Detox diets. Juice cleanses.
Could they be making you more toxic?
When it comes to the subject of cleansing or detoxing, you probably think either:
- “Detoxing is hocus-pocus! I would sooner choke on a chicken bone than undergo a juice cleanse.”
- “Detoxing is brilliant! I feel bright, bushy-tailed, and bursting with energy after a good cleanse. You should try it, too.”
Cleansing, it seems, doesn’t just potentially “clear out our toxins”, it also brings out our extreme opinions.
But, as with most areas of nutrition — and life — rigidly clinging to any extreme position may blind us to some important information. And when it comes to cleansing, I wanted to discover the truth.
In fact, I was so curious that my wife and I actually engaged in a three-day juice cleanse while I composed this piece. More on that below.
What’s a detox, anyway?
The word “detox” is kind of like the word “moderation.” When it comes to detox diets, there’s no universal definition.
Cleansing means different things to different people. My daily diet might seem detoxifying to you, while someone else would view it as toxic.
That said, detox diets typically include certain foods, juices, teas, or colonics – while ruling out others.
Other detox regimes consist of nothing at all – as in fasts.
The point of detoxing is to get rid of toxins.
That may sound obvious, but what is a toxin?
- The liver metabolizes hormones; does this mean hormones are toxic?
- The brain processes thoughts; does this mean thoughts are toxic?
- Electromagnetic frequencies come from a cell phone; are cell phones toxic?
You see the problem.
Now, in the case of drugs, the whole idea becomes easier to understand and measure. The goal in drug detox regimens is simply to eliminate the damaging substance from the body.
When we talk about detox diets, what, exactly, are we trying to eliminate from the body?
And can it even be measured?
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.
Meanwhile, small amounts of specific toxins might actually be good for us, so we probably don’t even want to eliminate those.
In other words, the real question is not: How do I eliminate all toxins from my body?
The more important question is:
Is this potentially toxic substance causing harm?
How damaging is it? And what can I do about it?
To make this clearer, let’s look at a few examples:
Example 1: Alcohol
Most people can safely drink one glass of wine with a meal. Alcohol is toxic, but the body can metabolize it in small amounts.
However, if you try to drink fifteen glasses of wine within an hour, you might end up in an emergency room with blood-alcohol poisoning.
Example 2: Bok choy
I know what you’re thinking: Everybody knows that alcohol can be toxic! So let’s look instead at a food that most people would consider healthy: Bok choy.
Along with high amounts of Vitamin A and other important nutrients, bok choy contains glucosinolates, which have been shown to contribute thyroid problems.
Most of us could safely eat a cup of raw bok choy every day (if we wanted to). Our bodies would metabolize the glucosinolates and we’d enjoy the vegetable’s benefits.
But if we tried to eat fifteen cups per day, we could end up with hypothyroidism. The bok choy in those amounts would be toxic.
Example 3: Cookies
How about a less healthy food? Let’s say a cookie. Most of us can safely metabolize the sugar in just one.
But if we eat fifteen of them in as many minutes, our bodies will be overwhelmed and might become toxic (as measured by blood sugars and triglycerides).
Example 4: Grilling
Cooking methods can also contribute to a food’s potentially toxic effects. We’ve all heard about the dangers of grilling. But most of us can metabolize the cancer-causing HCAs and PAHs contained in a small piece of charred meat.
Only folks who regularly consume 16-ounce hunks of charred meat need to worry about toxins and long-term cancer development.
Example 5: Vitamin B
Now let’s consider a specific vitamin. Most of us can safely supplement vitamin B to a the recommended amount.
But if we take fifteen times the recommended dose, our neurological and liver function will suffer. The vitamin has become toxic.
You can see where I’m going with this.
Most everything is toxic at some level. We can’t avoid it.
Yet the body “cleanses” itself.
Our major organs of detoxification include the digestive tract, kidneys, skin, lungs, liver, lymphatic system, and respiratory system.
These systems break down compounds into other forms that we can eliminate via the toilet, sweat, or breathing. And the body seems to do a pretty good job of this when placed in a balanced (i.e. healthy) environment.
So why detox?
If the body is so great at self-cleansing, why would anyone consider detoxing in the first place?
Well, we often get in the way of our bodies’ self-cleaning crews. We put a lot of stuff in/on our bodies each day and don’t always use our bodies correctly.
- We overuse medications.
- We don’t sleep enough.
- We slather chemicals on our skin.
- We don’t get enough physical activity.
- We over-consume alcohol.
- We smoke.
- We breathe in smog and ingest other environmental pollutants like heavy metals.
- We eat nutrient-poor foods that the body might not recognize as “food”.
- We overuse supplements.
What would happen if we were to change some of these habits and simplify what we ingest?
My intuitive sense tells me that we might decrease the burden on our body so it can devote more energy to recovery, digestion, and other processes that make us feel better.
But beyond “Ryan’s intuitive sense for detoxing”, another reason people start a detox diet is to lose weight — or because they saw a celebrity do it and the celebrity appears to be fit.
I apologize in advance if the next sentence sounds like something your parents might say, but trust me on this one:
Just because other people cleanse doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. In fact, I can say the following with confidence:
Detoxing to lose body fat is a poor proposition.
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.
Still, there is an important connection between body fat and toxins, because fat cells don’t merely contain fat. They’re also a storage site for certain fat-soluble toxins we ingest.
So, the leaner you are, the less real estate you have available for toxins.
This may help explain why many people feel lousy when they’re going through a period of rapid fat loss.
Since fat-soluble chemicals can be stored in fat, when fat is broken down, the chemicals can enter the bloodstream, contributing to fatigue, muscle soreness, even nausea.
Remember the Biosphere experiment in Arizona? Environmental pollutants were measured in some of the participants as they were losing weight. They did not feel great during this process. At all. It’s certainly food for thought.
Potential benefits of detox diets
If detox diets are a dumb way to lose weight, do they have any potential benefits? Yes.
Adding more nutritious foods
Foods and drinks typically recommended as part of detox diets are often nutrient-rich “superfoods”, such as:
- Green tea
- Omega-3 fats
- Colorful fruits and vegetables
All of these seem to help the body deal with incoming toxins.
In particular, a plant version of glutathione, an important detoxification agent in the brain, can be found in asparagus, spinach, avocado, and squash.
Reducing food sensitivities
In addition, most cleansing diets include foods and drinks that rarely trigger intolerances or allergies. So, detoxing can be one way to start figuring out food intolerances.
The only problem is that a detox diet is often so restrictive that people can’t do it for an extended period of time — perhaps not long enough to identify the potential culprits.
Finally, a time-limited cleansing diet can give you a break from the world of food.
If you want to focus on spiritual pursuits or need a (short) break from constant daily nutrition decisions, this might help you out.
What are the disadvantages of detox?
Any diet will take some effort to organize, and detox diets are no exception.
People with limited time, money, and resources won’t enjoy juicing fifteen pounds of organic veggies and fruits each day. Especially if they’re feeling weak, listless, or dizzy – some of the most frequently reported side effects of juice cleanses.
Meanwhile, most juice diets are extremely low in calories. In fact, some people argue that juicing is just a way to starve yourself and feel good about it!
Many cleanses are so low in calories that they’ll slow your body’s metabolic processes.
Not only that, but juice cleansing can become its own form of immoderation, which is sort of ironic when you consider that many people turn to cleanses in a search for moderation following a period of indulgence.
Yet it’s hardly moderate to pulverize fifteen pounds of vegetables per day to yield a thick green soup. Can the body even handle fifteen pounds of raw vegetable juice?
In other words, some of the negative side effects that people typically notice on a cleanse could be the result of overload. Their bodies could be working overtime to deal with a noxious cocktail of oxalates, nitrates, etc.
This brings me to one of my own theories. Many people get headaches when they are on juice cleanses. One reason - the most obvious — is caffeine withdrawal.
But even people who are not addicted to caffeine can be subject to headaches. I think this could be due to nitrates. Why?
Well, many juices incorporate high quantities of celery and beets. Neither of these vegetables is typically eaten in such large quantities; both, meanwhile, are rich in nitrates.
Nitrates promote vasodilation. And dilated blood vessels can lead to some pounding headaches.
Nitrates are not the only problem. Many cleansing plans are built around extracted juices. Juice is a processed food. So while we often frown upon processing, juicing in fact is a type of processing.
Blood sugar swings
In addition, many cleanses are built around high levels of fruit juices, which can cause major swings in blood sugar levels – making them downright dangerous for people with diabetes, and potentially risky for many others.
GI tract dysfunction
Not only do they wreak havoc with your blood sugar, fruit juices contain very little fiber. Why is that a problem? Fiber is a cleanser. It’s like a street sweeper for the GI tract; it slows down digestion and aids absorption of nutrients.
Again, there’s some irony in a “cleansing” diet that reduces the effectiveness of the body’s natural cleaning crew!
There is no credible information saying that the GI tract does better when it doesn’t see solid foods (unless the GI tract is damaged). Instead, the gut does well with pre- and probiotics, glutamine from protein-rich foods, and fiber.
You can struggle to get all of these on a cleanse.
Your GI tract is like your muscles, use them or lose them. (People struggling with disordered eating know this to their chagrin; sometimes the GI tract can go into shutdown.)
In addition to being low in fiber, many cleansing diets are low in protein. And protein deficiencies can inhibit the body’s ability to eliminate toxins.
Yup. You read that right. But wait a minute. Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of a cleanse?
Restrictive eating & deprivation
Besides the added effort, excessively low calories, and possible nutrient imbalances inherent in detox diets, they can also contribute to feast-or-famine style eating patterns.
And these, in turn, can cause trouble for your gallbladder and lead to kidney stones as a result of extreme variations in fat intake.
Probably most important – cleansing diets, along with any restrictive form of eating, can result in anticipatory deprivation.
If the thought of a restrictive diet makes you go on red alert and want to overeat, let this be a warning.
The detox diet starts tomorrow, so I’ll eat a bunch of toxic foods tonight. Recognize that thought pattern? It’s the classic dieter mentality. But it’s always more harmful than helpful.
Juice cleansing might just fuel food obsession and detract from making peace with real food and real meals.
And when it comes to colon cleansing (the next step) there are some scary stories associated with that – so if that idea appeals to you, beware.
Our 3-day cleanse, complete with unscheduled trips to the emergency room
Despite the numerous disadvantages I’ve just outlined, in the name of scientific discovery and self-exploration, my wife and I decided, over the holidays, to try a cleanse. Anything in the pursuit of knowledge!
I must admit that things got off to a bad start when my wife reviewed the budget.
“Wait,” she said. “The cleanse is going to cost how much?”
Somewhat sheepishly, I informed her that three days of juice cleansing would set us back $180… each.
Spending $180 to not eat for three days is a unique feeling. Maybe I should have taken the money and mailed it to a non-profit instead. Crap.
Or maybe the cost is part of a placebo effect. Knowing I’m spending this much money on three days of juice makes me feel like something pretty badass will happen.
It was about 11:01 am on a Tuesday when our cleanse box arrived. By then, we were getting hungry, especially since they had instructed us to avoid heavy foods (and alcohol and caffeine) the day before we started.
Immediately, I regretted signing up for the “advanced” cleanse. Maybe I should have done the beginners’ version, which included a kale salad and coconut/agave raw macaroon. Mmmmm, macaroons!
But they suggested we could supplement the juicing with whole veggies, fruits, herbal tea, water, nuts, or avocado if we felt like it. I breathed a sigh of relief.
The first juice contained cucumber, celery, kale, spinach, chard, cilantro, parsley, and sunflower sprouts. It had some protein and very little sugar. And it tasted like it had very little sugar.
This wasn’t a shock to me. I’m a fan of leafy greens. My wife, on the other hand, went Incredible Hulk. She couldn’t hide her doubts.
First she gagged. Then she tried to get festive and use a straw, but it didn’t help; her grimace after each sip was impressive.
(Note: She is a confirmed “super-taster,” so the first juice tasted abnormally bitter.)
The juice we were drinking was created using a juicing machine to extract only juice from organic fruits and vegetables. I started to think about the difference between whole foods and extracted juices.
What if I ate all of these foods instead? Would that not be equally detoxifying? How would juice, per se, enhance my organs’ ability to eliminate toxins?
The cleanse website claims that I am consuming the equivalent of twelve to fifteen pounds of fresh fruits and veggies each day from six juices — an amount that even I, a certified veggie-lover, wouldn’t be able to consume if I were actually chewing and swallowing all of them.
When we eat solid foods, the foods must go through digestion in order for us to liberate nutrients. When food is pre-chewed by a juicer or blender, this likely decreases the work of digestion.
Maybe you’ve heard of the thermic effect of food. Certain foods and nutrients have a higher thermic effect. Eat a big steak, there is a lot of work to be done by your gut. You might even get the meat sweats.
Drink fresh kale juice, and you’ve removed fibers and cell walls. All that’s left are liquids and nutrients ready to cross the intestinal barrier and enter circulation.
On the positive side, maybe you’re getting your nutrients faster. On the negative side, without having to work at getting those nutrients, your body is burning fewer calories.
As I finished sipping my first juice, I felt satisfied. It quenched my feelings of hunger. So far, so good. Sort of.
Because already, on that first day, I started to get a little bit of a headache. I don’t usually get headaches, and when I do, it’s typically because I didn’t drink enough water.
What’s up with headaches during cleansing? For most folks, it’s simple caffeine withdrawal or blood sugar swings. For others, it might be the effects of increased vasodilation, as I mentioned earlier.
Whatever the cause, my headache eventually disappeared, and as I lay in bed at the end of day one, all I could think about was how hungry I was. It reminded of my bodybuilding days when I was dieting for a contest.
At 3 am, 4 am, and 5 am, I was reminded of that time in my life again. Because I kept waking up with hunger pangs.
My wife had the same experience.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy going to bed at night without an overly full stomach. I think this serves me very well for my health/body goals and it leaves me hungry for breakfast when I wake up in the morning.
But the level of hunger I felt on Day 1 of the cleanse was substantial. And this can make for a crummy sleep.
My wife visited her mother’s house for pre-holiday food-prep festivities. This included covering pretzels with chocolate, frosting cookies, and other similar tasks.
During this process, my wife came to an important realization about the power of pre-deciding. Other years, she would have been snacking during cookie preparations, but since she was committed to the three-day cleanse, she didn’t feel conflicted about eating.
She had pre-decided not to have any cookies. Not an option, not a problem.
Meanwhile, I decided to do a light workout. Just a simple circuit with some weights and conditioning drills. About midway through, I started to reek of ammonia. Good ol’ breakdown of body proteins due to a low energy intake.
One of the juices on the detox plan included probiotics. Probiotics can help to populate the GI tract with beneficial bacteria, which in turn can help our digestive systems work more smoothly.
Nevertheless, towards the end of day two I was not feeling particularly “cleaned out”. I did feel hungry, but not like I had prepped for a colonoscopy.
In the early afternoon I started to get a strange twinge/pinching sensation in my lower right abdomen. I don’t know if it was my GI tract on hyper-drive or an inevitable appendicitis. But it was strange.
And it continued through the remainder of the cleanse (and for about two weeks afterwards). I thought some apple slices and almond butter would help, but they didn’t.
Later in the afternoon, my wife and I both felt extremely chilled. Winter in Boston is cold. And apparently, winter in Boston while drinking only green juices is even colder.
That evening, bundled in a sweater, as I sipped one of my juices, I began another quest for credible research and resources in support of detoxing and juice cleansing. Surely I’d find something out there to convince me that this cleanse was a great idea!
Well… not exactly. Because at this point, there just doesn’t seem to be a strong scientific case in support of detox diets.
Let’s put it in context. Most of the articles I write take months of research. There are so many studies, so much literature to review and sift and consider. There’s no way I could get through it and make sense of it all in one night.
But with this article, I found only a few credible sources to review. The research took a couple of hours.
Here are the conclusions: One study demonstrated that eight days of juice fasting can have mixed results on blood fats. And another case series showed that a whole foods cleanse resulted in weight loss and improved blood lipids.
That’s about it.
Now, beyond controlled research, there are plenty of anecdotes in support of detoxing, especially from companies selling detoxing kits. But the vast majority of unbiased health/nutrition experts say that a simple eating pattern built around whole, nutritious foods trumps a 100% juice cleanse every time.
Unbiased experts also conclude that there doesn’t appear to be a “spackle of waste building up on the gastrointestinal wall” as juice-cleanse enthusiasts claim. Remember, the GI tract has a lining similar to the mouth.
And the last I heard, “washing the mouth out” was an old-fashioned punishment, not a necessary part of oral hygiene. The fact is, all on its own, the GI tract gets rid of cells and rebuilds regularly.
My wife and I wake up tired after two nights of poor sleep. Each night, we’ve been kept up with a bad case of the “growlies”. (This is one of my client’s terms for excessive hunger.)
The one bright spot at this point in the cleanse is that we’ve both had minimal bloating. I wonder how much of this has to do with a lack of solid foods. Maybe in the future, taking more time to chew completely would lead to this same feeling.
So our stomachs are flat. But we’re tired, grumpy, and hungry. We’re also freezing cold.
And we really, really dislike the taste of two of the juices. We can only tolerate four of the six juices today.
In the late afternoon, we start to reflect on the cleanse. For sure, we feel lighter; there’s nothing moving through our intestines. But we’re ready to transition to solid foods.
On the night of day three we begin to taper off of the cleanse with double bacon cheeseburgers and a couple of pints.
No, only kidding. We eat a light dinner of soup, salad, rice/quinoa, and beans.
My wife and I agreed that we wouldn’t do a juice cleanse again. If we want to take a break from eating for whatever reason, we’ve decided that a twelve to twenty-four hour water/tea fast will do the trick.
Call me crazy, but I’m not sold on the idea of spending $60 for juice each day.
And the high financial outlay wasn’t the only difficulty we encountered with the cleanse. I mentioned that my colon and GI tract were on overdrive starting on day two.
To my surprise, this continued for about two weeks after the cleanse and even led to some weird abdominal pain, an appendix inflammatory episode, and a trip to the ER!
That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I began this adventure.
As for my wife, she was extremely hungry for about five days after the cleanse, and actually became dehydrated with low potassium. She even passed out… and wound up in the ER.
Seriously! Both of us had to visit the ER. After a three-day cleanse! (I hate to imagine what might have happened if we’d tried a longer one.)
Needless to say, our post-cleanse time was eventful (and not in a good way). Obviously this was just our experience, and I’m not sure if it was directly related to the cleanse, but I do think it’s worth sharing.
Lying next to the CT scanning machine at 4 am during my trip to the ER, I tried to remind myself that the purpose behind cleansing is to increase overall wellness. It’s not supposed to make you feel miserable.
What the heck happened? Now, whenever anything bad occurs in our house, we joke, “It’s because of the cleanse.”
Maybe in the future we’ll discover that there’s something really powerful and health promoting about extracted juices from pounds and pounds of fresh produce, but right now, we just don’t know.
If you detox, and your life is better for it, then keep it up. But based on what I know about nutrition, the human body, and the world - I don’t recommend it.
Detoxing doesn’t appear to be a route to a healthy lifestyle. Instead, most people detox for a few days and then want to go back to their “normal” toxic way of living.
What if instead of a three day, $180 juice cleanse, we aimed to eat and live in a way that promoted a detoxifying environment for the body – all the time?
We already know the main dietary toxins in North America, which include excess calories, processed sugars, fats, and salt. Simply cutting down on these toxins would improve our health and functioning.
We can do this by eating the best-quality, freshest food possible, paying attention to body cues, and not overeating. We don’t need a magical weekend juice cleanse.
And while there isn’t a strong case behind detox diets, there is a strong case behind how to live in a way that promotes optimal health, prevents chronic disease, and keeps us lean.
How to detox… naturally (no blender required)
Here are 10 steps you can take each day to promote a detoxifying environment in the body.
- Eat reasonable amounts. If you’re eating too much, you’re probably accumulating more toxins than your body needs. 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.
- Build your plate around plant foods and eat organic when possible. This minimizes exposure to potential toxins. Veggies and fruits play a major role in a healthy body because they contain compounds that can help the body deal with all of the incoming chemicals. Also, a diet with more plant foods and less animal foods can mean less additives that come secondary to the animal (e.g. pharmaceuticals, hormones, etc.).
- Stay lean. Certain fat-soluble compounds can accumulate in body fat. Less body fat = less real estate for potentially problematic chemicals.
- Drink enough fluids, including water and tea. And use a filter. The kidneys are major organs of elimination: Keep them clean.
- Allow time between dinner and breakfast. If you finished eating dinner at 7 pm, maybe you could eat breakfast at 7 am. This gives the body a 12-hour break from food for every 24-hour cycle. This might also improve your sleep, which is another critical factor in allowing your body to appropriately recover.
- Get outside in the sun and fresh air each day. Not only do we synthesize vitamin D from the sun, but we can breathe fresh air into our lungs and hear the sounds of nature. Good ol’ Mother Nature.
- Exercise and sweat regularly. Our skin is a major elimination organ. Make it happen.
- Limit unnecessary dietary supplements. Supplements don’t automatically equal health. And some might just be another burden for the body. Make sure each supplement in your cabinet serves a purpose.
- Eliminate your problematic foods. This relates mostly to Step 1. If you just can’t seem to master the habit of one cookie, and you always end up eating six, maybe it’s time to restructure your relationship with cookies. In addition, note any food intolerances.
- Check your body products. Our skin is our largest organ; each day we lather hundreds of chemicals into it. These then enter our blood and circulate throughout the body. If you want to burden your body with fewer chemicals, check your body products. The EWG has a useful database. Also see our article All About Safe Cosmetics.
Eat, move, and live…better.
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