In an era of health buzzwords, fad diets that slip in and out of the limelight, and so-called superfoods, it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate the minefield of supposed “healthy eating.”
One diet that continues to enjoy popularity is the detox diet, with variations tried and touted by celebrities from Oprah to Gwyneth Paltrow. But do detox diets work?
In truth, researching this article was difficult because there are a lot of conflicting arguments on this topic from the medical and integrative health communities, with little consensus.
One thing most experts do agree on, though, is the presence and ingestion of toxicities. It is the method and effectiveness of “cleansing,” or detox dieting, that is up for debate.
The basic theory behind detoxing is to provide your body with the right nutrients to support its natural cleansing system and ability to rid itself of toxins. Of course, effectiveness varies from diet to diet, and one should seek the help of a dietitian or nutritionist if they have a real concern about a particular toxicity.
So what exactly is a toxin?
Toxins, defined loosely, are harmful substances in our environment that can unfortunately make our way into our bodies. Dr. Elson Haas gave a more precise definition in his book “Staying Healthy with Nutrition“: “A toxin is basically any substance that creates irritating and/or harmful effects in the body, undermining our health or stressing our biochemical or organ functions.”
Common sources include drinking water, cosmetics, fish, fruits and vegetables, and the air we breathe. Basically, they’re pretty much unavoidable in everyday life. Meg Bowman, a clinical nutritionist and owner of Nourish Integrative Solutions, says, “I run a lot of nutrient panels on my clients. The nutrient panel I run has five or six toxicities that it tests for, including arsenic, Styrene, MPDE, Mercury. And I see a lot of those results come in, and I can say that of the clients that have sat in my office, probably in the last six months, maybe only two of those 50 to 75 panels have come back with nothing.”
The Environmental Working Group lists Asbestos, Arsenic, Mercury, Lead, Nonstick Chemicals, and BPA as some common examples of toxics.
If you’re not yet convinced on just how frequently you encounter them, Bowman also mentioned a client whose story illustrates just how far reaching toxins can be. “I had one client — this is fascinating — who was getting styrene, which comes from Styrofoam, and we were racking our brains, trying to figure out where she’d be getting Styrofoam, because she didn’t do takeout food in Styrofoam containers. And we finally landed on the fact that she was getting to go containers, like coffee cups, from a big-box store, and even though the inside of those containers was paper, the exterior of those cups was Styrofoam, and they’re stacked. And so, the paper inside sits right next to the Styrofoam of the outside of the cup that’s on top of it.”
Besides the environmental damage that stems from their use, plastics pose a significant danger to the human body. Specific components of plastics that qualify as toxicities can negatively alter both the environment and your health. An article published by the Royal Society discussed the harmful effects that chemicals used in plastic, including bisphenol A, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and tetrabromobisphenol A, can have on your body. These chemicals are known as endocrine-disrupting compounds and, when exposure has occurred in early human development, have been linked to cancer, declining number of sperm, abnormalities in the male reproductive tract, and early puberty for females.
Of course, eliminating plastics today when they are so prevalent and useful to us may seem impossible. Thankfully, a numbering system lightens our load. Start taking note of the little recycling triangle with a number inside it on the bottom of your plastic containers. The number denotes the classification of plastic the container is made from. Science writer George Dvorsky has published this helpful guide on determining which category your plastic falls into. Basically, you want to steer clear of putting your food or drinks into #3, #6, or #7 plastics.
Personally, I was shocked to discover that every single one of my water bottles was a #7 plastic. What was more shocking still was that these were all free giveaways from networking events or my school. Because you may encounter #7 plastics when shopping for water bottles specifically, be sure to find something that specifies that it’s BPA free.
Do our bodies have a natural cleansing system? How can we help support it?
“Our liver does a great job of detoxifying; it’s the organ that’s in charge of that,” says Monique Ryan, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the owner of Personal Nutrition Designs LLC in Evanston. “The idea of these recent detox diets is that we have a lot of chemicals in our system from pesticides, from foods that we eat, from the environment, and that maybe our liver gets overloaded now and then. It’s not that our liver can’t function, but that if we take some of these out, we are not overburdening our liver and we can just eat a cleaner diet.”
Ryan recommends exercising regularly as well, as sweating is another way the body gets rid of toxins.
What should a detox diet consist of?
“I would ask a client what is it they want to accomplish, but I would put somebody on what I would call a whole foods diet, with minimally processed food, with no other additives in their diet, fresh foods, things that are made simply, and real food ingredients,” says Ryan. She also recommends slowly cutting down on caffeine and abstaining from alcohol.
Both Ryan and Bowman warn against any drastic measures or quick fixes such as juice cleanses or herbal supplements without first consulting a professional, as often these well-intentioned actions can have adverse effects.
Detoxification and the mind
While I’ve used the word “detox” in this article when referring to avoiding and ridding the body of toxicities, Bowman says she actively avoids using the word at all. “I never use the word detox with clients — ever,” she says. “There’s a big problem when we say, ‘oh my gosh, I need to do a detox.’ Words matter. That’s very clear when you look at the research behind placebo effect and mindset. When you’re saying, ‘oh my gosh, I need to detox,’ what you’re saying is that you, yourself, are toxic. You’re implying that.” As Bowman works with mostly mental health clients, she has seen the negative impact that toxins can have on the mind. “Toxins can block the metabolic processes in making energy. You’ll see toxins directly affecting people’s mental health — anxiety, depression, you’ll see that.”
Both Ryan and Bowman encourage making a lifestyle change rather than going on a short-lived detox diet. Bowman summarizes it aptly: “My best advice is to do some intuitive eating, eat mostly plants, stop when you’re full, try to get stainless steel instead of non-stick pans, [and] when you’re done with your lipstick make sure you get one that doesn’t have formaldehyde in it.”
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Amrita Krishnan is a former editorial intern at Make It Better. A sophomore at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications, Amrita is interested in pursuing journalism. In her free time, Amrita enjoys reading, running, and painting.