Let’s start with detoxing. We have all come across the term ‘detox’ at some point in our lives and we can’t deny that we have been at least a little curious. The concept of detoxing has become so popular in recent years that you can’t open up a health magazine without running into it.
And who doesn't agree that you certainly do feel "lighter" after a good "detox".
What you might not know already is that our bodies are designed to detoxify themselves; in fact the body does this constantly, through excretion, secretion, urination, exhalation and defecation. Some of the organs that are particularly vital for “cleansing” your system are your kidneys, your liver, your lungs, your lymphatic system and your colon. In today’s society we are constantly exposed to different harmful toxins, from our food, water and air. When these toxins begin to build up, the body can become overwhelmed and can stop functioning as well as it should be. This is when a ‘detox’ is said to be beneficial.
Detoxing usually involves decreasing the amount of toxins we are exposed to for a certain amount of time. This can be for 3 days, or even 30 days. A detox diet can vary, but usually it involves cutting out refined sugar, caffeine, preservatives, artificial flavourings and additives, wheat, dairy, red meat, alcohol, processed foods, animal fats and salted nuts. So what’s left you might ask? Fruits, vegetables, brown rice, gluten-free grains, vegan proteins like beans, pulses, soya (tofu), seeds, nuts, sprouts and lots and lots of water and herbal teas. Water helps to flush out all of the toxins in your body and you should be drinking at least 2 litres per day whether on a detox diet or not. Usually after a certain amount of time you can start to expand your diet and slowly add in other foods. This is to ensure you maintain the detox-benefits and don’t overwhelm your body.
The purpose of detoxification is to assist your organs in eliminating the toxins in your body by either metabolising them or excreting them, and decreasing your total toxin overload so that your body can "get through it's backlog" so to speak.
Some benefits you might experience include a decrease in cravings for sugary or salty foods, higher energy levels, brighter skin, sometimes weightloss and a new found experience in eating whole, nutritious foods.
Detoxing is wonderfully beneficial but remember detoxing is not the solution to an unhealthy diet. It would be a mistake to think you can eat what you want for 350 days of the year and detox for a week or two and think that that will cure everything. Rather focus on how you can improve your current diet in small ways that are sustainable. Then, if you feel like you need to detox, use it as a way to refresh your system, kickstart a new health regime, or relieve stress and increase energy levels.
Fasting refers to the voluntary withdrawal of food as opposed to starving or starvation, the involuntary withdrawal of food. Essentially though, as far as your body is concerned, not eating for a prolonged period or even just a day puts your body into a "starvation state". Your body is forced to mobilise secondary fuel stores (protein in muscle and fat in adipose tissue) because it has depleted its glucose stores.
People may fast for many different reasons; it may be for religious or cultural reasons, to protest for a specific cause, or to simply detox the body. Some believe it to be beneficial for getting rid of harmful toxins in the body, for colds, arthritis, gallstones, mental illness and many other conditions (Moffat, 2015).
Fasting often has a range of symptoms and tends to vary between individuals and also depends on how practiced you are at fasting. Research suggests that people can experience feeling depressed, nausea, weakness, headaches, weight-loss, insomnia and more (in both long and short fasting periods) (Moffat, 2015). But just like a detox, a fast can go on for any period of time. Prolonged fasting can have serious effects on the body, and it is recommended that if you wanted to do a prolonged fast that you seek advice and support before doing so.
The points below summarise what happens in the body during extended fasting:
- In the first day of fasting, your body would have exhausted the glucose and fatty acids that were readily available so it will go looking for stored glycogen (in the liver or muscles).
- A few hours later your liver glycogen will be all used up and your blood glucose will be low (meaning tiredness, weakness and cravings).
- Because there’s no glycogen, glucose or fatty acids left, your body will go looking for protein. The breakdown of protein to glucose is a very expensive process. If the body continued to use protein for energy, death would ensue within three weeks (Witney et al, 2002). Fortunately, your body finds a way to use its fat to fuel the brain.
- The body will start breaking down fat at an incredible rate, using it for cells and for glucose production.
- It is at around this point that your body will start to produce ketone bodies. High concentrations of keto acids cause a drop in blood pH and the body then enters ketosis. This signals that your body’s chemistry is going awry. Symptoms include fruity breath and ketones in the urine.
- As the body uses ketone bodies, energy output is reduced and fat and lean tissues are preserved. This is because the muscles will be wasting, putting less demand on energy. Metabolism is slowed to ensure body tissues are preserved for as long as possible.
The symptoms one will see on a prolonged fasting diet include energy deprivation, wasting, slowed metabolism and a reduced resistance to disease. Extended periods of fasting presents many hazards, and while the body may learn to keep on living during a long fast this does not mean the body is healthy in any way.
Even so, the evidence out there on fasting is controversial. One study conducted on children in the US found that overnight and morning fasts causes slower stimulus discrimination, increased errors and slower memory recall (Pollitt, Cueto, & Jacoby, 1998). An example of a fasting diet that is popular at the moment is the 2:5 diet.
Some say it facilitates weight loss and improves health biomarkers, while it has also been suggested that it might increase the risk of becoming malnourished over time, if it is not done properly. People may overindulge in unhealthy food in non fasting days, and fail to get their basic nutrition needs met over the course of a week. Of course, more experimental studies need to be conducted in this area. The main message that we want to get across here is that there may be benefits to fasting but it is not necessary for everyone and not without risk factors.
We also recommend focusing on a "stick to it" diet. Adopt a healthy eating regime or healthy habits you can stick to the longest.
There is some evidence that intermittent fasting along with other forms of dieting can activate feelings of deprivation while exposed to an environment where highly salient food cues are present (in other words restricting eating food, while access to food is plentiful). In our modern world it is impossible to avoid food marketing, junk foods, the smells of food, food advertising on TV, billboards, food advertising on the radio, someone eating healthy or unhealthy food around you everyday. You body and mind get mixed messages. On the one hand they are receiving physical cues to say there is no fuel and they are hungry and to eat or to make fuel because they are in fasting or starvation state, and at the other side they are being bombarded with messages that say, food is plentiful and they are having to say no over and over again, which leads to decision fatigue, feelings of deprivation, hyper arousal... and often a rebound or binge eating, post fast.
A ‘cleanse’ and a ‘detox’ are quite similar. The main difference is that a detox usually involves not only dietary modifications but also lifestyle modifications, therapeutic sweating (in baths or saunas) and sometimes herbal supplements. A cleanse is more like a ‘spring clean’ of your insides. It involves eliminating foods that may be triggering allergies, intolerances and digestive issues (e.g. wheat, egg, soy, dairy, caffeine, refined sugar, processed foods and alcohol). More common than not a cleanse involves drinking mainly juice (fresh fruit and vegetable) for a few days to a week.
A cleanse might help you lose weight but typically all that weight is just water weight, so you can usually expect it to return post cleanse. So a cleanse is a good prelude to a healthy diet change. e.g. if you were going to clean up your diet and use whole, unprocessed foods as a longer term to lose weight rather than relying on a cleanse, fast or detox.
‘Clean eating’ is a quite deceptively simple concept. It’s easier to understand if you think of it as eating more foods from the healthy food groups and less from the unhealthy food groups. So basically this means fostering a diet (or more a lifestyle) rich in fruits, vegetables and wholegrains and limiting intake of processed foods, alcohol and refined sugars. Lean cuts of meats and fish are good additions to the diet too. Eventually, clean eating becomes a lifestyle and ideas for meals and recipes come naturally. There are so many delicious and wonderful things you can do with fresh fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and lean meat. Once your body gets used to this way of eating, the cravings for sugar, salt and fat are significantly reduced and you will feel like the best version of yourself! Rather than relying on detox pills, vitamins and fasting periods, the clean eating approach is one that is long-term, sustainable and realistic.
Pollit, E., Cueto, S., & Jacoby ER. Fasting and cognition in well- and undernourished schoolchildren: a review of three experimental studies. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 67. Retrieved from http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/67/4/779S
Boggiano, M. UCTV. MAY 2010. University of Alabama at Birmingham explores the psychobiology of non-regulatory eating which characterizes binge-eating disorders and obesity.
Moffat, D. (2015). Fasting for the health of it. Retrieved from http://naturalhealthtechniques.com/
Whitney et al, Clinical Pharmacology