Once I talked to a guy who was promoting the health benefits of drinking eight ounces of olive oil and some lemon juice as your complete diet for three days to “help clean out your system.” He told me how much better I’d feel afterward, that it would help rid my system of “toxins,” and that it was a great way to “jump start” a diet. Now, I’m not one to instantly jump down someone’s throat for being a total idiot. I just remember what he says and write about it later.

“Detox” or “cleansing” diets are nothing new but are actually gaining in popularity now. At first this alarmed me, but then I remembered how popular “reality TV” has become. It’s not exactly survival of the fittest out there anymore.

The main reason people “detox” is to somehow clear their system of dangerous chemicals and heavy metals that have figured out how to avoid all the normal metabolic mechanisms of the body. Sure it’s irrational, but it is definitely an attractive idea: somehow you can “roto-rooter” the old pipes once in a while and feel all better. We like to think we’re actively taking care of ourselves, especially if it it’s not real work. Pop a pill, drink something brown, and you’re all set.

Your typical cleanse includes fasting for several days and then eating some kind of detox diet for a little while. Like olive oil and lemon juice. My favorite of these gems is the Blessed Herb Colon Cleanse (worth a visit to their website just for the pictures of poo), which promises increased energy, a sense of well-being, and substantial weight loss. Sort of like meth, except you have to buy the product online, no mixing it up in the garage. Other popular ones include the all-fruit-juice diet (OK, so what if you make yourself diabetic?), the “Detox Your Body Today” diet, and the “Three Day Cleanse.” How about the Orovo Detox: “The Super Supplement that will make you loose [sic] weight, detox your body, reduce wrinkles and acne!” What exactly is “loosing” weight, anyway?

Detox Your Body Today states, “It’s a well know fact that you need to detox your body at least once a year.” Fact, eh? (That word: I do not think it means what you think it means.) Oh and I forgot to tell you that while detoxing with oil or juice or fruit works pretty well according to these guys, if you really want it to work, it’s time to lay down some cash.

In fact, the herbal cleansing market pulled in $28 million last year.

We seem to like to buy in to stuff. And once we’ve bought in, we try to defend our purchase. We spout words like “toxins” and “noxious debris” and try to sell the foolishness down the line. Sort of reminds me of the 2006 movie Idiocracy, wherein the government decides to use a sports drink instead of water for all crop irrigation, causing all the plants to die.

Attorney General: “Brawndo’s got what plants crave.”
Secretary of Energy: “Yeah, it’s got electrolytes.”
Joe: “What are electrolytes? Do you even know?”
Secretary of State: “It’s what they use to make Brawndo.”
Joe: “Yeah, but why do they use them to make Brawndo?”
Secretary of Defense: “‘Cause Brawndo’s got electrolytes.”
Some of these cleansing plans are sold as a way to “jump start” a weight-loss plan, though radically changing your diet and severely reducing calories has been shown, conclusively, to slow the metabolism and promote fat storage. Now, that is a fact.

A couple of years back, I attended a lecture by the head of recovery and health for the U.S Olympic Team. Sure, he’s just a doctor who studies this stuff all the time, but he asked the audience, “Does anyone here know what these toxins are? Because none of us do.”

I have worked a while looking for the facts on this subject. See, it’s hard to find reputable studies on this stuff. Mayo Clinic was no help, they dismissed the whole idea as “irrational and unscientific.” But what do they know?

So I started going through medical and scientific journals, which seemed a better source of information than, say, a website trying to sell me something. Still no luck. The “physiologists” and “doctors” who publish in these journals are way too interested in proof, which makes it hard to find any legitimate studies whatsoever that support cleansing.

Most people who start a detox lean toward one originally called “The Master Cleanse,” created by  Stanley Burroughs in 1941 and popularized in the 1990s by Peter Glickman. Burroughs was not a doctor, but was convicted of second-degree felony murder for killing a patient, felony practicing medicine without a license, and unlawful sale of cancer treatments. Burroughs called his regimen a general detoxifying program that removes “all harmful toxins from the body,” a general weight-loss (Note: weight loss is not fat loss) plan, a cure for ulcers, a “mind detoxification,” an agent to increase sexual enjoyment and stamina (sweet!), and a corrective of “all disorders.” Wow. I guess it is what plants crave.

Kerri Glassman is a doctor and a nutritionist. A real one. Here is her description of The Master Cleanse:

“For a minimum of 10 days, you drink only a lemonade mixture: organic grade-B maple syrup, fresh-squeezed lemon or lime juice, and cayenne pepper added to spring, distilled, or purified (NOT fluoridated) water. (RECIPE: Two tablespoons of Grade-A maple syrup, juice of half a lemon, 1/10 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, and a quart of spring water). Once back to a regular diet, continue with the lemonade for breakfast. Once back to a regular diet, you include only small amounts of meat and no milk products, which supposedly may produce mucus and hinder digestion and absorption of nutrients. It contains no protein, vitamins (except C) or minerals. In other words, you are starving your body. You are guaranteed to gain weight after going off of the plan.”

In general, detox diets:

  • Are not backed by research.
  • Negatively affect sodium balance and hydration.
  • Mess with electrolyte balance.
  • Cannot be recommended as long-term nutrition plans.
  • Often result in muscle loss and fat gain.
  • Decrease athletic performance by up to 60 percent
  • Slow the metabolism, which usually leads to greater fat storage and lower energy.

The problem with the advice we give at WyoFit is that it’s not easy and it’s not mystical. It’s just hard work: Quit eating the crap. Start eating the good stuff. Train hard.

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