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To detox or not to detox

Many turn to extreme regimens in a bid to cleanse their system, but is a detox really what your body needs?

To detox or not to detox

“Human beings don’t go to the toilet nearly enough,” declares health blogger Jennifer Morton.

This is one of the revelations Morton discovered on a recent trip to the Yoga Barn in Ubud, Bali, where she completed a mini detox. On each day of the programme she was permitted to consume two green juices, a mug of herbal tea, a shot of wheatgrass and two coconut waters.

“I was also given an enema kit so that I could complete two enemas a day in my room,” laughs Morton. While some may baulk at the idea of self-administering an enema, Morton is quick to assert it is all part of the programme. “It’s about giving your digestive system a rest.”

As far as Morton is concerned, the results speak for themselves. “I have lots more energy. My skin is better. I feel well.”

The Yoga Barn is one of thousands of health spas around the world claiming that participants of their detoxification or “cleanse” programmes will be left feeling healthy and rejuvenated.

Naturopath Jules Galloway is fervent when it comes to the benefits of detox diets.

“Having worked at detox retreats, I have witnessed loads of positive outcomes from guests,” she says.

According to Galloway, who studied health sciences at the Southern School of Natural Therapies in Melbourne, we need to detox to “give our bodies space to heal”.

“Some foods, when eaten regularly, are taxing on the body’s liver, kidneys and bowel, which means the body finds it harder to keep up with the elimination of toxins. If we cut these foods out of the diet, and instead introduce ingredients that help speed up detoxification, like green vegies, juices, sprouts and filtered water, it gives our bodies the opportunity to cleanse and regenerate,” she explains.

Galloway recommends that anyone planning a detox should prepare.

“Do some gut repair first. Then, slowly wean off caffeine and sugar before the actual detox begins,” she explains. The next phase is to eliminate gluten, dairy, sugar and red meat. Some people then stick to a vegetarian diet or a raw food diet. For the dedicated detoxer, there are also juice fasts (for the duration of the detox programme, the participant only consumes fruit or vegetable juice).

Galloway says following this plan will result in a number of benefits, including “weight loss, reduced bloating, and a feeling of being lighter and more energetic”.

The dark side of detox

But while this may seem appealing, some experts are sceptical about detoxing.

Charlene Grosse is a dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA). She says when it boils down to the scientific evidence, detox diets fall short. Worse, they could cause more harm than good.

“Detox diets claim to flush toxins from your body,” she says. “But healthy adults have extraordinary systems for removing toxins from our bodies every day. Our lungs, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract and immune system remove and neutralise toxic substances within hours after we eat them. There is no scientific evidence to suggest our bodies need help to remove these toxins.”

But can detox diets be bad for us? Grosse thinks so. She says detox diets often work by excluding whole food groups from a person’s daily intake, which makes it difficult for us to meet our nutritional needs. This could be dangerous, especially for children, adolescents, pregnant or breastfeeding women and older adults.

“A healthy diet should be balanced and contain a variety of healthy foods to meet individual nutritional needs.

“If a detox diet is continued for a longer time, it may result in nutrient deficiencies, particularly protein [some detox diets omit animal products] and calcium,” says Grosse.

One myth Grosse is keen to debunk is that juice fasting is a good way to cleanse your body. “There is no scientific evidence showing that ingredients in juices help to eliminate toxins,” she explains.

“Juicing is no healthier than eating whole fruits and vegetables. In fact, it is often lower in many nutrients, and the beneficial fibre is near zero. Contrary to some claims, your body does not absorb the nutrients better in juice form,” she explains.

The supplement debate

Rebekah Russell, Blackmores’ in-house naturopath, says detox supplements can support the early stages of a diet and lifestyle change.

“Detox supplements can assist the detoxification function of the liver, digestive system and skin, support liver function and aid elimination of waste from the body,” says Russell.

But Associate Professor Tim Crowe from the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University warns detox kits and supplements provide little benefit over a healthy diet.

“A week or two on a detox programme won’t absolve a person from a year of unhealthy eating, smoking and excessive alcohol intake. You are better off making small but sustainable changes that will benefit health in the long term.”

Although Crowe is sceptical, he notes there are some benefits of practising a detox diet. “Many of the recommendations of detox diets do encourage good habits such as eating more fruit and vegetables, drinking more water and cutting back on junk food and alcohol,” he says.

Another benefit is that participants can become more mindful about their health.

It is for this reason that detox evangelist Morton bangs the drum. “My wellness holiday in Bali kickstarted a healthier way of life for me,” she says.

“It’s the lifestyle I want to have full-time.”

A focus on superfoods

Detox diets or programmes often go hand-in-hand with superfoods – but what exactly are they?

“There is no set definition for a superfood,” says accredited dietitian Charlene Grosse. “As a generalised definition, it would be foods that have a far superior nutritional content and have a high nutrient-to-kilojoule ratio. For example, foods that offer multiple nutrients while providing minimal calories.”

Grosse notes there tends to be a lot of hype around superfoods and says some of their properties may be exaggerated to fulfil various marketing campaigns.

However, there are some superfoods that really do enhance a healthy diet.

According to Grosse, the best superfoods can be split into four categories: grains (such as oats, wheatgerm, brown rice, wholegrain bread); dairy (such as yoghurt with its probiotic bacteria); protein (such as lentils, almonds, walnuts, oily fish); and “others” (such as olive oil and dark chocolate).

So how should we go about including superfoods in our diet? “A good place to start is to replace less-nutritional foods in your diet with foods that are higher in nutritional value,” says Grosse.

“Healthy eating is about making smart choices on the types of foods we eat. It’s important to make every kilojoule count.”

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