The first time I heard of any kind of body detoxification or cleansing was at the beginning of the infamous fart scene in "The Nutty Professor." More recently, I was reminded of this notion on my favorite episode (“The Fight”) of "Parks and Recreation," when Donna Meagle (played by Retta) avoids getting tanked with the rest of the crew at the launch party of a new brand of liquor. Why? Because she’s in the “pre-broth” stage of her cleanse and “can only drink warm tap water with cayenne pepper.”
But it’s not just outrageous or witty fictional characters jumping on the “body detox” bandwagon. Total body “cleanses” or “detoxifications” have been all the rage in popular culture for the past few years. But what exactly is a cleanse? What does it do to your body? Do you need to begin one?
A brief history lesson
The idea of cleansing the body of impurities is not novel and is actually based in ancient Greek and Egyptian understandings of the human body. This humoral theory of health states that four distinct bodily fluids have direct effects on a person’s health and personality. Following this line of thought, any imbalance of these four bodily fluids may negatively affect overall health; so detoxification practices, often involving fasting, were introduced by physicians to remove impurities, or “toxins.” Though the mainstream medical community abandoned this theory at the beginning of the 20th century, body cleansing has experienced a recent resurrection, thanks to alternative medicine.
How it “works”
Nowadays, a dietary plan is labeled as “detoxifying” or “cleansing” if it calls for a change in one’s eating patterns with the overarching goal of eliminating toxins from the body. These diets claim to have positive benefits like increased energy and mental focus, clearer skin and the all-too-elusive American goal: weight loss.
The basic premise purported by detox enthusiasts is that most food is contaminated by unnecessary ingredients such as food coloring, preservatives and enhances. Therefore, detox diets, or cleanses, are designed to give your body a break from these hard-to-digest foods while ridding your body of the toxins thereof.
There are many types of detox diets out there, but most of them involve cutting out certain food groups, fasting, pills or supplements, and/or consuming some kind of cleansing beverage. Typical cleanses last anywhere from three days to a few months and can be completely liquid or liquid-solid diets.
The most popular detox diet that I’ve run across is The Master Cleanse, made popular by Beyoncé, who used the diet to lose 20 pounds in a hurry for her big screen debut in "Dreamgirls." It’s also the detox diet Donna from "Parks and Recreation" was in the beginning stages of. The Master Cleanse is a 10-day diet in which participants only drink six to 12 glasses of a mixture of water, maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper daily.
Eradicating your internal organs of potentially hazardous agents sounds pretty great, but what’s the catch? Well, for one, most nutritionists and scientists would classify body detoxification diets as nothing more than fad diets because there is no clinical evidence that they actually achieve their ultimate goal of eliminating toxins. Also, the jury is still out among medical professionals on the definition of “toxins” and evidence of their accumulation in the body. Most physicians agree that the body has its own efficient detoxification systems perfectly capable of maintaining balance, making these diets physiologically unnecessary. Some nutritionists would even go so far as to say that detox diets might do more harm than good because any kind of malnutrition sends your body into conservation mode, burning calories slower and possibly contributing to muscle loss.
Though many devotees of body detox claim to inherit a new mental sharpness and well-being from their diets, prolonged cleanses may have some nasty side effects. Long-term fasts slow down the metabolism and may compromise gut integrity, resulting in cramping, bloating and diarrhea when the cleanse ends. Also, lengthy fasts can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies and low blood sugar levels.
But if you must jump on the body detox bandwagon, Dr. Oz has his own cleansing program that seems a little more manageable and healthier than most out there (despite the questionable health claims). It’s only 48 hours and is reported to clean the liver, kidneys and colon by combining juices with healthy meals that include raw veggies. This kind of cleanse is closer to a healthier, nutritionist-approved, long-term, clean diet of natural, less-processed foods.
Not all restrictive diets are harmful and, depending on the case, may even be recommended by nutritionists or physicians. But most total body cleanses are quick fixes and not sustainable for long-term weight loss or well-being. Even Beyoncé has advised against The Master Cleanse in subsequent interviews.
Aside from those suffering from specific diseases, there is probably no physiological reason to begin any kind of detox diet. Individuals with a compromised immune system, teenagers, pregnant and nursing women, the elderly and the morbidly obese must absolutely not adopt a detox diet. But everyone should steer clear of diets that promise quick weight loss or eliminate entire food groups for periods of time. Though cutting out certain foods or even fasting for a brief period of time may leave you feeling refreshed with a sense of accomplishment and discipline, long-term healthy nutrition includes all essential food groups in moderation. Be mindful of your body and what you’re consuming. No crash diets.
Rashad J. Gober is a gym junkie, avid runner and freelance writer whose interests include pop culture and healthy living. But he's not a doctor, so his suggestions are no substitute for medical advice. Feel free to contact him via Twitter or email with any comments or suggestions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.