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Detox Diets - They're Nonsense

There is a popular theory in alternative medicine that as we go through life we accumulate nonspecific “toxins” in our bodies, and these toxins can cause disease or the general aches and pains that arise as we age. These toxins obviously represent a significant impediment to normal function, and as such it is essential that people remove these toxins from their body in order to resume a normal and healthy life. In order to eliminate these toxins, people may undertake a number of approaches to “cleansing” or “detoxifying” their bodies. Among the most popular such approaches are detox diets. These generally involve the consumption of little or no food for several days, instead consuming only water and or juice for the duration. If food is eaten it is usually very high in fiber. Together, this elimination of normal food intake and increase in liquid/fiber is meant to help remove toxins from the boy in an all natural manner. Those are the claims made about detox diets. The truth, however, is that detox diets are not beneficial and there is no need for them. To reiterate:

Detox diets are nonsense and are potentially dangerous. They have no benefits beyond placebo. Do not participate in such a diet if you are doing so because you think you are detoxifying your body.

Detox diets and indeed this entire vague notion of toxin accumulation is a sub branch of the many tendrils of alternative medicine. There are many people that swear by alternative medicine for their daily ills and ailments. They generally continue to swear by it, even when there is literally no evidence to support its efficacy, and indeed even when there is evidence that it might in fact be harmful. If alternative medicine is found to have a benefit in a scientific study, then it is no longer called “alternative medicine”. Instead, it is just called “medicine”. All alternative medicine is generally either a scam being run by someone that wants to take advantage of people's medical ignorance or a placebo that is far less effective than a real medicine would. This is not to say that some alternative medicine treatments don't have actual medicinal value - placebos are powerful tools for minor complaints or certain psychological issues such as anxiety, and in these cases merely believing you are helping to fix the problem may help to resolve the root cause. For treatment of legitimate disease, however, alternative medicine - detox diets included - operates at the cost of human health.

The Dangers of Toxins

There are many toxic compounds in the world, and indeed some of them will inevitably end up in your body. Toxin, however, is a very broad and vague term that does little to point to the true nature of what it is that you are encountering. Many foods that we eat on a daily basis contain chemicals or enzymes that are toxic to some animals that are not toxic to humans at normal levels of consumption, making toxin a relative term. For example, dogs and cats cannot eat chocolate safely even though humans eat it all the time with impunity. This is because chocolate contains caffeine and other related chemical compounds that end up being harmless to people, but which can prove lethal to these pets. By the same token, there are certain compounds that we cannot safely consume because they will prove toxic to us in an acute fashion. It is also possible to consume compounds that may prove to be toxin in the long run even if they lack any acute toxicity - for example, carcinogens may not exhibit a clear toxic effect for years even though they can be very damaging. The kinds of toxins referred to in so called “detox” diets, however, are not specified, and in reality they are not likely to be real.

Your body is excellent at detoxifying items that come in through your food. You have evolved to be able to do just that, and you have several organs that have the essential role of eliminating the toxicity of consumed items. The liver is the most essential organ in this regard, detoxifying food items as well as drugs and any thing else that makes its way into your bloodstream by metabolizing it into less harmful forms (in general, although the liver may increase the toxicity of certain compounds in specific circumstances). Your liver function is the reason you can eat large amounts of chocolate but your dog cannot - your liver metabolizes the caffeine to prevent it from damaging your body, while your pet's liver is unable to do so. Your body does not need the help of a nutrient poor fast in order to better detoxify compounds via the liver or gut. Nothing about such a diet would ever be able to improve the function of these organs, and the fact that you are starving them of normal nutrients is in fact more likely to damage their function if the diet is utilized for an extended period of time.

Your body does not accumulate toxins in any appreciable way as you age. There are certain compounds that can be potentially harmful that your body will hold on to even though it is detrimental to do so. For example, heavy metals will be bound by enzymes inside many of the cells of your body, trapping those metals in the cells which can keep them there for an extensive amount of time, with the potential to cause damage in sufficient quantities. In addition your cells accumulate damage as you age, and they generally decrease in function. In addition they increase the production of reactive oxygen species which can damage the cellular integrity and the makeup of the DNA over time. In this sense, over time your body does accumulate damage through wear and tear - indeed, this is the process that most people call aging. Going on a detox diet cannot reduce or reverse these issues. Heavy metals inside your cells will not be brought out by a high fiber diet, nor will the threat of reactive oxygen damage be mitigated by the consumption of a large amount of juice. There are no specific toxins that accumulate in your body with age, and the damage that you do accrue over time simply can not be eliminated by any known form of diet.

Conclusions

Given the fact that they do not work, why do people partake of these nonsense diets? As mentioned above, a major contributing factor is likely the placebo effect. People believe that the diet will work, so they are biased to perceive that it is indeed having a benefit for them. Because people who undertake this diet are usually not doing so because of any major health complaint, it is very easy for them to delude themselves into believing that there is a benefit to their detox diet even when there is not. This effect is likely amplified by the fact that the diet will produce altered gastrointestinal symptoms due to the lack of nutrient intake and the large amounts of water passing through the system, and this will likely allow the user to imagine that these changes correspond to some health benefit of one sort of nature. These diets also require a large amount of self control which can be quite difficult to muster, which likely encourages a sense of cognitive dissonance in users of the diet, biasing them to validate their choices through perceived benefit.

Partaking of a detox diet for a single day will likely not have any consequences, however it will also not have any benefits. Anything that you perceive as having been improved by a detox diet is in your head, and is the result of the placebo effect. Simply put, there is no evidence to support the use of detox diets for any meaningful health change. If your use them for an extended period of time, then they may in fact prove to be harmful due to the lack of proper nutrient intake and the ensuing damage to normal bodily functions. Your body has undergone millennia of evolution that has prepared it to detoxify myriad compounds in a natural and safe manner. You cannot augment this innate detox capacity simply through sheer willpower and belief in vague pseudoscience. Do not fall sway to alternative medicine simply because it sounds promising - true medicine may not have all the answers, but it does have the advantage of actually generating a reproducible benefit that isn't exclusively in the heads of those receiving treatment.

References

  • 1. Strauss, R.S., Self-reported weight status and dieting in a cross-sectional sample of young adolescents: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 1999. 153(7): p. 741-747.
  • 2. Brownell, K.D. and J. Rodin, The dieting maelstrom: Is it possible and advisable to lose weight? American Psychologist, 1994. 49(9): p. 781.
  • 3. Brownell, K.D., Dieting and the search for the perfect body: Where physiology and culture collide. Behavior Therapy, 1992. 22(1): p. 1-12.
  • 4. Bar, R.S., et al., Fluctuations in the affinity and concentration of insulin receptors on circulating monocytes of obese patients: effects of starvation, refeeding, and dieting. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 1976. 58(5): p. 1123.
  • 5. Levine, M.P., et al., Normative developmental challenges and dieting and eating disturbances in middle school girls. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 1994. 15(1): p. 11-20.
  • 6. Wood, P.D., et al., Changes in plasma lipids and lipoproteins in overweight men during weight loss through dieting as compared with exercise. New England Journal of Medicine, 1988. 319(18): p. 1173-1179.
  • 7. Garrow, J. and C. Summerbell, Meta-analysis: effect of exercise, with or without dieting, on the body composition of overweight subjects. European journal of clinical nutrition, 1995. 49(1): p. 1-10.


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