Detox Diets Under the Spotlight
By Dietitian Juliette Kellow BSc RD
With gorgeous celebrities like Carol Vorderman and Kim Wilde extolling the virtues of a detox diet, you may be tempted to give it a go. But just how healthy are they? Dietitian Juliette Kellow investigates...
Lose a stone in 10 days, beat cellulite for good, banish bloating forever, get glowing skin!
These are just some of the promises that detox diets make. It's no wonder then, that after the excesses of the festive season, many of us are keen to throw out all thoughts of eating sensibly and instead follow a detox diet that promises to deliver instant weight loss and feelings of wellbeing.
Gurus claim detoxing will do everything from helping you to lose weight, get rid of cellulite and feel more energetic to banishing colds, making you feel calmer and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
It's compelling stuff, but many health experts question how healthy detox diets really are - and that alone should be enough to set the alarm bells ringing for most of us.
What's the theory?
Advocates of detox diets say our bodies are continually overloaded with toxins from, for example, pollution, cigarette smoke, pesticides, a poor diet, food additives, alcohol and caffeine.
As these toxins build up in our system, they say, any number of health problems can occur, including weight gain, cellulite, headaches, dull skin, bloating, fatigue, lowered immunity, aches and pains, and a general lack of wellbeing.
The process of detoxing is supposed to help to remove these toxins from the body with the result that you lose weight, feel healthier and recover from all those other niggling health problems.
What does a detox diet involve?
Advocates recommend many methods to help you detox.
These range from the mild and pleasurable like saunas, massages and body brushing to the extreme and unpleasant such as colonic irrigation, bowel enemas and fasting.
Herbal supplements like milk thistle, detox drinks and 'liver' tonics are often recommended.
And making dietary changes, is of course, a big part of most detox plans.
What foods do detox diets allow?
The foods allowed and banned can vary widely amongst different detox diets, but generally fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, herbal teas and massive amounts of water are allowed.
In contrast, wheat, dairy, meat, fish, eggs, caffeine, alcohol, salt, sugar and processed foods - in fact, most of the foods that many of us love - are banned.
What do the experts say?
There's simply no scientific evidence to suggest that our bodies need help to get rid of waste products if we are healthy and there's little proof to support the claims that detox diets work.
Quite rightly, most nutritionists, dietitians and doctors believe that our bodies are completely capable of excreting waste without the aid of 'detoxing' - that's what our liver, lungs, kidneys and skin are designed to do, after all.
Most experts also say that strict detox diets followed in the long term, can lead to nutrient deficiencies and health problems associated with this.
For example, by eliminating dairy products from your diet, it's very hard to meet nutrition needs for calcium, a mineral that's needed for strong bones and teeth. And in the long term, a deficiency of calcium can lead to osteoporosis or brittle bone disease in later life.
Experts also say that any benefits that are seen can be easily explained.
Fewer headaches, for example, are probably the result of being fully hydrated due to drinking so much water and better skin may be due to eating more antioxidant-packed fruit and veg.
Cellulite may well improve if you pay more attention to your thighs and bottom by body brushing these areas and less bloating is probably due to the fact that you feel 'empty' much of the time!
But do detox diets help you lose weight?
Almost certainly - but this is unsurprising because calorie intakes are usually extremely low.
Cutting out major groups of foods such as dairy products, meat and wheat-based foods means you'll slash the amount of calories you have - and only replace a few of these calories with the extra fruit and veg you eat.
The amount of weight you can expect to lose will vary according to the severity of the dietary restriction - the more foods that are banned, the more weight you are likely to lose.
It's as simple as that.
Are there any pros?
Detox diets do encourage some good habits such as eating more fruit and vegetables, drinking more water and cutting down on junk food and processed foods.
Plus they encourage you to cut back on caffeine and alcohol - all good habits to get into.
They also help you to think about what you're eating and can be quite motivating as you take charge of your health.
And the cons?
The main problem relates to the fact that detox diets can be short on many nutrients, leading to certain deficiencies and lowered immunity.
Any weight loss achieved is usually temporary and is the result of a loss of water as well as fat due to the severe calorie restriction.
This means you usually put the weight straight back on which can be demoralising and lead to yo-yo dieting.
Some people also experience side effects, feeling tired, sick and headachey. Advocates say this is the result of your body detoxing but in reality, it's usually caused by a lack of food!
Following such a strict diet may also result in you craving your favourite foods whether it's chocolate cake or bacon sarnies, with the result that you give into temptation and end up blowing your diet completely.
And at the other end of the scale, strict detox plans can help you develop an unhealthy obsession with food and a potential eating disorder.
Finally, eating out and socialising are almost impossible - most hosts and restaurants don't product detox-friendly meals with good reason!
There are a few aspects of detoxing which can help boost your health.
These include eating more fruit and veg, drinking more water and cutting out the 'junk' in your diet.
Nevertheless, there's simply no good evidence that a detox diet is necessary or actually works.
Ultimately, if you still want to follow a detox diet look for one that has the least restrictions and only use it to kick start a longer term, more varied healthy eating plan. Click here for a sample 7 day detox plan.
Remember, there's no substitute for a healthy diet and regular exercise when it comes to losing weight and staying well - and if you're eating well most of the time, there's simply no need to get caught up in the detoxing bug come the start of each new year.
You can create and calorie count your own detox plan using the tools in Weight Loss Resources. Keep an online food diary, set a weight loss goal and see how many calories you need to get there. Try it Free for 24 hours