To Detox or Not to Detox - Are They Really Worth It?

A few years ago I decided to do the Whole Living Action Plan as recommended by a friend of mine. I was about 6 months into the move to Hong Kong and a combination of eating out all the time, adjusting to different foods and of course, the endless social nights trying to sample all of Hong Kong's bars left me feeling sluggish, bloated and generally not on top of my game. So I thought a light detox would help reset my system.

First of all let me just say that I'm not a fan of juice detoxes. I need to chew on something - even if it's just a carrot stick! But this detox took my fancy because you start with all fruit, vegetable and legume based meals in the first week, slowly re-introduce fish and gluten-free grains in the second week and finally end the third week with adding back soy and eggs.

The detox (or 'action plan' as it is promoted) runs for three weeks and you have the option of doing an extra seven days to ease yourself back into normal, healthy eating again. You do have to prepare all the food yourself so a fair bit of time and effort is required. Some of the items I found difficult to source at first but with the abundance of health food shops around Hong Kong these days this shouldn't pose too much of a problem for those wanting to try it.

What is key about this detox is that it's reasonable, 'do-able' and most importantly doesn't involve a massive drop in calories which will leave you starving and more likely to give up after a couple of days. I certainly felt better after doing it and found that after re-introducing full-cream milk to my diet I started to feel bloated again so it was certainly useful in identifying some minor food intolerances. Since doing it back in 2013 I have maintained a healthy diet (with the exception of a few naughty treats now and then) and my body has thanked me for it. This led me to look at the usefulness of detox diets and cleanses and investigate whether they really are worth it.

Do you need to detox?

The question you need to ask yourself before you start a detox is why do you want to do it? Is it because you are feeling tired, sluggish or feel like you could have certain food intolerances? If so, then a simple detox like the Whole Living Action Plan might be a good place for you to start. Of course, if you continue feeling unwell after a detox it could be time for a trip to the doctor to investigate other possible causes.

However, if you are looking for a 'quick-fix' to drop some weight to fit into that pair of skinny jeans a detox is not necessarily the right choice. Remember: no detox replaces a healthy diet that can be maintained longer term. It's unfortunate that a lot of celebrity endorsed 'cleanses' can confuse the general public about this. The detox or 'juice cleanse' trend is a multi-billion dollar industry which often makes claims to a puzzling mix of science and pseudoscience. Claims such as "ridding your body of parasites," "losing fat fast" and "improving the skin and hair" from programs such as The Master Cleanse where the participant is only allowed to drink a mixture or water, lemon, cayenne pepper and maple syrup for up to 10 days (10 days!!) are irresponsible and can be highly dangerous for those who follow them. This can be due to insufficient calories and lack of important nutrients.

At the end of the day most detoxes or cleanses are geared towards eliminating toxins from the body. But just how toxic are we? In reality a lot of what we ingest on a daily basis can be considered a toxin: alcohol, caffeine, saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, pharmaceutical drugs. Then there are other forms of toxins like pollution in the air, pesticides and other chemicals in food for example. But can't we just eliminate these things where possible without turning to a complete detox?

Most popular detoxes today comprise of a juice cleanse, a mixture of herbal laxatives and/or antioxidants, probiotics for gut health and generally a complete elimination of coffee, alcohol, meat, processed foods, dairy and preservatives. While they may come with some benefits most are extreme in nature making them difficult to adhere to. Is there is an easier solution?

You don't need a detox to 'detox'

The body already has its own 'detox centre' with the liver and kidneys filtering out most harmful substances. Our other organs like the lungs, skin and lymphatic system also play a role in eliminating toxins.

Sure, when we consume copious amounts of alcohol, sugar and refined carbohydrates we make it difficult for our liver to cope. This in turn can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance and even more serious conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But you can reduce your exposure to such risks and toxins with a healthy balance of food, vitamins and minerals along with exercise. You don't need a detox to do that. Instead there are simple, easy-to-stick-to methods that will help our liver and kidneys do their job more efficiently:

Drink more water. Aim for around 2 litres a day. This prevents dehydration, flushes toxins faster and keeps your kidneys from working overtime. Water also keeps your skin in good condition and keeps things flowing along your gastrointestinal tract.

Increase your vegetable intake. Vegetables are packed full of vitamins and minerals important for regulating our metabolic processes. Vitamins A, C and E as well as other phytochemicals found in most dark green leafy vegetables are important antioxidants that can help protect the body against certain cancers and boost the immune system.

Increase soluble and insoluble fibre intake. Getting ample fibre in your diet helps to promote gut health and increase elimination of unwanted toxins through our intestines. High fibre foods include oats, the skins of fruits (eg, apples) and whole grains like quinoa and brown rice.

Go 'Green Monday'. Consider including a meatless meal into your weekly eating plan. This has been widely promoted in Hong Kong as Green Monday or in other countries as 'Meatless Mondays' with a range of restaurants and schools participating. Going 'Green' for one day a week helps limit your intake of saturated fat found in meat and increases your consumption of nutrient-rich vegetables. If you aren't too keen on going completely green, try swapping red meat once a week for Omega 3-rich fish.

Limit your intake of sugar. Sugar is very harmful to your metabolism. Consuming large amounts of sugar causes a rush of insulin - a hormone your body produces in response to glucose. This often leads to a significant drop in blood sugar after an hour or so which leaves you feeling tired and ready to reach for the next sweet treat to boost your energy again causing a vicious cycle.

Try to have alcohol free days. Eliminate alcohol from your diet at least four or five days a week. Alcohol is essentially a toxin to our body so as soon as we ingest it the liver starts working over time to remove it from our system. Excessive alcohol can also lead to inflammation of the pancreas which interferes with the digestive system and metabolism. Plus let's face it - not waking up with a hangover on Saturday morning will make you feel a hundred times better!

Get moving. Physical exercise not only boosts our metabolism and stimulates the digestive system, it allows toxins to be eliminated through our bodies via sweat.

The bottom line

As I mentioned before, there is an upside to doing a safe detox, primarily if you want to identify foods that you may be intolerant to. But before you try that juice cleanse, think seriously about what you hope to gain from it and consider that a healthy, balanced diet you can maintain (along with regular exercise) can be a far superior solution.

Health & happiness,


#nutrition #detox

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