By Melissa Blake, ND
So many options and many lofty promises. When it comes to doing a detox, what do you need to know so you can choose a safe and effective solution?
Detoxification, also referred to as metabolic detoxification or biotransformation, is a process that is happening in all of us all of the time.
The liver, kidneys, skin, lungs, and bowels are constantly working to reduce the impact of the toxins and toxicants we come in contact with on a daily basis, first by neutralizing them and then by eliminating them through stool, urine, breath, and sweat.
We can support these detoxification pathways on the regular by providing several essential dietary nutrients and ensuring our pathways of elimination are working well. This can include staying hydrated to promote urination, eating fiber to maintain bowel movements, and exercising to support elimination of toxins/toxicants through breath and sweat.
But what if you need a little more support?
Although the body is designed to naturally process and eliminate toxins/toxicants, it’s impossible to completely avoid exposure. A combination of a poor diet, high levels of stress, and sluggish pathways of elimination can lead to an overburdened system. Following a well-structured detoxification program can provide support to these overwhelmed systems and help promote optimal health and wellness.
A “detox” is a lifestyle program that includes lifestyle and nutritional strategies aimed at reducing the body’s toxic load by reducing exposure to incoming toxins and supportive efficient elimination.
However, not all detox programs are created equal. Here are five red flags to avoid when making a choice about a detox program:
1. High-sugar juices
A detox that focuses on consuming only juices high in fruit and/or added sugar, although tasty, can do more harm than good. Often low in fiber and other essential nutrients, these juices take your blood sugar on a rollercoaster ride. The lack of fiber can also contribute to constipation, effectively impairing a very important route of elimination. It may also be hard to stick to a juice-only detox, as liquids do not have the same appetite-quenching capacity as whole foods. This could lead to the consumption of more liquid calories to feel satisfied. That is not to say that a daily green-vegetable juice is not beneficial, only that moderation and ingredients matter.
Red flag: Juice-only detox programs are lacking essential nutrients and fiber and may wreak havoc on blood sugar levels.
Solution: If juicing is for you, consider adding a daily juice or smoothie to your whole-foods routine. Include green vegetables such as kale, broccoli, celery, cucumber, and parsley and keep the fruit content low.
2. Starvation nation
Fasting is defined as the voluntary refraining from eating food for various lengths of time.1 It’s important to remember that the process of metabolic detoxification requires many essential nutrients (see infographic above). Well-planned, intermittent periods of fasting may have health benefits and can even be incorporated into a detox.2-5 Long periods without food (i.e. fasting longer than 12-16 consecutive hours) should not be confused with a detox and should only be part of a personalized, medically supervised plan.
Red flag: Beware of detox programs that recommend fasting for long periods of time, especially without medical supervision.
Solution: Consider incorporating intermittent fasting (IF) into your daily routine, along with a whole-food diet. Common examples include time-restricted feeding (TRF), alternate-day fasting (ADF), modified alternate-day fasting (mADF), and the 5:2 protocol. Speak to your healthcare provider about ways to incorporate IF into a detox program.
3. Miracle cure
Beware of headlines suggesting any detox can offer a miracle cure. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Can a well-structured detox program encourage weight loss? Support immune health? Promote blood sugar balance? Enhance gut health? Some can! However, a 10- or 28-day detox should not be viewed as a miracle cure but rather as a way to support optimal health and perhaps offer a kick-start toward your health goals.
Red flags: Watch out for exaggerated claims. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Solution: If you have significant or chronic health concerns, always discuss your options with a healthcare provider. A detox may be a consideration as part of a comprehensive, long-term treatment plan.
4. Packaged parcels
Convenience is a big selling feature, and just because a food is packaged does not mean it’s imbalanced or poorly formulated. Even so, detox plans or cleanses that offer meals and snacks in the form of ready-to-drink meals, bars, soups, etc. should be carefully examined. Incorporating nutritional powders and having “detox-approved” snacks available can be helpful in managing cravings and hunger during a detox. However, the focus should always be on optimizing wellness with real food. After all, the goal of a good detox program is to promote a healthy, whole-foods approach long-term.
Red flags: When incorporating shakes or bars into a detox, review the ingredients closely to ensure they offer well-balanced nutrition. Reconsider detoxes that encourage long-term use of prepackaged meal plans.
Solution: Consider incorporating well-formulated nutritional powders and snack bars into a detox program that also includes and promotes a foundation of whole foods.
5. One-track mind
A detox that revolves around a single one or two food items (think celery juice or apple cider vinegar) should be approached with caution. Consuming an abundance of one specific food limits the diversity required for adequate intake of the variety of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein that support detoxification and may instead provide too much of single nutrient (sodium or potassium, for example). Rather than a detox with a one-food focus, it’s best to choose a safe plan that is based on good science.
Red flag: Avoid detoxes that emphasize one food as a cure-all that have not been researched extensively.
Solution: Choose a detox program that focuses on a variety of supportive whole foods and has good evidence to support its beneficial uses.
So what does the ideal detox program look like?
A well-structured detox program should:
Now that you know what to look for in a healthy detox, it’s time to get started. Don’t forget to talk to your healthcare practitioner before you start any diet.
1. https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Fasting. Accessed December 11, 2020.
2. Headland ML et al. Int J Obes (Lond). 2018.
3. Trepanowski JF et al. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(7):930-938.
4. Gabel K et al. Nutr Healthy Aging. 2018;4(4):345-353.
5. Catenacci VA et al. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016;24(9):1874-1883.
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