Detox dangers: After indulgent holidays, experts warn against quick-fix diets

Detox dangers: After indulgent holidays, experts warn against quick-fix diets

December 22nd, 2011 by Holly Leber in Life Entertainment

Quick detox solutions, such as laxatives, saltwater flushes and solutions of lemon water with cayenne pepper, are often not successful in the long run, doctors say.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Common-sense eating tips

Choose lean cuts of meat.

Choose fowl over beef and pork.

Increase fruit and vegetable intake.

Choose fruits with a lower glycemic index, such as berries.

Eat healthy vegetarian one or two nights a week.

Avoid processed foods.

Avoid fried foods.

Practice good portion control.

Opt for complex carbohydrates over simple ones.

Limit simple sugars.

Source: Local nutrition experts.

Susan Rapp, a family practice physician at Erlanger Health Centers, balks at the notion of extreme detoxification diets.

"So interesting, the things out there," she said of quick-fix plans that promise to help you shed pounds in days or to restore energy by ingesting nothing more than saltwater and lemonade solutions. Such diets, she said, are "not anything I've ever read in a medical text."

In fact, Rapp said, the term "detox" does not exist in the medical world.

"So many of these terms are bogus -- detox, cleansing, refreshing," said Brian Jones, registered dietitian at Memorial Hospital. "There's no function that's associated with."

Although holiday indulgences might temp people to try for a January quick fix, some local medical experts say there is no such thing. For those who have been unable to resist temptation, expecting to bounce back from an indulgent December is naive.

"As a physician, I don't think detox diets are capable of removing any toxins or contaminants from the body," said Akberet Hadgu, doctor of internal medicine at Parkridge Medical Center. "A lot of times, they are really a hoax."

Diets such as the Master Cleanse, the Martha's Vineyard detox or other restrictive plans that cut out food groups or demand intake of numerous supplements, can be dangerous and their positive effects elusive, experts say.

"You're missing out on the nutrients your body does need ... when you're drinking molasses and cayenne pepper and whatever else those diets tell you to do," Jones said.

He cautions against any diet plan that cuts out a specific food group. Fasting, which in medical terms means taking in only water, can lead to quick weight loss, but it is only a temporary solution.

"Your body resets its thermostat and starts holding on to every calorie and fat gram you consume," Rapp said. "When you stop [extreme diets] after [a period of time], even if you return to a diet of healthy foods and beverages, how much of that weight loss do you think is going to be maintained?"

At least 30 percent of patients will gain the weight back after fad diets, she said.

Restricting food intake in an manner that is unsustainable can lower metabolism but will ultimately lead to increased weight gain once the restrictions have been lifted, experts said.

"At the end of the day, they will end up with more weight because when they go back to their original diet, the body will go into a survival mode," Hadgu said.

Not consuming enough calories, all three said, can actually lead to weight gain. The restricted calorie plans of many detox diets can be detrimental to a person's health.

"Truly," said Rapp, "in general terms, the medical community cautions against detoxification, taking in supplements, purging and putting things in orifices that are generally preserved for outgoing."

Indeed, some popular detox diets such as Fat Flush for Life recommend the use of colonic irrigation and enemas to help cleanse the body of waste and toxins.

Detoxifying the body by increasing elimination gives doctors and dietary experts pause.

"I just recommend against that," Rapp said. "It rids your body of not just the unhealthy bacteria, but also the healthy bacteria. Regular use of laxatives to purge your body makes your GI system rely on an external stimulants to excrete the body waste."

Jones said he knows of clients who have "nicked their colons" during a colonic irrigation, leading to a trip to the emergency room.

And Hadgu said severe dieting, colonic irrigation and other supposed detoxification methods can lead to an imbalance of electrolytes, vitamin deficiencies, low potassium and magnesium counts, anemia, osteoporosis and arrythmia, among other ailments.

"Colon cleansing can be both expensive and potentially dangerous," she said. "The diarrhea itself can cause electrolyte issues. It can cause a lot of fluid issues and can actually dehydrate you."

Overly restrictive diets can also predispose a person to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, she added.

The sluggish, low-energy feeling that can follow the consumption of high-fat, high-sugar foods, such as those often consumed around the holidays, is not unexpected, but Jones, Rapp and Hadgu caution against trying to solve the problem in a few days.

"Set realistic goals," said Rapp. "Tell yourself you're not going to recharge your battery in a week."

The way to gain that "detoxified" feeling, sources say, is to stick to a diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins.

For those trying to lose weight, results can be achieved quickly, but the greater challenge is maintaining the change. An intensive, restrictive diet is less effective than a healthy lifestyle change.

"Some of these [diets] get so specific that no one is going to be able to keep up with it anyway," Jones said. "If the diet's not sustainable, it's not doing you any good. It's the small, gradual changes that stick with you."

Some people, Jones said, do fare all right by having a "shock to the system" to set off healthy eating, but a similar shock, he said, could be achieved by simply eating the expected quantity of fruits and vegetables each day, a dietary change that is more realistically achievable.

"Any type of detox diet, or crash diet, fad diet, is not going to help in the long run," Hadgu said. "A healthy lifestyle is not something you do for a month and then forget about it. This extreme dieting lacks a lot of essential nutrients and that could be detrimental to the body in a lot of ways. It's seen as a quick fix, but there is no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to getting healthy."

Contact Holly Leber at hleber@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/hollyleber. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/leber.holly.