One of the most nonsensical (not to mention irritating) trends in health is “cleansing” or “detox” programs. They exist in abundance in health circles and can be found everywhere – usually touted as a panacea for any given health problem. From bookshelves to yoga studios to multi-level marketing campaigns, “cleanses” remain the most prominent socially accepted eating disorder of today.
For the sake of this article, I’ll use the terms “cleanse” and “detox” interchangeably as any dietary strategy that employs strict rules on eating or drinking – usually involving the elimination of many foods/drinks/substances and/or involves fasting or the addition of special supplements for a period of time.
Being in the fitness and fat loss game for a while, I get asked about detox regimens all the time. My obvious first question is why?
Here are the 4 most typical (and misguided) rationales for detoxing.
1. want to rid my body of toxins:
My response is usually a quick survey;
- Do you have a liver?
- Do you have kidneys?
- Do you have a GI tract?
- Do you have a lymphatic system?
- Do you have skin?
- Have you recently downed a cup of battery acid, inhaled bug spray or consumed your own weight in vodka?
If you answer “yes” to the first 5 questions and “no” to the last one, then NO you don’t need to do a “cleanse” or “detox”. You’re welcome : )
The word “toxin” itself is largely misunderstood and misrepresented by peddlers of cleansing plans. They keep things intentionally obscurantist when it comes to the precisely what they mean by “toxins” for good reason. Making specific claims ie. “Our sooper-dooper clenz™ removes polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons”, would place a specific burden of proof on the manufacturer.
Keeping things ambiguous instills the right amount of fear whilst relieving a specific burden of proof. In the words of legendary skeptic Ben Goldacre, MD, Toxin” is classic pseudoscience terminology.”
The next time someone claims we are full of “toxins”, ask them which ones. Further, ask them for studies showing elevated levels of these said toxins in the blood, have them go through the “detox” plan and then draw blood showing the removal of said toxins. Prepare for the sound of crickets chirping.
The dose makes the poison when it comes to chemicals and toxins. Anything can be toxic in high enough amounts – including water.
2. I just need a weight loss “boost”:
Will subsisting on ridiculously low amounts of calories for days on end “boost” weight loss? Very likely, yes. Your likelihood of keeping it off, however… almost zero. Prolonged periods of sizeable caloric deficits will force your body to slow down and conserve energy. So while we are conditioned to rejoice in scale weight loss, I’m going to be the razor blade on your personal water slide and tell you what you will lose will be composed mostly of water (and a good chunk of muscle for good measure).
I don’t care what supplements/herbs/juices you are taking, there is no substitute for getting adequate calories from good old-fashioned food.
A “boost” is part and parcel of our quick-fix, instant results mentality that we have grown accustomed to. Unfortunately, reality is often far removed from the false promises of dubious gurus.
3. I’ve been eating like crap/boozing too much:
This ties in with #1 in that we feel our body needs a quick turn-around from a period of overindulgence. Along with our aforementioned “instant/quick fix” mentality, we as a westernized culture are poster children for all-or-nothing thinking. We think we can atone for dietary sins by going on strict plans. The problem is that it simply doesn’t work.
A BBC documentary examined the detox claim, taking ten party animals to a country cottage retreat for ten days to see if a detox diet could recharge their internal batteries. The group was split into two and half the girls were put on a balanced diet, including red meat, alcohol, coffee and tea, pasta, bread, chocolate and crisps (in moderation), with the remainder following a classic detox diet.
“After testing the kidney and liver functions and measuring the antioxidant and aluminium levels in their blood we found there were no differences between the groups” concluded the researchers.
Further, in the case of loading the liver with booze and fast food, the go-to liver cleansing plant milk thistle shows no evidence in support its effectiveness.
4. It makes me feel WONDERFUL!
It’s not uncommon for those who are undertaking a detox plan to feel a sense of euphoria, energy boost or an apparent immunity to cravings. Rest assured, however these feelings are both short-lived and deceptive. I would first contend that people who feel “energized” and “happy” are falling victim to the power of suggestion and the placebo effect.
Detox and cleanse marketing is very savvy, touting many positive outcomes of partaking in their product or system. Their promises trigger what behavioral psychologists call “response expectancies,” or what we anticipate out of a situation. These expectancies are a powerful harbinger – actively influencing how we get our desired outcome. When our brains anticipate a certain result, our thoughts and behaviors collude to bring that outcome to fruition.
Psychology aside, there may be some short-lived physiological effects of cleansing. If we think about how most people eat on a day-to-day basis (read: highly processed, empty calorie), ANY half-way drastic eating changes could trigger warm-and-fuzzy, high energy feelings. The reality, however is that consuming very low calories and/or protein for any extended period will sooner or later bring your energy levels to a grinding halt.
How to “detox” without really “detoxing”.
For those of you who absolutely MUST detox, here’s my advice;
Don’t go full moron be overly restrictive with your detox. Ensure you are getting adequate calories and protein for your goals, weight and activity levels. If you want to eliminate sugar, coffee, meat, wheat or what-have-you for a period of time then go for it and see how you feel.
Don’t be fooled, however into thinking that colonics, foot baths, saunas or any combination of nutritional wizardry will detoxify you and make you lean and brimming with energy.
Focus on nailing the basics of nutrition and exercise. It will take work. It will take patience. You WILL hit some roadblocks. In the end, however, you WILL succeed.
A healthy dose of fear, combined with the prospect of rapid weight loss becomes a tempting proposition for even the clearest of thinkers. While it’s not easy to consistently eat well, lift heavy things and move often, consistently doing those things is the only tried and true way to achieve better health and a leaner frame.
About Mike Howard
Mike has been actively involved in the fitness industry since 1996 – amassing more than 10,000 hours of in-the-trenches experience helping people achieve phenomenal health.
He has worked with a diverse number of individuals of varying ages, goals and abilities. Mike specializes in fat loss, corrective exercise and youth fitness. His approach is comprehensive, individualized and results-oriented. A dedicated and lifelong student, Mike is on the cutting edge of exercise and nutritional science and designs strategies to help people get fast, efficient and long-lasting results.
In addition to personal training and coaching youth, Mike is an accomplished writer, with over 350 articles to his credit. He has been published in Diet Blog, The Vancouver Sun, Impact magazine and has been a guest on the Good Life Show, with Jesse Dylan — an internationally syndicated radio show.
Mike has just opened up limited spots for online coaching and training. Contact him at mike @ coreconceptswellness.com for details.
For more information about Mike, visit www.coreconceptswellness.com and check out his blog http://www.coreconceptswellness.com/blog . And please do feel free to connect on Facebook www.facebook.com/mike.howard2 and/or follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/CoreConceptsMH