I’ve been asked to put this blog piece together by a good friend of mine Emma. She’s a very good runner who works in an office and regularly sees colleagues go on juice detox diets, losing a substantial amount of weight in a short space of time, only to put it all back on again and more in the following weeks.
She’s not alone in being frustrated by the ‘detox’ industry. There are numerous detox diets out there that claim to guarantee weight loss, rid your body of harmful toxins, revitalise you and improve your health. They vary in their structure but generally advocate the complete removal of unhealthy foods from the diet alongside a large increase in water, fruit and vegetables whilst at the same time cutting calories quite dramatically. So what is the truth behind all of this?
Well, in reality, there’s a very limited amount of data on the benefits of a detox diet. Searching through the journals I came across one study from 2012 that asked 31 volunteers to go on a 4-week detox plan. At the end of the period the participants had lost an average of 9 pounds each, which in fairness is not far above the recommended guidelines of 2 pounds per week.
So what’s the issue here you might ask? It works doesn’t it? Well yes, but it most likely worked because participants consumed between 850 and 1000 calories per day. There was likely no miracle detoxification process going on inside the body; it was simply a reduction in calories. And as you’ll know if you’ve read my previous pieces, decreasing calories below what your body needs to function normally will:
1) Lead to rapid decreases in weight loss as your energy stores and the water that binds to them are used up.
2) Leave your body with too little energy for what it needs, forcing it to go into a kind of 'starvation mode’.
3) Make you very hungry and likely to crave foods in the long term that are less healthy and will lead to weight gain above the point where you started.
4) Possibly cause your body to turn to itself to provide energy. This can lead to a decrease in muscle mass, lowering your overall metabolic rate and making it even harder to lose weight and keep it off in future.
Let’s take a balanced look at detox diets in general then and see what we can learn and use from them.
What’s good and bad about detox?
1) It encourages an increase in water intake. This is not a bad thing for most of us. Water is essential to make our bodies work properly and many don’t get enough. It’s all about balance though; too much water can also be harmful so stick to the sensible guidelines of 1.5-2 litres per day alongside a healthy diet, increasing of course if you exercise a lot or live in a warm environment (not the UK)!
2) It emphasises the need for fruit and vegetables. We all know they’re packed full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants so getting our 5-a-day or possibly even slightly more is going to help keep us healthy. Again though, too much can be a bad thing; raw food diets and too much sugar from large amounts of fruit can cause health problems. Emphasise vegetables over fruit and be sensible on the quantities.
3) It helps us to minimise processed foods. Of course, detox diets will demonise things that come in packages, telling you they’re the reason the world is in the state it’s in. They’ll also tell you that we are all allergic to these foods, but whilst some can be, this 'fact’ is certainly yet to be ascertained by science. So whilst there’s some truth to this, there’s room for a more balanced approach. If cutting processed foods completely is what you feel you need to do to lose weight and get healthy, then there is nothing wrong with that. As long as you get enough calories and of course can sustain your new eating routine in the long run, go for it. For many though this is seen as too extreme, and so after a short spell avoiding certain aisles in the supermarket and hiding behind a pillow when that chocolate advert comes on, they give in to temptation and binge, hiding the evidence by putting the wrappers in next door’s wheelie bin. If this is you, then find a middle ground, choosing the more processed foods as occasional treats to be enjoyed instead of making yourself feel like you’ve committed some sort of crime just by peeling open the packaging.
4) It prays on our weaknesses. Yes it took us five years to gain that weight steadily, but we can get rid of it all in just four weeks, can’t we? Well, sadly no we can’t. The old saying 'slow and steady wins the race’ applies to weight loss more than almost anything else. To avoid impacting the functioning of your body, you need to fuel it right. Over time it can then start to bring itself back into balance, decreasing weight and improving health. I’ve borrowed a few quotes here from a very good article I found online by Kathleen Zelman, director of nutrition for WebMD. She spoke to some nutrition experts and here’s what Connie Diekman, a registered dietician said.
“Detox diets prey on the vulnerability of dieters with fear tactics while gaining financially by selling products that are not necessary and potentially dangerous.”
5) There’s an over-reliance on juicing. If using lots of fruits, the sugar content here can actually be very high. Recent studies have suggested that consuming too much fruit juice regularly may be as harmful as using fizzy drinks. Some do emphasise vegetables instead which do have a lower sugar content.
6) It implies that we need to drastically change the way we eat and drink regularly to 'detoxify’ our systems. This is a myth. Our bodies are designed to detoxify themselves on a daily basis, as Frank Sacks from Harvard Medical School points out.
“Your body is designed to remove toxins efficiently, with organs such as the kidneys, liver and colon. You don’t need detox diets, pills, or potions to help your body do its job.”
What are the alternatives?
You can take some of the principles of the detox diets and apply them to a more balanced approach. In fact, you’ll find them all in the balance weight loss 'ten steps to a balanced diet’.
1) Drink plenty of fluids; water, milk, a little diluted fruit juice and even sensible amounts of tea and coffee (the caffeine content in a few cups will not kill you, in fact there’s quite a few antioxidants in there).
2) Get your 5-a-day, 7 if you can. Emphasise vegetables and berries with some other fruits, making sure to vary them regularly and get a wide range of colours.
3) Use whole grains; apart from the small amount of people who are truly wheat allergic, using whole grains alongside fruit and vegetables will give you adequate fibre to help you remove waste products (your body detoxing itself again). Vary the grains used to get the most nutrients; wild rice, spelt, rye, oats, barley, couscous and quinoa can all add taste to your diet as well as giving you the energy you need to function.
4) Limit processed foods, fizzy drinks and alcohol. We all know it; we know what’s really healthy and what we shouldn’t eat as much. All you need to do is work out how; it might mean choosing certain days for treats, limiting the number per week, not putting them in your shopping basket, avoiding times and places where you consume them, coming up with alternative foods and drinks to eat instead. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it’s sustainable and it works for you.
There’s one other advantage to all of this of course; your blender should last longer! ;-)
Start finding your balance today.