Are Detox Diets Safe? Like Many Other Fads In The Health World, They Can Have Harmful Side Effects

The name sounds reassuring — everyone knows that anything toxic is bad for you. Plus, these diets encourage you to eat natural foods and involve lots of water and veggies, all things you know are good for you. You hear about celebrities going on detox diets, and people who go into drug or alcohol rehabs are said to be detoxing. So, shouldn’t a detox diet be a good bet?
Not really. Like many other fad diets, detox diets can have harmful side effects, especially for teens.

First, let’s look at the lingo. A toxin is a chemical or poison that is known to have harmful effects on the body. Toxins can come from food or water, from chemicals used to grow or prepare food, and even from the air that we breathe. Our bodies bring in toxins and then process those toxins through organs like the liver and kidneys and eliminate them in the form of sweat, urine, and feces.

What Is a Detox Diet?

The people who support detox diets say that, because of emotional stress or dehydration, toxins don’t leave our bodies properly during the elimination of waste. Instead, they believe toxins hang around in our digestive, lymph, and gastrointestinal systems as well as in our skin and hair. According to proponents of detox diets, these toxins can cause all kinds of problems, like tiredness, headaches, nausea, and acne.

So the basic idea behind detox diets is to temporarily give up certain kinds of foods that are thought to contain toxins. The idea is to purify and purge your body of all the ‘bad’ stuff. Although the diets vary, most of them involve some version of a fast — that is, giving up food for a couple of days and then gradually reintroducing certain foods into your diet. Many of these diets also encourage you to undergo colonic irrigation, otherwise known as an enema (an enema flushes out your rectum and colon using water), which is designed to ‘clean out’ your colon. Still others recommend that you take herbal supplements to help the ‘purification’ process.

There are tons of detox diets out there. Typically they involve one or two days on a completely liquid diet and another four or five days adding brown rice, fruit, and steamed vegetables (all organic) to the diet. After a week of eating only these foods, you gradually reintroduce other foods — except for red meat, wheat, sugar, eggs, and all prepackaged or junk foods — into your diet.

People on detox diets are also encouraged to chew their food thoroughly, to drink very little while eating, and to relax prior to each meal (although it seems a stretch to call a glass of lemon water a meal!).

Lots of claims are made about what a detox diet can do for you, from preventing and curing disease to giving you more energy to making you more focused and clear-headed. Of course, anyone who goes on a low-fat, high-fiber diet is probably going to feel more healthy, but proponents of detox diets claim that this is because of the elimination of toxins, as opposed to carrying around less excess weight or having a healthier heart.

However, there’s no scientific proof that these diets help rid the body of toxins faster or that the elimination of toxins will make you a healthier, more energetic person.

What to Watch Out For

If detox diets still appeal to you, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind. For starters, detox diets are intended for short-term purposes only. (People are usually encouraged to go on fasts like this at specific times during the year, such as at the end of a season.) And these diets are usually recommended not to help people lose weight, but to help clean out their systems.

Because normal teenagers need lots of good nutrition, with high calories and protein to support the teenage growth and development period, diets that involve fasting and severe restriction of food are not a good idea.

For teens who are involved in sports and physical activities that require ample food, fasting does not provide enough fuel to support these activities. For these reasons, detox diets can be especially risky for teenagers.

In addition, it’s not recommended that people with diabetes, low blood sugar, or eating disorders go on detox diets.

You should also know that this type of diet can be addicting — some people really like purging. That’s because there’s a certain feeling that comes from going without food or having an enema — almost like the high other people get from nicotine or alcohol. This purification buzz can become a dangerous addiction that leads to health problems, including serious eating disorders and even death.

In addition, many of the supplements called for by these diets are actually laxatives, which are designed to make you go to the bathroom more often. These types of supplements are never a good idea because they can cause dehydration, mineral imbalances, and problems with your digestive system.

Finally, if you fast for several days, you may drop pounds, but most of it will be water and some of it may be muscle, which will make you look thin and flabby, rather than tight and toned. Fasting for longer periods can also slow down your metabolism, making it harder to keep the weight off or to lose weight later.

Few would claim that eating lots of veggies and fiber and drinking lots of water is a bad idea. But you also need to make sure you’re getting all of the nutrients you need, including protein from lean meats, eggs, beans, or peas and calcium from low-fat or fat-free milk or yogurt. You definitely shouldn’t start a detox diet or stop eating from any major food group without talking to your doctor or a registered dietitian.

Your body is designed to purify itself. Your liver and kidneys will do the job they’re supposed to do if you eat a healthy diet that includes fiber, fruits, veggies, and plenty of water. If you’re feeling tired or run down, or if you’re concerned that you’re overweight, talk with a doctor who can help determine the cause and find ways to address the problem.

This information was provided by KidsHealth, one of the largest resources online for medically reviewed health information written for parents, children, and teenagers; www.kidshealth.org; www.teenshealth.org.

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