Popular detoxification (detox) diets work under the assumption that people regularly and normally take in toxins from their environment. We worry about asbestos in insulation, lead in paint, and dioxins in tampons. The goal of detox dieting is to improve one's health by removing these accumulated toxins from the body, as they are the cause of ill health. The main idea is that by regulating food and water intake, and sometimes taking certain herbs and supplements, toxins are removed from the body, and it returns to its normal, healthy state. Religions and moral philosophies have detoxification diets as well. The focus in those diets is on moral reform, but the means of regulating food intake remains the same. Exponents of alternative medicine, such as Frank Ervolino, a doctor of naturopathic medicine, asserts that detoxing can "prevent disease" and lessen the effects of "autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis . . . and chronic fatigue syndrome" (Ervolino 2005: 32). There are many people who claim that detox diets work wonders, but there is also a strong voice against detox dieting.
The effects of toxins in the body are as numerous as they are hazardous. Americans are anxious about toxins, a theme inherent in alternative medical circles. This is summarized in the claim of Michael T. Murray, a naturo-pathic physician, that the environment is becoming increasingly toxic (2003: 9). It may also be that we are becoming more aware of that fact. There is much about our normal environment that is a potential hazard to our health: Radiation from cell phones, old color television sets, old smoke detectors, x-ray machines, and power lines are a small sampling. There is also the radiation from the sun, of course, and with holes in the ozone layer it is important to be extra mindful about protecting the skin from unnecessary exposure, which can lead to skin cancer, unattractive wrinkles, and "old age spots."
Even though radiation can be a hazard to one's health, chemicals in our food are a much more frequent reason given for detoxing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have focused research on the toxins in animals and animal products. Animals eat food which has been exposed to pesticides and pollutants, and when we eat those animals, we take in the toxins too. Oceanic animals, like salmon and shark, have dangerously high levels of mercury in their meat as a result of polluted runoff that seeps into aquatic vegetation, travels up the food chain, and results in mercury poisoning in humans. Sometimes what we eat is not even food at all. Gloria Gilbere raises the issue that plastic residue, from products like Saran™ Wrap and Styrofoam™ coffee cups, may be found in human fat (2004: 34).
Thus, detox diets take on a mammoth challenge by attempting to eliminate all toxins that we ingest. Fast foods as well as foods that have been processed or refined are avoided in the diets. They focus instead on replacing them with nonprocessed foods, which are intended to get our digestive system working efficiently again. With detoxes, there persists a notion that our intestines need cleaning. It is largely in them that the toxins manifest themselves, dirtying them and creating a source of ill health. According to Ervolino, the symptoms from a diet of overprocessed, refined, and fast foods are "low energy, pain (joint, headache or others), anxiety, irritability, heartburn or other digestive issues" (Ervolino 2005: 32), but other symptoms commonly attributed to excess toxins are extra fat, bloating, and shorter life.
A detox diet should include everything that a human body needs to live (Murray 2003: 9), even though it is followed for a definite period. The typical detox is almost exclusively "vegan," and some allow for eggs or small amounts of meat. Organic fruits, vegetables, and legumes are claimed to contain no chemical additives and are thus viewed as healthier because they do not. The essential proteins and fats lacking in a mostly fruit and vegetable diet come from seeds, nuts, unhydrogenated oils, and certain vegetables. Depending on the diet, various nutrients are prescribed to help the liver, kidneys, and other detoxifying organs, or to make up for vitamins and minerals not included in the diet. But it is not enough to consume just organic, vegan products. Many "organic" products contain "natural" toxins. Would "organic tobacco" be better for us than processed tobacco? Detox diets limit or exclude these from daily use. Detox diets include high-fiber foods (Murray 2003: 9), such as raw fruits, steamed vegetables, and crushed flax seed and soy nuts, to scrub and flush out the intestines, which can accumulate high levels of bacteria. Drinking plenty of water is also important to flush out the intestines as well as the rest of the body. Such views echo earlier medical claims from the Stoics to Upton Sinclair that the "effluence" of our waste products signals the corruption of the body, rather than being "natural" products of human metabolism.
Like other diets, detoxes have various requirements, mainly controlling food intake. They restrict which foods can be eaten and require certain foods to be eaten at certain times. Most require one to take in fewer calories than one is used to. The overall goal of these complex eating habits is to alter the body and improve physical and mental well-being. One advocate, Lynn Wallis, having tried a detox, remarks on the numerous physical changes due to the diet. She reports benefits to her hair and skin, that "(her) urine was completely colourless which is a very healthy sign," and she lost at least "a half inch of 'bloat' all over (her) body" (Wallis 2004: 23). And, the holy grail of dieting: she lost 8 pounds (Wallis 2004: 22), she claims. If the detoxer feels better, then the detox has worked. Wallis, like other detoxers, claims that the detox diet made her feel "fantastic" (Wallis 2004: 22). After all, a major part of being healthy is feeling healthy. She uses flowery language to emphasize her improved state of being. Wallis's "eyes were sparkling and clear" and her energy was "boundless" (Wallis 2004: 23).
The notion that the body needs to remove toxins is a good one. However, detox dieting is not straightforward. Certainly, it is healthier to include wholegrains in one's diet in place of processed grain, and there are plenty of toxins that one needs to watch out for when going through life: lead, mercury, and asbestos have already been mentioned, but there is no such thing as white-bread poisoning from Wonder® Bread. The toxins removed during a detox are not identified. Bernard Dixon makes this claim as well and adds, " 'detoxification' is a term legitimately applied only (to) . . . situations such as drug addiction and paraquat poisoning" (2005: 261). For millions of years, all life forms have been subject to toxins and, as a result, the human body has an array of organs to deal with detoxifying. The liver, the kidney, the tonsils ... the entire digestive system has ways of dealing with the toxins it encounters. When organs cannot handle toxins, there are certain medical diets that can help in the detoxing process. Sometimes, even when organs can handle toxins themselves, there are medical ways of assisting the body. For instance, drug withdrawal is painful, and doctors medicate patients to ensure a successful and more pleasant detox to prevent the patient from reverting to his or her addiction.
Beyond considering whether or not it is legitimate to call these popular diets "detoxification," they are still not necessarily good. There are unpleasant aspects to them, such as headaches, which are caused by the fewer calories. Also, one can increase the level of toxins in one's blood by going on a detox diet. When ingesting fewer calories than one is used to, the body will use stored fat, which has toxins in it, as energy. On top of being potentially unhealthy, detoxing requires one to put excessive time into food preparation. Detox diets are typically for a set period of time and act as vacations from an unhealthy life, but this is not as effective as consistently pushing oneself toward becoming healthier.
However, there are other aspects of some detox diets that go beyond food restriction, such as exercise and even positive thinking; these play into a more complete view of good health. Detox diets are complex and have positive and negative impacts on different individuals' health. They are one aspect of what it means to lead a healthy life.
SLG/Benjamin D. Archer
See also Alternative Medicine; Kellogg; Religion and Dieting
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