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March 8, 2015 | by  | in Science |
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The Deceit of the Detox

Maybe you’ve spent the past week hung over, and want to compensate with some natural alternatives. Maybe you read that your favourite diet beverage has a particularly nasty artificial sweetener. Many people will try to turn down the guilt-dial by replacing “all that is delicious” with “all that is natural” for a quick detox before returning to their old habits (a “detox/re-tox” cycle). Sadly, detoxing is not the heal-all you may believe.

A detox is exactly what the name suggests—an attempt to rid your body of toxins. As a consumer buzzword, however, it’s promoted as a “quick fix” method to cleanse your body and induce revitalisation and improved health. Popular detoxes include “The Master Cleanse”, where for at least 10 days you remove all food from your diet and consume only a lemon water, cayenne pepper and maple syrup mixture, accompanied by a herbal detox tea and a plethora of “Juice Cleanses” which require you to eliminate solids from your diet and consume only juiced vegetables and fruits (because if it’s a juice, it’s automatically better for you, apparently). People have even adopted a potato-only diet, introduced after farmer Chris Voigt undertook a two-month spud spree to discount the negative perception towards potatoes.

Detox is an appealing concept because it seems doable and eases the guilt we feel about indulging in food that we enjoy. It’s like a penance. We feel guilty for our caramel coloured beer, our aspartame treated diet coke, and our cholesterol charged bacon. We love to believe that glumly chomping on vitamin-saturated kale, or starving the sustenance sins away will rid us of the harm caused by our gluttony. The best part is that it doesn’t have to be a full time commitment: the next week, feeling superior after our self-inflicted hardship, we can take our cleansed bodies off to enjoy a hard-earned fatty Maccas and invigorating caffeine beverage.

In reality, looking after your body isn’t quite that simple. Rather, it’s much simpler. The body has multiple excretory functions, all constantly working to naturally detoxify. Millions of years of evolution have blessed us with a body that is designed with cleaning in mind—need I remind you the main function of the kidney?

Admittedly, it is true that our modern lifestyles mean we are ingesting more and more toxic substances, and toxins are not equally distributed throughout the body. Many toxins accumulate over your life in lipid deposits, where they may act as cancerous agents. It is these fat-bound toxins that are not as easily excreted naturally. Don’t be fooled by that: the idea of a detox is to promote natural excretions, not create a new temporary flushing system. No detox fad is able to rid you of your bioaccumulated lipid-based toxins any more than your colon can.

There is not yet any quantifiable data validating any detox diet. The few documented studies of detoxicology are mostly comprised of observational studies run by the Church of Scientology on their own “detoxification program”.

All this in mind, I’m not saying “go and eat Burger King for breakfast, lunch and dinner”. The real trick to a healthy body is moderation and variety (and some exercise thrown in too, sorry folks). One of the biggest dietary dangers is extremity, no matter which side of the spectrum. Constant boozing and burger banquets may mean a lot of yum, but it’s not a good source for nutrition.

On the other hand, aiming for too much “natural” can be a dangerous mindset in itself. Excessive fruit consumption not only results in the obvious high sugar levels, but can also influence imbalances in hormones that regulate blood sugar, including insulin, glucagon, and growth hormone. Plants also produce their own toxins, such as furocoumarin in parsnips and ipomeamarone in kumara. These toxins help the plant to fight off attackers by causing bitterness in areas of damage or by acting as an insecticide. Pre-ripe bananas contain a “resistant starch” that is not easily digested, resulting in high levels of flatulence. There’s also a lot of publicity around the contentious tuna fish: high in mercury (bad), but also high in omega 3 (good).

At the end of the day, there’s no “right” diet. There is no single food able to provide all forty nutrients the body needs to function. Variety is essential to get what you need, and also gives room to allow what you want. Never forget that everybody is different—daily intake requirements vary not just between gender, height, weight, and age, they vary between your unique environmental and genetic differences too.

Ultimately, too much of anything can kill you. On the bright side, if you’re trying to go natural, don’t forget that when sugar reacts with yeast, you get nice natural alcohol.

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