Cayenne pepper may really make your curry stand out, or even boost your metabolism, but it certainly can't absorb toxic chemicals. The only real circumstance where a drug or nutritional supplement can remove something toxic from your blood, is in the case of heavy metal poisoning, where the use of chelating compounds like EDTA can speed up removal of heavy metals. Unless you've been intentionally drinking lead paint or sucking the cadmium out of old batteries, you certainly do not have heavy metal poisoning, nor will you likely ever experience it. It's not something that happens regularly.

The lemon detox diet

In order to stress just how fraudulent detox formulas are, it's helpful to examine one closely. The lemon detox is particularly famous all over the world, and many celebrities have endorsed commercial versions of the humble recipe, and humble it certainly is:

"For a 2 Litre batch (preferred) 
 140ml of Madal Bal Natural Tree Syrup™
 3 ½ freshly squeezed lemons (about 140ml)
 2- 3 pinches of the Cayenne Pepper
 Approximately 1700ml of fresh or filtered water"

This is the ingredients list for Pure Natural Health Australia's commercial lemon detox diet. If you will note the fancy sounding, trademarked 'Madal Bal' syrup, it is recognised on their website as being a combination of palm syrup and Canadian maple syrup. This is intended to "give you energy" during a lemon detox cleanse. The lemon juice is apparently the actual cleansing agent, and they state that "lemons have been used for thousands of years for their cleansing ability".

Let's look at the formula from a nutritional standpoint. One hundred and forty millilitres of maple syrup is approximately 180 grams. Volume conversion information for palm syrup isn't as easy to find, but it's likely to be equivalent, so for simplicity's sake, we will treat the formula as if it was completely maple syrup. That 180 grams of syrup contains 120 grams of carbohydrates, over 100 grams of which is sugar. If carbohydrates have an energy conversion of 1700kj per 100 grams, that leads us to the amount of 2040kj (523 calories).

Considering that this 523 calories is meant to sustain you all day, when the average energy requirement is four times as much, it's already clear that deficits are starting to appear. Combine that with the fact that maple syrup has high amounts of manganese, and a little zinc, yet virtually none of the other vitamins and minerals, and that palm sugar is high in potassium and nothing else, and you can see that you're starving your body of food, and vital nutrients. The lemon juice really just adds vitamin C to this mix. It's enough to stave off scurvy, but you certainly won't be plundering the seven seas on a diet like this (I hear pirate jokes are in this season).

Lastly, the cayenne pepper is said to boost your metabolism. There may be some truth to this, as the capsaicin present in chili has some weak evidence towards being able to increase fat loss, or at least reduce fat gain in a high calorie diet. The proof isn't substantial as of yet, and any effect can be considered mild. Basically, it's in there to add a little burn to the taste and give you the impression that it's burning off fat.

So what can we ascertain from all this information? We can see that the entire formula is deficient in most of the necessary vitamins and minerals your body needs to survive, completely devoid of protein, and substantially lacking in calories. As such, the formula places your body into starvation whilst providing no protein to slow down muscle breakdown. You need around 1 - 2 grams of protein for every kilogram of body mass, just to maintain the muscle you do have, support hair and nail growth, keep your immune system optimal, and form skin. This formula has almost zero grams of protein. The tiny insignificant amount it does have is less than a single gram, and comes from the minuscule amount present in lemons. Have a look at this study where elderly women were fed a low protein diet and you'll see just how bad a diet containing no protein at all is. Furthermore, given that in incidents of brief starvation, as is the case with 3 days of use of the lemon detox diet, muscle is catabolised to form glucose to feed the starving brain, the muscle wasting is enhanced further. You will lose muscle and threaten the integrity of your immune system and body by eating no protein, and starving yourself with the small amount of calories present in the lemon detox will force your body to eat away at even more muscle to try and function.

So in effect, the lemon detox diet itself, is fundamentally unhealthy because it:

  • Starves your body
  • Causes you to lose muscle
  • Weakens the immune system
  • Deprives you of most vitamins and minerals
  • Weakens hair and skin
  • Contains no fibre to maintain optimum digestive health
  • Does not allow any solid food 'for best results'
This is a recipe for disaster. It's impossible to find anything good about the formula. The entire concept is utterly dangerous, reckless, fool-hardy...we'd run out of negative adjectives before we stressed just how ridiculous it is.

The power of advertising behind the lemon detox

When looking at the logistics of the lemon detox, it's clear that advertising is paramount to the proliferation of such a horrible product. The only reason anybody would take such a product, is because they're blinded by celebrity endorsements and testimonies. Let's have a look at some of the advertising for Pure Health's lemon detox diet:

"Lose 3 - 6kgs in 10 days"

This is true, because all your muscle will literally waste away, as will fat, because you're starving yourself. You're not dieting. You're not exercising to lose weight. You're starving yourself and your body is consuming its own tissue to survive.

"Not eating may sound daunting, but it is much easier than you think. The Lemon Detox cleanse is a based on consuming liquid food. It is not a fast."

The Oxford dictionary begs to differ, defining the act of fasting as: "Abstain from all or some kinds of food or drink...". Considering you're abstaining from all solid food, all protein, most vitamins and minerals, and 3 quarters of the energy your body requires to remain alive and well, it's probably safe to call the lemon detox diet a fast, but that's still not as accurate as saying it's starvation.

"An overweight condition almost always corresponds to a toxic condition in the body."

Poppycock! As the British may so aptly put it. Where's the proof? Not only are they marketing a method of starvation and bodily destruction, but they're making many other strange and baseless claims with no actual science to back it up. This is where science came to die. You put it lightly.

How does the body actually remove toxins?

The body has a highly efficient, and definitively proven method of removing toxins, and it doesn't require trademarked sugar solutions to achieve this. The liver is responsible for the breakdown of nearly everything that enters the body. It processes pharmaceutical drugs, the food we eat, and both natural and artificial poisons like pesticides and deadly nightshade. It is the great gateway to our blood stream, managing the metabolism of vitamins and minerals to usable forms, and the excretion of unwanted waste material.

If you want to boost your body's ability to remove 'toxins', you need to look no further than your liver, and when you take something like the lemon detox diet that deprives your body of everything it needs, your liver begins to suffer because it doesn't have the nutrients it requires to perform its job properly. Starvation affects all organs, as energy deficits cause them to slow down to conserve energy. In this way, by placing your liver in such conditions, you cause it to be less effective, thus you actually decrease its ability to process waste.

Be nice to your liver and it will reward you by functioning at optimum capacity. Provide it with all the vitamins and minerals, and enough energy to do its job and it will keep your body free of toxins. You can do this by eating a balanced diet, and exercising regularly, whilst taking a supplement proven to benefit the liver, like milk thistle. Don't fall prey to detox diets because they really are absolutely terrible for your health. Good health will come from tasty nutritious food. You won't find it in the bottom of a jug of sugar.

What does the body need to function correctly?

In conclusion, it may be helpful to take note of the values in this list of vitamins and minerals and weigh them up against your current diet to ensure you're not becoming deficient in one of them. These are compounds your body needs to function, and to stay alive, as well as to be in optimum health and leave you feeling good:

This chart shows daily requirements for vitamins and minerals - note the value for sugar is an upper limit for good health, and the chart isn't recommending to eat that much sugar, but rather that you should avoid eating more than that for optimum health.

It's important to issue a disclaimer here of course. The chart above is to be used as a guideline only, and the information does not replace actual medical advice from a doctor. Depending on your individual condition, you may require more or less of a particular nutrient, as is the case with types of anaemia where the body is unable to absorb vitamin B12 properly. You should see a doctor or dietitian to help assess your health and individualise your dietary needs for you. Sparking the generation of a healthier world where people are more in-touch with their medical counsel and health is one of our primary goals.

Read more about fad diets.

Coming up next

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the top 3 proven supplements to help you build lean muscle mass, and provide you with the clinical studies and evidence to back them up.

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