Our writer, Cheryl Embrett, bravely embarks on a 12-day cleansing diet. Will she make it? And if she does, will she feel any healthier for it?
Originally published on TodaysParent.com January 07, 2008
But most medical experts beg to differ. “If you’re healthy, your liver and kidneys do a perfectly good job of getting rid of toxins in the body,” explains Kevork Peltekian, an associate professor of medicine specializing in liver disease and transplantation at Dalhousie University in Halifax. There’s no scientific evidence that detox diets augment the body’s own natural mechanisms — in fact, some doctors say they can sometimes do harm (see What makes a detox dangerous?). “If you’re doing it fairly frequently, without supervision, you can get into trouble with dehydration and electrolyte imbalance,” says Peltekian. There’s also concern among medical professionals that detoxing is not consistent with the principle that diets should reflect balance, moderation and variety. Still, Peltekian says, “if it makes you feel better, doesn’t cost too much, isn’t harmful and is supervised by a competent practitioner, fine.”
With this in mind, if you think you want to try a detox diet, there are scores of books and kits on the market to choose from. I opted for the Wild Rose Herbal D-Tox, a made-in-Canada cleanse that combines a 12-day regimen of herbal supplements with a diet of whole foods (fresh, unrefined and unprocessed). Read on for a first-hand account — and expert opinion — of the good, the bad and the hungry.
I bounce out of bed, feeling pumped. No more “bad” carbohydrates, preservatives, dairy, sugar or alcohol (gulp!). My enthusiasm wanes when I realize I haven’t stocked up on crucial detox nibblies — almonds, homemade hummus and organic rice cakes.
Expert opinion: “Don’t come home your first day on detox and say, ‘What do I make for dinner?’” advises Michelle Ginsler, a registered dietitian in Toronto. “Sit down before you start and plan out your meals and snacks for the week, then shop ahead so you have the right foods on hand.”
The herbal laxative kicks in (it’s part of an arsenal of six herbal supplements I have to swallow twice a day, along with 30 drops of an unpleasant-tasting tincture). I spend the afternoon racing to the washroom.
Expert opinion: Detox diets can play havoc with the digestive system, especially if you buy a product containing an “explosive” laxative like cascara sagrada. It’s better to skip the herbal laxatives and incorporate more natural fibre into your diet to help regulate bowel movements and eliminate excess toxins, says Maria Thomas, a registered dietitian and owner of Urban Nutrition, a nutrition consulting company in Vancouver. Make sure you drink lots of water too, she advises, “to move things along.”
It’s only 7 a.m. and I’m already on my third cup of green tea (I’m allowed two cups of black coffee a day — but what’s the point without milk and sugar?). My seven-year-old wants to know why Mommy’s so cranky.
Expert opinion: Headaches, nausea and fatigue are just some of the symptoms you may experience during the first few days of your detox. “If you quit caffeine cold turkey, you are going to get headaches,” says Ginsler. “Gradually decrease your intake of coffee or pop, or switch to decaf a few days prior to the start of the diet.”
I treat my daughter to lunch to celebrate her first week of grade two. She tucks into a huge slice of cheese pizza, while I nibble on spinach salad — hold the mushrooms, bacon, cheese and dressing. It takes every ounce of willpower not to polish off her leftovers.
Expert opinion: The hardest part of any diet, detox or otherwise, is getting through the first few days, says Ginsler. “The key to success is thinking about making long-term healthy lifestyle changes.”
At a neighbourhood festival, my husband and I get excited over sharing three baked tofu balls (he’s on the program too). Watching other people consume junk food makes us feel quite virtuous.
Expert opinion: It’s a good idea to buddy up with a friend, partner or other family member, advises Ginsler. “You can plan and eat meals together, and motivate and encourage each other to stick with the program.”
My daughter and I head off to an annual fundraising walk in the cold and drizzle. I buy her a hot chocolate afterward to warm up, then break down and order a latte for myself — make it skim, hold the sugar, hold the chocolate sprinkles. I savour every deliciously caffeinated drop of it, then buzz through the rest of the afternoon feeling guilty.
Expert opinion: When you’re on a detox program, you tend to follow it to a T because you paid for it and you want to see the results, says Thomas. “When you slip up, you feel like you’ve cheated, whereas if you were just trying to eat more healthfully, you wouldn’t think twice about it.” Put it behind you and move on.
Days 7, 8 and 9
It seems as if I’ve spent the last three days either shopping for detox-friendly food or preparing it. I’ve put my freelance writing career on hold to keep up with the demand for homemade hummus, brown rice and salads.
Expert opinion: The best detox program is one that’s manageable and realistically fits your lifestyle, says Allison Tannis, a registered holistic nutritionist in Newmarket, Ont. If it requires too much planning and preparation, is too expensive or clashes too much with your work or family schedule, you’re not going to stick with it.
A friend comes over for girls’ movie night and raves about how good my skin looks and how much energy I have. I’m so busy preening, I forget to make popcorn (something I’ve been looking forward to all week).
Expert opinion: People tend to look great after a cleanse, says Ginsler, even if there aren’t a lot of scientific studies to back it up. “Who doesn’t look and feel better after losing a few pounds and cutting back on sugar, caffeine and alcohol, and adding healthier foods?”
I can’t resist stepping on the scales. I know weight loss is not the main goal of detox, but after 10 days of self-denial, I’m pretty happy about being four pounds lighter.
Expert opinion: While detox diets can set you on the path to weight loss, they’re not a good way to keep weight off permanently, says Tannis. Too-quick weight loss can mean you lose water or muscle, not fat. Once you resume your regular diet after detoxing, you’ll quickly regain the weight.
Whoopee! No more rice cakes and hummus! I feel great and I’m determined to stick with some of the healthy habits I’ve picked up — eating more salmon instead of red meat, and drinking green tea in the afternoon instead of coffee. Now bring on the pasta, bread and brie. And where’s that corkscrew?
Expert opinion: If you feel the urge to detox, use it as an excuse to kick-start a new healthy eating regimen, advises Thomas. “It’s just like the Atkins Diet when it first came out. The initial response from the medical community was ‘bad, bad, bad.’ But there were some positive things that came out of it — people started to eat more veggies and pay attention to the amount of carbs they were eating. I try to look at the positive side — what can people get out of this that is going to help them with their overall health in the long term?”
What makes a detox dangerous?
While most short-term cleanses are harmless, here’s what raises red flags among dietitians and other health care professionals:
• “Cleansing” products and supplements with laxative ingredients, such as burdock root, dandelion and cascara sagrada. Excessive diarrhea can cause dehydration and electrolyte loss, says Kevork Peltekian, an associate professor of medicine at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
• Taking herbal supplements without checking with a practitioner knowledgeable in the field of herbal medicine.
• Extreme regimens that restrict you to such concoctions as lemon juice, maple syrup, water and cayenne pepper for 10 days. “There’s nothing wrong with cutting out unhealthy foods,” says Michelle Ginsler, a Toronto registered dietitian, “but you shouldn’t eliminate entire food groups.”
• Cleanses that claim to cure medical conditions or encourage you to stop taking medications prescribed by your physician, including insulin or anticoagulants.
• Detoxing while pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you have diabetes, heart or kidney disease, or other chronic illnesses. Children, teens and seniors should also steer clear of cleanses.