Detox programs for weight loss have been a core part of the wellness industry for years. Many critics now claim though that in medical terms, detox plans (aside from clinically-overseen programs for life-threatening alcohol and substance abuse), are pseudo-scientific rubbish.
Most of the time, there is a huge misunderstanding about what 'detoxing' actually means. Many often just want to know the best overall detox cleanse. Part of the problem is that outside of medical circles, the term remains open to a range of interpretations without a strict definition.
What are the different types of detox diets?
When you search for 'detox' online, you’ll find hundreds of programs, products and techniques that promise to protect, purify and cleanse your body. They promise to flush out those pesky, dangerous, poisonous, and harmful toxins in days. Under the detox umbrella, you’ll see everything from metal chelation therapy, colonic irrigation, kidney purification plans, intravenous injections, skin cleansing and lots of elimination detox diets. These include various fasting regimes and juice cleanses.
A profitable industry revolves around detox products, programs and accessories, from foot pads that supposedly suck the toxins out of your feet, to colonic cleansing tablets. Whether there’s any merit or benefit to any of these is hotly debated, but there’s no doubt that misleading language is used a lot of the time to promote and sell products that at best are probably useless, and at worst may even be damaging.
What does detox do for your body?
Without any context, toxins nearly always sound bad and in most cases they are harmful. However our bodies have evolved systems of removing them from the body. The medical definition of a toxin from the Merriam-Webster dictionary cites it as, “a poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism, and is usually very unstable, notably toxic, when introduced into the tissues and typically capable of inducing antibody formation.”
At a really simple level, a toxin is something capable of damaging tissue when it enters the body.
Internal and external toxins
We naturally produce internal toxins and waste products all the time. We break down, sometimes recycle, but mostly eliminate them. Then there are also external toxins which are ingested or absorbed from outside of our bodies from food, water and our environment. These come from environmental pollutants in the air like exhaust fumes, smog, chemicals in household cleaning products and cosmetics, bisphenol A in plastics (BPA), UV radiation, mercury and dioxins in fish, or pesticide residues on unwashed vegetables.
However, it’s important to remember Paracelsus’s toxicology principle here, “the dose makes the poison.” Basically, any chemical can be toxic if it's consumed or absorbed in high enough quantities over a certain period of time. In fact, there are even things which are beneficial at low levels that can actually be toxic in high enough concentrations. This is true for many compounds in foods and supplements. And as the diagram below shows, it’s easy to be confused by articles that talk about the toxic dangers of formaldehyde resin in nail polish (because we know it's harmful and it sounds like an ominous scary chemical), but most people don’t realise formaldehyde also naturally occurs in many foods in tiny amounts, like in pears, apricots, bananas, beetroot, milk and cod to name a few.
Detoxification is what your body naturally does as part of a complex process to get rid of such toxins and waste which comprise metabolic end-products. This is a fundamental physiological function to stop toxic waste accumulating, with the bulk of the work undertaken by the liver (the body’s primary detoxification organ), as well as the kidneys, lungs, lymphatic system, skin and the intestinal tract. The idea behind 'detox diets' and other products is to help prevent toxin build-up and increase excretion.
What are the best ways to support the body’s natural detoxification systems?
Technically, the different steps of liver detoxification do require nutritional 'helpers' to transform fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble waste products. These can then be eliminated and excreted by the body. This happens in 2 phases:
Phase 1 – makes use of certain enzymes in a chemical process that transforms the toxin into an intermediate, less harmful chemical form.
Phase 2 – uses other enzymes to convert this intermediate toxin into a water-soluble form (by adding another substance, like glycine, cysteine, or sulphur) so that it can be eliminated via watery fluids like bile or urine.
It's possible to support your natural detox system by eating a nutrient-dense wholefoods-based diet that helps this system do it’s job.
The best foods for a healthy detox cleanse
1. Up your intake of cruciferous vegetables
This group of vegetables includes cabbage, kale, cauliflower, collard greens, watercress, broccoli, bok choy, radish and turnips amongst others. These are rich in compounds that stimulate both Phase I and II detoxification pathways.
They are good sources of sulphur-containing compounds called glucosinolates, particularly important for Phase II. Also, bitter greens help stimulate bile production which carries waste toxins from the gallbladder and aids excretion. On top of this, they’re high in fibre and water, which helps to prevent constipation and promote the elimination of waste.
2. Make sure to get quality protein
Grass-fed meat, seafood, legumes and pulses are good sources of amino acids. They're important during Phase II detoxification in a process called conjugation.
3. Snack on citrus fruit
Bioflavonoids are antioxidant compounds found in many foods. In citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruit and tangerines though, they are also present with high amounts of Vitamin C and support Phase 1 detoxification whilst also helping to neutralise damaging free radicals which are created during this process.
4. Eat more eggs
Eggs are useful sources of choline and sulfur which help support processes within the Phase II pathway, methylation and sulphation.
5. Include quercetin-rich foods
Apples, blueberries, onions, and garlic all contain the antioxidant compound quercetin, which is a helpful nutrient in Phase 1 of the detoxification process.
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