Monday, April 19, 2010

The Nutritionista on Detox Diets and Cleanses

I am a nutritionist, although I prefer Nutritionista because it makes me sound like less of a dork and more like a SHE.  I spent 9 years in school (BS, MS, PhD) and then have worked in the field of nutrition research for the past 15 years.  I only say this because I hope that it gives me some shred of credibility for the bullet points I've outlined below. 

In the last few months, I've had many, many questions from friends about detox diets or cleanses.  This actually doesn't surprise me too much...SHE has a little more time on her hands, SHE may be hitting the bottle a little bit more at various parties and book clubs, and SHE may be indulging in all the yummies served at parties and book clubs.  SHE feels like she needs to detox, maybe lose a few pounds that have crept up, energize herself, improve her health to get back on track.  

There are various cleansing programs out there that you can either do on your own (mainly in the form of juices) or you can buy a program that overnights you all of your drinks/foods for a set period of time (usually 3-14 days).  I've looked into some of these now and just have a few points for your consideration, should you be thinking that you need to cleanse or detox yourself:
  • As a general rule, don't mess with your metabolism!!!  Many of these cleanses are only about 700 calories, which has the potential to mess with your metabolism.  Our metabolism naturally declines as we grow older and we certainly don't want to help that.  Try not to let your calories drop below 1200, or 1500 if you are taller than the average woman (>5ft 5in).  (You can always augment the cleanses with additional calories if needed).
  • As a general rule, don't mess up your colon!!!  Ask anyone who has irritable bowel syndrome or colitis, a bad colon makes life miserable (ie., diarrhea and anal leakage are not predictable events and are least likely to occur when you are in the comfort of your own home).  Stay clear of cleanses with lots of mystery ingredients.  Your colon prefers big boluses of fiber pushing through to keep it healthy. 
  • Many of these cleanses are just juice with infinitesimal amounts of herbs.  For example, one product has 503 mg of an herbal concoction that is supposed to help with weight loss.  One of the first ingredients is green tea.  It is true that green tea catechins (the antioxidant fraction of green tea) may increase metabolism, which may help with weight loss, but the active dose is about 500 mg of the catechins themselves...Green tea is only ~40% catechins by weight, which means there's not nearly enough of those catechins in the cleanse product to do anything. You could argue that there is some sort of synergism with all of these other ingredients that are mixed up with the green tea but I cannot find anywhere that these companies actually test their products...all those ingredients together may actually negate the effects of each one knows! 
I really could go on all day, but one important point I want to make is about "the placebo effect".  For some conditions (e.g., menopause symptoms), up to 60% of people will report a benefit from taking a sugar pill.  So there's a good chance that cleanses will make a difference for you just based on placebo effect alone.  Plus, if you have read the book, Freakonomics (and if you haven't, you should), the authors talk a lot about how people like to get good value for their dollar.  So if you spend $300 for a 3-day cleanse that you really believe will give you energy and cure all that ails you, you probably will feel that way.  Otherwise, you would have made a bad decision and we all know that we don't like to be wrong.  SHE is always right.

I have drafted up my own cleanse diet that is actually based on science.  I need to give it a dry run, but am happy to share it with others.  It includes lots of green leafy vegetables, which are known to ramp up the enzymes that detoxify chemicals in our body.  It is also full of fiber (beans, legumes) to make your colon happy and keep you feeling full.  And it includes caffeine...because who could ever feel happy and energized without it?  Not SHE!