5 concerns about detox diets

Detox diets are all the rage. A quick Google search will tell you that “detoxing” will remove from your body “an intoxicating or addictive substance.” Got it? But what foods or drinks are considered toxic? Are some things safe but can become toxic at a certain level of consumption? Once we are loaded with toxins, what is the best way to detox?

The words toxin and detox are vague – similar to the word healthy. These terms are open for personal interpretation. My diet may look like a healthy detox to one person and unthinkably toxic to someone else. I may feel healthy after a great yoga class, someone else may feel healthy because they are in remission from cancer. It’s all relative. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for health, and the same applies to detoxification.

Everything in moderation

Many seemingly harmless (or outwardly healthy) foods can become toxic when taken to the extreme.

  • Water is essential for life, yet if you were to drink 4-5 liters in 2-3 hours, you run the risk of hyponatremia (low sodium levels), seizures and death.
  • Kale is sky high in fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, and folate. However, too much uncooked kale (due to its high levels of glucosinolates that interfere with iodine absorption) can suppress the function of the thyroid gland leading to cognitive deficiencies and goiter.
  • Excessive intake of oxalates (found in coffee, beets, celery, berries and carrots) can cause decreased bone growth, kidney stones, vomiting, diarrhea and coma.

Some things that are generally NOT good for us may be just fine in small doses. So a little won’t hurt but a lot could.

  • Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways and excessive drinking can lead to cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), stroke, cirrhosis, pancreatitis and cancer. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it’s OK to have up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
  • Added sugar causes dyslipidemia (high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol). The American Heart Association recommends limiting your added sugar consumption to 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons) for women and 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons) for men. This means drinking one 12-oz Coke or having a couple of cookies would not put you in harm’s way.

Concerns with cleansing and detoxing

1.  Low Calorie: Eating too few calories will slow your metabolism and make you feel exhausted and cranky. Many juice cleanses or total fasts recommend a dangerously low caloric-intake.

2.  Nitrates: A lot of people complain of headaches when they do cleanses. This could be because nitrates (found in beets and celery – popular cleanse ingredients) cause vasodilation which can lead to pounding headaches. Caffeine withdrawal and too few calories may also play a role.

3.  Low fiber: Fiber promotes satiety and slows the release of sugar. A mostly liquid diet will be pretty difficult to feel full on. Once you strip the fiber away from fruits and veggies, all that you’re left with are simple sugars, which are digested quickly by the body and raise your blood sugar rapidly. Without fiber’s assistance in digestion and absorption, you may suffer from extreme bowel complaints.

4.  Increased risk of bingeing: Drinking all your calories and keeping yourself on a restricted diet for a short period of time may be fine. However, low-calorie restrictive diets increase your risk for falling off the wagon and bingeing. Cue the cycle of guilt, feelings of failure and vows to start a new diet tomorrow.

5.  Immoderation: It’s not “moderate” to pulverize 15 pounds of produce into meal-replacement juices.

How to safely “Detox”

Let’s just say you had a rough weekend (week, year, month, life, etc.) as far as your diet goes. We’ve all been there. If you want a fresh start, ditch the expensive shakes and juices and try some good, old-fashioned clean eating. Cut back on (or cut out entirely, if you dare…) processed foods, alcohol and caffeine. Stick to fresh, whole foods with a focus on fruits, veggies, whole grains, oils, nuts, low-fat dairy and lean proteins. Drink water and get a good night’s sleep. Then cut yourself some slack. Our self-worth is not dependent on our diet. Enjoy those extras in moderation, of course!

Kerri Link Heckert, a registered dietitian at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has been in the fitness and nutrition industry for the past 7 years. She is a yoga instructor (RYT-200), ACSM certified Health Fitness Specialist and certified personal trainer. She earned her Masters at Drexel University and currently lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.

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