Benefits of "detox" diets doubted

An array of short-term "detox" diets promise to flush toxins from the body, but some critics say these regimens are more likely to only purge people's wallets.

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By  Stuart Qualtrough Published  June 7, 2005

An array of short-term "detox" diets promise to flush toxins from the body, but some critics say these regimens are more likely to only purge people's wallets. Detoxification diets take many forms, with a parade of books, "detox kits" and other products available at health food stores and over the Internet. But the main tenant of all the plans is that the body needs a hand in removing the toxins that people normally ingest through food, water and air. A typical regimen may have a person eschewing things like refined sugar and caffeine, drinking a large volume of water and subsisting on raw, organic fruits and vegetables for a week or two — usually accompanied by herbal products and other dietary supplements meant to enhance the cleansing process. Detox diets are nothing new, having been used in the traditional healing systems of India and other cultures for thousands of years. Some advocates argue that a periodic detox is more important now than ever, given the exposures of modern living, including food additives, heavy metals such as mercury, pesticides, and hormones from animal products. But critics say the theory has no grounding in science, and at worst, could be dangerous for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, or for children, teenagers, pregnant women and older adults. There is "absolutely no evidence" that detox diets eliminate toxins from the body, Dr. Peter Pressman of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles said. Writing in the magazine Food Technology, Pressman and Dr. Roger Clemens, a nutritional biochemist at the University of Southern California, contend that detox diets serve up "empty promises." The body's own finely tuned detox apparatus — the gastrointestinal tract, liver, kidneys and immune system — handily neutralise and remove toxins, they explain, and there is no evidence that following a detox diet enhances this process. "Sure, it can make you feel good — initially," said Pressman. But that energised feeling, he added, is probably the result of cutting calories and cutting out junk food, and not from an expulsion of toxins from the body. However, Dr. Richard DeAndrea of the Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine in Santa Monica, California, said that before a judgment can made about a given detox diet, "we need to be on the same page about what's meant by 'detoxification.'" DeAndrea is co-founder of 21 Day Detox, a three-week program in which clients spend the first week on an organic plant-based diet, then move on to a "raw" diet of uncooked vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, and finally to a week on a liquid diet-drinking a green concoction of blended fresh vegetables and fruit. For a $199 fee, clients attend workshops where they're taught, among other things, how to shop for and prepare the food. DeAndrea said there is a "low likelihood" that a detox diet will, for instance, help remove heavy metals from the body. But reducing the amount of toxins going into the body may aid its own toxin-fighting system, according to DeAndrea. Though little research has been conducted on detox diets in the US, he pointed to some study findings supporting the detox notion. In one published study, researchers at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, found that 25 healthy adults reported greater well-being after a week-long detox, and those improvements were accompanied by an increase in "liver detoxification capacity" — determined by a measure of the body's caffeine clearance. According to DeAndrea, his program is intended as "a way to press a restart button." When the three weeks are up, clients are encouraged to keep following a largely plant-based diet and to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle. He agreed that certain individuals — for example, cancer patients, people with heart-rhythm disturbances and people on blood-thinning medications — should avoid detox regimens, or follow them only under the supervision of their doctors. According to Pressman, a short-term detox is unlikely to harm a young, healthy person, and may indeed leave them feeling better. But, he said, good health ultimately boils down to the often-repeated advice to exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy.

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