The detox theory as commonly promoted is that in our modern, everyday lives, we are constantly bombarded with ‘toxins’ or harmful substances that gradually build up in our systems. This build-up of toxins causes ill health (weight gain, fatigue, skin conditions, bloating, cellulite, etc.)
In the case of detox diets, the idea is that a person’s everyday diet is the problem, especially following a period of overconsumption. All those extra calories, additives and alcohol now need to be purged from the body since, it is argued, the body is now incapable of doing this on its own. A period of detox is what is needed, enabling us to flush all the toxins away and start afresh, banishing our ill health in the process (and probably losing weight, too).
Typically, in a detox diet a large number of foods will be banned for a period of time (and possibly forever). On the banned list are usually wheat and dairy products, processed foods, meat, fish, eggs, caffeine, alcohol, salt and sugar. Foods that are often allowed (although not always) are fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and herbal teas. Invariably, large amounts of water need to be consumed throughout the day. It is not unusual for many detox diets to additionally recommend a number of vitamin and mineral supplements (since the nutrient quality of most detox diets is poor).
Other detoxification strategies may also be recommended, including steam and sauna baths, skin patches, brushes and colonic irrigation.
There doesn’t appear to be one – and that’s the problem. Much of what is recommended has no scientific evidence base whatsoever and exists through anecdote, marketing claims and spurious celebrity endorsements.
According to the organisation Sense About Science1, “the human body has evolved to get rid of unnecessary substances through your liver, kidneys and colon. It isn’t possible to improve their function without medical assistance.” Sense About Science is sufficiently concerned about the many recent detox claims and recommendations (some of which are potentially dangerous) to have established a dedicated detox information link on its website. Here, having reviewed all of the commonly recommended detox products and approaches, it summarises its scientific stance, stating that, “Your body is capable of removing most potentially harmful chemicals you will encounter in your daily life. The multi-million pound detox industry sells products with little evidence to support their use. These products trade on claims about the body which are often wrong and can be dangerous.”
Similarly, Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at Peninsula Medical School, Exeter, says, “Unless someone is severely ill, the elimination of toxins is most efficiently taken care of by various organs; the liver, kidneys, skin, lungs and the gut. In a healthy person, the function of these systems is already optimal. No improvements are needed or can be achieved by detox therapies.”2
Ernst is particularly scathing of the reticence of advocates of detox therapies to engage in generating evidence for their products and approaches. “Proponents of detox have never been able to demonstrate that their treatments actually decrease the level of any specific toxin in the body. Yet such studies would be very simple to conduct: name the toxin, measure its level before and after the treatment and compare the readings. Why do such studies not exist?”
With no valid supporting evidence, can anything positive be said about detox diets? Well, you could possibly argue that some good habits could come from the promotion of more fruit and vegetables in one’s diet, and the cutting out of refined and processed foods and a reduction in alcohol consumption. These dietary modifications, of course, would need to become life-long behaviour changes.
Detox diets are typically low in energy so people who manage to stick to them often lose weight, therefore it is possible that some detox diets could be used to kick-start a weight management programme.
Detox: simple quackery?
So, how do you spot the quackery? According to Dr Stephen Barrett, you will usually see the use of pseudo-medical jargon and words such as ‘detoxify’, ‘purify’, ‘revitalise’, ‘balance’ and ‘rejuvenate’. Commonly, there will be the use of anecdotes and testimonials rather than any clinically acceptable evidence and, of course, any results will be miraculous, quick and dramatic. In short, carefully consider anything for which there appears to be no supportive scientific data: and at the present time this includes a detox.
Tony Lycholat is a coach, coach educator and high performance scientist, with degrees in sport science and sports medicine. He has worked with Olympic and elite professional sportsmen and women for over 25 years, and has been the technical editor at FitPro since 1993.
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