Nutritionist Kim Pearson on detox myths

New Year diet and lifestyle resolutions can bring positive changes, but clients who rely on a January detox may not get results. Nutritionist Kim Pearson explains how to advise them.

For many, January is a time for resolutions and a focus on forming new, healthier habits. Detox programmes have become increasingly popular in recent years with a lot of people viewing them as a quick fix to counteract Christmas overindulgences. But can a detox really do anything to undo the damage caused by poor lifestyle choices?

What is detoxification?
Detoxification is the process of removing toxic substances from the body. While we normally associate detoxing with the liver, our kidneys, lungs, colon and skin are all also involved in the removal of waste products from our system, allowing the body to maintain a healthy balance.

What are toxins?
A toxin is a poisonous substance produced by plants or animals. There are two main types: endogenous (produced by the body) and exogenous (made outside the body). Toxins are produced by living cells, which means that harmful synthetic chemicals we ingest, and which must be eliminated by the body, are not technically toxins. However, confusingly, they are often toxic. Exposure to toxins and toxic substances can cause harm to the body through organ damage and provide an environment in which illnesses are more likely.

Detox myths:

Detoxing can undo damage caused by an unhealthy diet
A week-long detox will not reverse previous weeks of unhealthy living. We can’t simply force our bodies to get rid of more toxins when it suits us. Our detoxification systems are usually very efficient and carry out their jobs day to day, whether we are “detoxing” or not. The best thing we can do is change the focus of the body’s elimination systems by taking in fewer toxic substances in the first place.

Juicing is a good way to detox
Most juice cleanses focus on calorie restriction and provide very little protein, which will eventually slow down the body’s metabolic rate. If your juices are based on fruit you will also be consuming a large amount of sugar, leading to fluctuations in blood sugar levels. 

Detox products are magic bullets
Common cleanse products such as detox teas, wraps and supplements are unlikely to have significant benefits on their own. They also vary significantly in quality, many being heavily marketed with little or no research to back them up. They’re ultimately a waste of time for anyone who hasn’t addressed the more important diet and lifestyle factors.

Detox truths:

Simple diet improvements can support detoxification
Fibre – naturally present in many plant foods – will bind to toxins and help remove them from the body. If we have a diet lacking in fibre, then our body may reabsorb the filtered toxins. Increasing intake of fibrous foods is beneficial for many aspects of health.

Water is all it’s cracked up to be
Drinking optimal amounts of water will improve our digestion and help to more efficiently flush out the toxins that are currently in our bodies. Tell clients to opt for filtered water.

Supplements can be beneficial
While there are many questionable detox products on the market, there are a few high-quality supplements that have been proven beneficial for supporting detoxification. One of the best known is milk thistle, which is the most well-researched plant in the treatment of liver disease, protecting the liver against toxins.

Reducing exposure to toxic substances helps our bodies “detox”
Many of us don’t realise how many toxic substances we expose our bodies to every day. We all know alcohol, cigarettes, takeaways and drugs damage our health but many other toxic substances go unnoticed. These include some cosmetics and household cleaning products, as well as some chemicals used in dry cleaning or to prevent home furnishings catching fire.

Common chemicals to watch out for are phthalates, triclosan and BHA. You can find more comprehensive information about chemicals and products to avoid on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.

Whenever anyone asks me “what is the best way to detox?” I always tell them to stop exposing themselves to so many toxic substances in the first place. No detox can replace simply reducing your body’s exposure to toxins and toxic substances, day in, day out.

A focused period of cleansing under expert supervision isn’t a bad thing but it should be tailored to the individual’s needs and shouldn’t be viewed as an “all or nothing” fix.

Five evryday detox tips:
1. Reduce / eliminate exposure to alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, drugs and processed foods.
2. Reduce the level of chemicals in your environment: switch to natural cosmetics and cleaning products where possible.
3. Eat plenty of fibre-rich vegetables – minimum five portions per day.
4. Drink an optimal amount of filtered water.
5. Exercise regularly. Exercise can help stimulate the body’s detoxification processes. 

Kim Pearson qualified as a nutritionist in 2008. Her specialities include weight management, healthy ageing and skin health. She writes articles, speaks at conferences and trains health care professionals in nutrition and diet. She is a member of the CNHC, BANT and the Guild of Health Writers.