It’s the “silly season” and time for year-end parties and summer holidays filled with lots of festive eating and drinking. Few people survive this time of year without overindulging, and suffering the consequences in the form of bloating, constipation and lethargy.

The “solution” for many people is a detox diet to rid the body of “toxins” and restore energy levels. However, before you go ahead with your own detox, you should consider a few things. How healthy are detox diets really? Do they actually work? And could they perhaps be doing more harm than good?

Empty promises


Detox diets are always fashionable this time of the year and touted as the perfect way to “cleanse” the body, promote weight loss, overall wellness, clearer skin, improved digestion and heightened immune function.

A typical detox diet comprises of a few days of fasting or drinking liquids only (such as water, fruit juice, vegetable juice and herbal tea), followed by a strict diet of raw fruit, vegetables and water. Stimulants like alcohol, caffeine and nicotine are avoided and some detox diets also advocate the use of certain supplements along with colon cleansing (enemas) to help empty the intestines. A detox diet can last anything from three days to two weeks.

Detox diets may be popular, but there’s little scientific evidence that they actually remove toxins from the body. “Detox diets do no more than the body's own natural system to get rid of toxins,” US researchers said following a study at the University of Southern California.

“Most detox plans serve up empty promises: from cell cleansing to skin revitalisation, colon decontaminating and liver purging,” the experts reported in the leading Food Technology journal. “The human body is designed to detox itself. Healthy adults, even overweight adults, have been endowed with extraordinary systems for the elimination of waste and regulation of body chemistry.”

The body’s greatest detox organ is the liver. Together with the kidneys, it is a filtration system that naturally detoxifies the body every minute of the day. Your body does a perfectly good job of removing toxins without any external interference.

Risks


Despite the body’s own capabilities, there are countless detox plans, products and treatments on the market promising great results – the detox industry is worth millions throughout the world.

“Many detox products that are marketed as ‘safe and natural’ contain harsh laxatives and/or diuretics that can be harmful to your health,” warns registered dietician Dr Ingrid van Heerden. “Laxatives interfere with the natural function of the bowels and, in extreme cases, an overuse can lead to a loss of peristalsis (normal bowel function).”

Excessive use of diuretics can lead to dehydration, which can be fatal in some cases. “If a detox product makes you urinate all day long, it probably contains a strong diuretic and should be avoided,” says Dr van Heerden.

Other risks and unpleasant side effects of detoxification include:

    • Feeling faint due to low blood sugar levels (due to severely limited kilojoule-intake and lack of important nutrients)

    • Irritability

    • Headaches

    • Fatigue

    • Constipation (due to caffeine withdrawal, rather than toxin withdrawal), and regaining lost weight once the diet has stopped. The weight gain occurs because the weight loss experienced on these diets is due to loss of water and lean body mass, not fat mass.



The only detox products that can assist you in terms of constipation are probiotics or beneficial microorganisms such as Bifidobacteria and lactic-acid bacteria, which help to restore the natural flora in the digestive system.

Scams


There are many detox scams out there. One such scam was the detox foot bath – an electronic device that claimed to detox the body. An electric current and some salt were added to water and after 30 minutes the water discoloured brown, which was “proof” that detoxification took place.

Upon investigation it was found to be a hoax: when an electric current is passed through salty water, the electrodes rust naturally, producing the brown water. Needless to say, the detox food pads (which promise to extract all the toxins from your body through your feet while you’re sleeping) are another hoax.

So what should you do?

Don’t waste your time, money or your health on detox plans. The best advice for a healthy body remains to follow an overall healthy lifestyle with a balanced eating plan and regular exercise. If you can avoid overindulging in the first place, you won’t feel uncomfortable, overweight and fatigued.

By all means, enjoy the festive season and allow yourself some treats, but try not to overdo it. As with all things in life, moderation is key. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, drink enough water, power up with whole grains, stick to lean proteins, cut down on fats, salt and sugar, stay active – and allow your body to take care of the rest.

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