Just like clockwork, 2016 ushered in a string of new articles, advertisements, and Instagrammed enlightenment, all promising to purge us of our gluttonous holiday sins, one green juice or vegan Buddha bowl at a time. Detoxify your life, they tell us all, and here’s how! Rooted in history, detoxes and cleanses date back to ancient practices of fasting, purification, and spirituality. Advocates argue that toxins from our diets and the environment build up in our bodies, preventing them from functioning optimally. Signs that you’re under toxic overload include fatigue and bags under the eyes, constipation, bloating, allergies and skin irritations, minor illnesses and infections, and for women in particular, menstrual issues. And really, who doesn’t feel run down, bloated, and a little sniffly after racing around like crazy people in December? A detox, some will say, is exactly what we all need.
THE PROMISED LAND
At the end of these cleanses, we’re told we will emerge as new people, both physically and mentally. We will eat less, weigh less, yet have more energy. We will gain mental clarity and lose our cravings for junk food. We will be healthier, having removed environmental and dietary toxins from our cells and blood. Our immune system will be stronger. We will reach hormonal harmony. The fact is, we probably will lose weight. Drinking nothing but kale juice for a week has that effect. We also might feel better. Anecdotally, that’s often the case. But is it really because we’ve rid our body of toxins?
THE BITTERSWEET TRUTH
Our bodies do need to eliminate toxins from the diet and environment. Actual detoxification occurs on a daily basis thanks not to laxatives or lemonade, but to our liver, kidneys, skin, and entire immune system. If these organs were not detoxifying properly, we wouldn’t be sluggish and bloated. We would be dead. As far as feeling rejuvenated, there’s really no evidence to support it, not to totally discount the testimonials of thousands of people who really do feel better after a cleanse or detox. Now, it could be a placebo. More than likely, though, it’s that removing sugar, alcohol, and other processed foods for a few days or weeks really does invigorate a person. But you don’t need an extreme all-liquid cleanse diet to achieve that. Weight loss claims by these programs are similarly misleading. Most individuals will drop weight when restricting caloric intake below 1,000, but it will not come from body fat; it will come from water and muscle. The water weight returns as soon as typical caloric intake resumes, and muscle is something we don’t really want to lose in the first place. Ever. Plus, these low-calorie regimens starve the body, which wrecks metabolism and means regaining the weight (and then some) after the diet ends.
THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?
It should come as no surprise that I’m calling some of the more traditional detoxes and cleanses a FLOP. The weight loss is deceptive and unsustainable, the actual detox claims are exaggerated at best, and “feeling better” is nothing that can’t be achieved with an overall balanced, healthy lifestyle. On top of all of that, they’re often expensive, have the reputation for making people super cranky, and some are even downright dangerous. What may be more surprising is the similar reaction I have even to the more recent use of the term “detox” in association with clean eating. The best way to detox, we’re now told, is just to eat healthy foods. A lot of these “clean” detoxes are nutritionally balanced and full of foods I eat and recommend to clients all the time. Even more, I agree that eating them can do wonders for physical and emotional well-being. I, too, feel better when I fill my diet with plenty of wholesome, minimally processed foods! Still, I cringe when I see a vibrant salad or smoothie bowl on Instagram sullied by the hashtag, #detox. I may very well love everything about those dishes, but when I see them labeled as detoxes, I’m instantly put off. It’s a matter of semantics, but when it comes to our relationships with food, how we describe it makes all the difference. Framing these fresh foods within the context of a detox implies that their beauty and worth are not inherent, but rather hinged on how thoroughly they purify and pardon us of past “sin.” Not only is it physiologically inaccurate but it’s far from inspiring and riddled with judgment, and that’s the true difference between a diet and a lifestyle change. There are many reasons to eat these wonderfully nutritious foods. Leave the detoxing to your liver, and go out there and discover them.