The supplement industry is well-regulated, but those regulations are poorly enforced, and that leaves a lot of room for dishonest marketers to perpetuate scams. One of the biggest ones that manages to keep going strong through the years is the idea of a short-term “detox” or “cleanse diet” that will magically flush all the bad stuff out of your body somehow.
These so-called “cleanses” always make us think of the “miracle tonics” that hucksters used to go from town to town peddling from a cart in the Old West. It’s amazing that a variant of this scam is still going strong in 2015, with seemingly no end in sight!
What exactly does a “cleanse diet” involve?
These programs come in varying forms, but the most popular one is simply a very restrictive diet for X days or weeks. Our favorite example is the “Master Cleanse”, which tells you to take in nothing but lemonade mixed with black tea, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper for 10 days!
Anyone with even a basic knowledge of nutrition can immediately see why this is a horrible idea. No protein or healthy fat whatsoever for 10 days and an overload of sugar? Brilliant strategy, Napoleon! Say goodbye to all of your muscle tone!
Unfortunately, a lot of people really don’t have even a basic knowledge of nutrition, and these fad diets get a boost from clueless celebrity endorsements and popular lifestyle magazines like Vogue.
Why They’re Garbage
Aside from the obvious nutritional deficiencies, there’s basically no scientific evidence that any of these restrictive “detox” programs actually remove any kind of toxins from the body. Your body does an extremely effective job on its own of removing and flushing low levels of environmental and food-borne toxins, and there’s absolutely no link whatsoever between any kind of restrictive diet and improvement of this natural process.
No protein = No muscle tone!
However, the biggest issue is that the removal of protein from your diet is going to put you in a catabolic state. This is when your body tears your muscles down so that it can get access to the amino acids it needs to function.
Whether you’re trying to be muscular or just “thin”, we all look better with muscle tone. And when you perform one of these cleanses for multiple days, you obliterate a lot of muscle tissue.
Diets like this may make you lose “weight”, but too much of that weight is water and muscle. This leads to the dreaded “skinny fat” look, which is unappealing and unattractive.
So why does this stuff keep selling?
There’s a few different reasons. But it boils down to temporary weight loss that doesn’t stick, and basically a “placebo effect” feeling created by skilled marketing manipulation.
Very short-term weight loss
One is that people actually do lose weight on them, at least initially. But that’s due to simple caloric restriction and loss of water, not some magical combination of ingredients.
If you’re well under your BMR (basal metabolic rate) for a day or two, the first thing the body will do for fuel is to raid its entire supply of stored glycogen. This also cuts almost all of your water weight, so you’ll wake up on day three or so of the diet and notice you’ve dropped multiple pounds seemingly by magic.
Of course, this is when you’ll also start feeling like crap — constantly sluggish, unable to focus, and probably getting headaches throughout the day as well. You’ll also stop seeing dramatic drops in weight at this point, though if you still manage to power through the rest of the detox period, you’ll likely drop a couple more pounds (again simply due to caloric restriction).
Unfortunately, most of the weight you dropped wasn’t stored body fat. And when you start eating normally again, the body will replenish its glycogen stores, and most of the weight you lost during the detox will come right back in a couple of days.
After the that comes the muscle tissue we discuss above. Any muscle you had probably got stripped out for the essential amino acids that you weren’t eating. So you’re right back where you started from, except weaker, less toned, and with a lower BMR.
As far as the “detox” aspect goes, that’s 100% psychology. First of all, the companies that market these detox programs and products never specifically name the toxins that they’re supposed to be removing, so no one can actually test and fact-check them.
Instead, they use vague language to play on fears about industrial pesticides in food and ambient pollutants collecting in the body.
This is nothing but marketing
They also play heavily on the Puritanical notion that feeling bad is somehow good for you, and the idea that you have to somehow suffer to make up for your previous indulgences. There’s no better explanation for why otherwise rational people would insist on pushing forward with a diet that’s clearly nutritionally inadequate and that’s also giving them brain fog, headaches and no energy whatsoever to work with.
Cleansing that isn’t BS
That covers the worst of the fad diets, but there’s actually some aspects to the idea of cleansing that does make sense and are backed up by scientific evidence.
Certain patterns of intermittent fasting have actually shown a range of potential health benefits, from dropping body fat to helping fight a range of serious illnesses. The basic idea is that pre-agriculture humans likely adapted to function best with short periods of a day or so of very low caloric intake, for example eating no more than 500 calories for one or two days each week.
These “down periods” of caloric intake might actually help the immune system fight off serious diseases by starving tumors and reducing inflammation for extended periods. Research on this subject has mostly been done in animals to this point, however, with human studies only in their very early stages.[3,4]
Fiber is good any time, not just when cleansing
Dietary fiber is also very important to the body. Not only does it keep things moving along smoothly in the digestive system, there’s evidence suggesting that adequate regular consumption lowers the risk of heart disease, diverticulitis and Type 2 diabetes. It also tends to lower appetite.
Eat Right And Exercise
The attempts to get around these four simple words are amazing. Good health and good body composition really are that simple, but there’s always going to be a market for bogus shortcuts.
If you do feel a need to cleanse, focus on fiber. It’s best to get it from food (four or five servings of fruits and veggies per day is ideal), but soluble fiber supplementation is better than not getting enough.
Otherwise, it’s the same simple rules we always preach:
- Know your BMR and macronutrient needs and keep your calories appropriate to them
- Weigh your food with a reliable food scale
- Eat four to five combined servings of fruits and vegetables each day
- Get at least 40% of your calories from protein
- Divide the rest between carbs and healthy fat as you see fit
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