June 27, 2008

Detox Diets Can Lead to Malnutrition

A patient recently asked me about a new diet plan called "Master Cleanse."

It is a popular "detox" diet that starts off with 7 to 10 days of strict adherence to a concoction of lemon juice, maple syrup, water and cayenne pepper, topped off with salt water and a laxative tea.

"Will it help me lose weight?" he asked. I'm sure it will. When you withhold food and calories (the body's source of energy), the body is forced to feed off its own stores of fat and protein. It's called starvation.

According to a recent article in Today's Dietitian _ a magazine for registered dietitians _ research on "toxin-ridding diet regimens" is practically nonexistent. After all, who's going to pay for randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies? Lemon juice companies? Maple syrup manufacturers?

And why _ when book sales are so brisk without any sound research _ would anyone want to go to the trouble and expense to actually prove these diets work?

But I digress.

Fasting _ not eating or drinking for a certain period of time _ has been used for centuries as a way to cleanse or purify the body. "Clear liquid" diets that allow only clear fluids such as broth, Jell-O and apple juice are often prescribed when tummies are sick and need some rest from digesting solid foods.

But besides cleaning out the bowels, how does the body rid itself of harmful substances? I hit my anatomy and physiology books to find out. Lo and behold, within each man, woman and child are two exquisitely designed detoxification systems:

_ The liver (a.k.a. "Master Detox Unit.") This high-tech recycling plant is the body's most active organ. Alcohol, harmful chemicals, toxic metals and other substances the body deems "not good" are shuttled to the liver where they are processed to be safely removed from the body.

_ Kidneys have been called the body's "water purification plant." They continuously filter toxins and other wastes from circulating blood and dispose of them out of the body. It's a little too simple to reason _ as some adherents to these plans describe _ that harmful chemicals "get stuck in ells" and can be cleaned out with a certain diet. My liver and kidneys still shoulder the brunt of detox work to rid my body of unwanted toxins.

It is true that some toxic substances are stored in fat cells. And if you're not eating, your body will process fat into energy, releasing these toxins. Any weight loss diet will do that.

Are detox diets harmful? Probably not in the short term if you are in good health. Not surprising side-effects include diarrhea, food cravings, tiredness and headaches.

Over the long term, severe restriction of nutrients and calories can lead to life-threatening imbalances. Malnutrition can be toxic, too.

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(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. E-mail her at [email protected])

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