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Does detox work for weight loss?

By Matt O'Neill, MSc(Nut&Diet), APD

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Detoxification diets are back in vogue. Celebrities swear by them, but will detox diets help your clients lose weight, keep it off and achieve optimum nutritional health? This article separates science from the sales pitches to find out the truth.

The theory behind detoxification diets is that our bodies can become overloaded with toxins that come from foods, drinks, cigarettes and the environment. Food preservatives, caffeine, alcohol nicotine and pesticides are the common offenders.

By eliminating or cutting back on your body's chemical load - i.e., detoxing - it is claimed that you can cleanse your liver, ease the burden on your kidneys, flush out your bowels and increase your feeling of wellbeing.

While no one will argue that giving up cigarettes and drinking only in moderation are top health priorities, there's little scientific support for promoting detox diets, programs or supplement kits.

Health authorities maintain that your body conducts its own natural detoxification processes. And while some people may suffer food allergies or intolerances and need to avoid or limit certain foods such as milk, wheat or specific natural and processed food chemicals, the rest of us can't really point the finger at chemical overload for causing fatigue, poor sleep or a sluggish metabolism.

Weight loss risks

Ditching junk food with a two-week detox diet of fresh fruits, vegetables and juices will almost certainly cause initial weight loss. This strict diet delivers rapid results on the bathroom scales and often provides the motivational boost some people desperately need to maintain their efforts.

But this quick fix often backfires. Cutting calories from around 2,500 to 1,000 per day will cause a significant drop in metabolic rate and loss of lean muscle mass. These are powerful reasons to persuade clients to make more gradual dietary changes and include regular exercise as part of their long term weight management strategy.

If you need to build your case even more, consider this. Four years ago scientists at Laval University in Quebec, Canada found that when individuals lost weight, the process was accompanied with an increase in pesticide residues in the blood. It appears that when fat cells release fat to burn for fuel they also leak out organochlorine pesticides and other potentially harmful chemicals.

In 2002, another study published in the International Journal of Obesity revealed increased concentrations of pollutants in the bloodstream, following significant weight loss from obesity surgery. The researchers speculated that the potentially toxic compounds could interfere with the hormonal system and act as endocrine disrupters. The implications here are that detox diets could affect thyroid function and contribute to future weight gain.

'Dejunk' - not detox

The pesticide-obesity link needs more research as we're not certain yet, but the evidence encourages a less drastic weight loss program that focuses on 'de-junking' the diet. Cutting excess calories from fat, alcohol and sugar should be the target behaviour.

Detox diets that prescribe a particular diet plan, dramatically restrict food intake or include dietary supplements also introduce the potential for dietary deficiencies, drug-nutrient interactions or other adverse effects. For these reasons it's prudent to advise clients to follow these restrictive dietary practices under medical supervision.

Client advice

Your clients will appreciate you helping them evaluate the pros and cons of detoxing. Here are some questions and statements you may be able to use when working through these issues:

"Do you think your desire to go on a detox diet is more about cleansing your body or boosting your motivation with a set plan?"
If its motivation, let your client know you'll be there to support them with friendly but firm dietary encouragement. Have a discussion focussed on building an action plan to tackle their three worst eating habits (for example, too much fast food) rather than cutting back on everything.

"How do you see your diet shaping up after you come off detox?"
Help your clients build a plan for long term healthy eating habits, so they don't slip back into their old ways. Always ask, "Can you see yourself doing this for the rest of your life?"

"Based on your past efforts with dieting, would a very restrictive diet and/or going off the booze completely, really work for you?"
If your client has a poor track record of sticking to diets, let them know that there's no such thing as failure, only feedback about what is obviously not working. Accepting success with small behavioural steps, rather than being perfect is a good goal to encourage.

"If it gave you the same or better results, would you consider just going without coffee and beer?"
Caffeine and alcohol are the most widely consumed mood altering substances. For some clients, limiting or even avoiding stimulants may be a good way to clear their head and invigorate their wellness program.

Go for produce

The best part of detox diets is the emphasis on organic fruits and vegetables. Eating fresh produce grown without synthetic pesticides will help you minimise your chemical load. Even so, if you don't regularly eat your greens (and oranges and reds), boosting the number of daily serves of any fresh produce will move you closer towards achieving optimal nutritional health.

Hundreds of studies show that those who eat the most fruits and vegetables are healthier and leaner than those who eat little of nature's ultimate diet foods.



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