Detox diets can do more harm than good, so why not try this sane strategy instead?
How’s this for insane? One in 20 women would rather give up a limb than be obese, according to a study in the journal Obesity. So it’s pretty much a no-brainer that hordes of rational women desperately want to believe in the power of a detox diet. “These diets are so popular because people think they’re a quick fix for shedding kilos,” says dietician Jennifer Ventrelle.
As nice as it is to think you can simply flush fat away by drinking so much liquid you spend half your day in the bathroom, the reality is that some of these diets are not just literally hard to swallow, but they may actually be bad to swallow.
Recipe for danger?
The concept of fasting – drastically reducing kilojoule intake or following a liquid diet – isn’t new. The modern-day detox has existed since at least the Thirties, with the first grapefruit diet fad.
Today, most commercial detox diets tout an unhealthy formula of minimal kilojoules and nutrients along with some key – usually foul-tasting – ingredient that has supposed fat-melting power, like cayenne pepper or vinegar. But no science backs the idea that following a specific diet for a week or eating only one food will get rid of “toxins”. Your body has the power to do that all on its own: that’s why you have a liver, kidneys and a digestive system.
READ MORE: Are Detox Diets And Cleanses Good For You?
What’s worse, “none of the ‘detox’ supplements on the market have been approved by the FDA or even the Medicines Control Council in South Africa. They are unregulated, which means they’re potentially harmful as they haven’t gone through any medical testing,” says dietician and Women’s Health’s weight- loss advisor Charlene Giovanelli-Nicolson. “They are dangerous because they’re low in kilojoules and contain diuretics which flush the body of essential minerals such as potassium and nutrients.”
And with these very real risks come minimal rewards. Much of what you’re losing on this kind of extreme diet is water weight, which lasts only until you refill on fluids. If you see a more permanent drop on the scale, chances are it’s muscle, not fat, that’s missing. Without adequate protein (and a liquid diet doesn’t offer much), your body retrieves it from its most available source: your own muscle tissue.
Not good. Muscle is your built-in kilojoule furnace, torching those muffin-top makers even when you’re not moving. And the more muscle you have, the more kilojoules you burn, which is why dramatically slashing kilojoules can actually slow your metabolism in just a few days. “Your body thinks you’re starving and panics,” explains nutritionist Dr Marc Hellerstein. “Your metabolism slows down to preserve your muscle and basic bodily functions.” So when you go back to eating normally, you gain weight faster and from fewer kilojoules.
There’s no question that detox diets slash your kilojoule consumption. But research has found that after just a few days of skimping on kilojoules (even a very petite woman needs at least 5 000), your body stops producing a crucial growth hormone called IGF1, and reduces thyroid and other hormones as well as insulin levels. Over time, all of this can lead to problems such as bone loss and menstrual disruptions.
Even fasting every other day, which a 2009 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found may benefit obese men and women, hasn’t shown promise for those who are looking to lose only a few kilograms.
And then there’s the quality-of-life issue. “When you eat that little, your sex drive disappears, you feel tired all the time and you’re always hungry,” Hellerstein says. And what good is a hot body if you can’t summon the energy to use it?
A healthier head start
That’s not to say every cleanse is bad. Done in a healthy (read: sane) way, detoxing “can feel like an intervention, a fresh beginning,” Hellerstein says.
“The majority of the population consume more food and larger portions than is needed. Overeating predisposes one to being overweight, and also puts a huge strain on the liver and kidneys,” says Giovanelli-Nicolson.
Not only does a healthy detox give your digestive system a break, but by eliminating added sugar, saturated fats and alcohol, it also rids your diet of things that can exacerbate health issues, Ventrelle says. “Plus,” she notes, “you’ll probably cut kilojoules in the process.”
A good plan provides enough kilojoules and nutrients to sustain you (the average woman needs 5 000 to 7 500kJ) and includes fibre and lean protein. With that in mind, Giovanelli-Nicolson created a 5 800kJ plan exclusively for Women’s Health. “This plan is packed with fruit and vegetables, and the food is high in fibre, rich in antioxidants, heart healthy and low in kilojoules,” explains Giovanelli- Nicolson. That means your body will have a sustained energy release throughout the day, and you shouldn’t have any cravings or binges. Stick to your exercise routine (or start one up – we have loads here) and use this eating plan to kick-start your weight- loss programme. As a guide, follow the plan for six weeks, advises Giovanelli-Nicolson.
Because you’ll eat often – at least every four hours – and drink as much water and decaffeinated tea as you want, you’ll beat bloat while keeping your blood sugar steady and your energy high. This means you’ll be able to cut back without feeling cranky, exhausted or hungry. And you won’t have to force down a single glass of vile-tasting liquid.