Of a plethora of diet plans that promise glowing skin, a svelte figure and a super-toned body, one plan in particular seems to have caught popular imagination - the 'detox diet plan'.
Fitness expert and columnist Mickey Contractor affirms this: "I get a lot of requests from young people to start them out on a 'detox' diet. They believe that this diet will help them achieve a fantastic body." Delhi-based clinical nutritionist Ishi Khosla, who also runs a chain of organic food stores, Whole Foods, adds: "Detox diets seem to be all the rage, especially amongst young women. The trend has escalated over the last five years and I get scores of people at my clinic who want to follow this diet plan. People also have enquiries about organic foods that go well with a detox diet."
But what is a detox diet? And why do we need to 'detox'? The plan claims that it neutralizes and eliminates toxic compounds in the body that come from the environment - tobacco, alcohol, pesticides, metals such as mercury, food additives, oral contraceptives and drugs. In addition, stress, sedentary lifestyles, use of prescription drugs, hormone therapies and the increasing proportion of dietary fast foods, saturated fats, salt and sugar all contribute to toxicity within the body. Advocates of detox diets say that this toxicity leads to weight gain, cellulite formation, headaches, dull skin, bloating, fatigue, lowered immunity, aches and pains and a general lack of well-being.
Though there are several detox combinations available in the market, a typical plan comprises a diet factoring in nutritional supplements, herbs, hydrotherapy, exercise, breathing techniques and water therapy, including sauna. Elaborates Delhi-based Ayurvedic practitioner Brahm Vehali, "An Ayurvedic detox diet focuses on the type of toxins the person might possess - vata (air), pitta (bile) or kapha (phlegm). So we customize diets to include raw fruits and vegetables, water and yoghurt. Foods like meat, eggs, fish, alcohol, tea and coffee are strictly avoided."
Most of these diets involve fasting or going on a liquid diet for about a couple of days and then adding organic foods like brown rice, fruit and steamed vegetables to the diet. After a week of this routine, detox followers gradually reintroduce other foods - except red meat, wheat, sugar, eggs and junk food - into their diet.
In general, followers of the programme notice enhanced energy levels, improved skin conditions, regular bowel movements, improved digestion, increased concentration and clarity. But Shashi Kasliwal, 42, a housewife who followed an Ayurvedic detox diet plan last year, has her doubts. "Initially, I noticed a lot of improvement in my health. Then gradually I realised that these benefits could also be achieved through a good diet and exercise."
Dr J S Mathur, a Delhi-based general physician is unreservedly wary of detox diets, "The human body is perfectly adept at detoxifying itself naturally through enzymes in the cells, skin lungs, gut, liver and kidneys. Also, such diets may lead to nutritional deficiencies like zinc and magnesium and cause bowel problems by putting extra pressure on the kidneys."
Khosla, who is a trained nutritionist, says: "Like many fad diets, detox programs can have harmful side effects too, especially for teenagers. Normal teenagers need lots of good nutrition with dense calories and protein to augment their growth and development. Diets that involve fasting and severe restrictions will naturally be extremely health-unfriendly. Also, by completely eliminating dairy products from your diet, you're depriving yourself of calcium, a mineral that's imperative for strong bones and teeth. This is an open invitation for diseases like osteoporosis at a later stage in life."
Detox diets are also not recommended for people with diabetes, low blood sugar and eating disorders. In addition, many of the supplements used as a part of a detoxification programme may actually be laxatives that cause dehydration, mineral imbalances and digestive disorders.
"The body is extremely sophisticated in detoxifying itself," writes Catherine Collins, Chief Dietician at St George's Hospital, USA, in her research paper, 'The Link Between Diet and Disease'. Collins argues that there is no evidence that detox diets boost the immune system. On the contrary, she says, reducing protein intake will compromise it. "Fruits and vegetables contain powerful antioxidants and as such help the body to detoxify itself naturally. But you don't need to take kilos of them at the expense of anything else."
Another myth is that detox diets help you lose weight. "Nothing could be further from the truth," explains fitness and weight loss expert Vandana Luthra of Curls and Curves. "When you fast for several days, you may shed weight but most of it will be water and muscle, which will make you look slim in any case. But it will also slow down your metabolism which will make it harder for you to shed weight later."
Writing in the magazine, 'Food Technology', nutritional biochemist Dr Roger Clemens of the University of South California, asserts that detox diets serve up 'empty promises'. "Sure, they can initially make you feel good," writes Clemens, "but that energized feeling is probably the result of cutting calories and junk food and not from an expulsion of toxins from the body."
However, most dieticians and nutritionists concur that detox diets do prompt a healthy reassessment of one's lifestyle and eating patterns. "One of the main benefits of detox programs is that it gets you to focus on food like never before, becoming more aware of what you're consuming, how much, what's good for you and what's not. So it's an excellent awareness-building exercise."
In other words, everyone agrees that lots of veggies, fruits and water are good for the body. But the human body also needs nutrients from eclectic food groups - protein from lean meats, eggs, beans and peas; calcium from milk or yoghurt, good fats like Omega 3 fatty acids and carbohydrates. So if you miss out on these, it'll be like running your body on a low fuel matter.