Detox cleanses may not live up to the hype
How to purge the marketing myths and get healthy
Overindulge during the holidays? Looking to get your health back on track for 2014? You’re not alone. “Detoxing” is a multibillion-dollar industry, counting celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Demi Moore and Dr. Oz among its biggest devotees.
CBC's Marketplace put some popular detox treatments to the test and found that not all the health effects live up to the hype.
The full investigation, Detox Challenge, puts three trendy treatments to the test. The show airs on CBC-TV Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 in NL). Find out more about the show at CBC.ca Marketplace.
Here are five things to keep in mind when thinking about taking a detox treatment:
1. Your body already has the detox tools it needs
Looking to detox? You don’t have to look far: You’re already doing it.
“The liver is incredibly efficient at getting rid of noxious substances,” says Dr. George Dresser, a toxicologist, pharmacologist and internal medical specialist at Western University. “The kidneys do a great job at eliminating many toxins that are soluble in water. So we have what we need now.”
The Voice of Young Science, a group of early-career researchers in the U.K., took aim at popular detox products in its 2009 report, the Detox Dossier.
“The human body has evolved to get rid of unnecessary substances through your liver, kidneys, and colon,” the report read. “It isn’t possible to improve their function without medical assistance.”
The group advises anyone who feels they have overindulged to follow three simple steps: have a glass of water, eat a balanced diet and get a good night’s sleep.
2. There is no get-healthy-quick scheme
Cleanses are popular, and especially attractive after periods of overindulgence such as the holidays. Part of that appeal, says Dresser, is the concept that a short cleanse can effectively reboot your health.
“I think there has been a tremendous promotion of the idea of detox cleanse,” says Dresser.
He attributes the popularity to the “desire for quick fixes — the idea that you can take something for six days, seven days, 30 days, and end up with an immediate improvement in your health is a very attractive concept.”
While it may lack the same sexy appeal, Dresser says the key to getting healthy is choosing foods and exercises that you enjoy enough to do long term.
“I think that if you read any claim that says, in two days, or seven days or 30 days, ‘I can substantially change your health status,’ I think you should be skeptical.”
3. ‘Superfoods’ don’t always live up to the science
Kale! Chia seeds! Quinoa! Headlines about the latest superfood trends scream from popular magazines and blogs. And trendy superfood ingredients are often a part of popular detox regimes.
But the science doesn’t support it, says Dresser. “There is no evidence that I can see that there are specific foods that are better at detoxifying than others.”
Dresser isn’t the only one concerned by the lack of evidence. The EU has banned the term superfoods from product packaging unless backed by research, and a 2011 report on the subject by the U.K.’s National Health Service concluded that “there’s no real evidence that superfoods exist.”
“I think that we should all be consuming good-quality food,” says Dresser. “But in terms of one food being able to detoxify or enhance elimination of noxious substances in your body, I don’t think there’s any evidence for that.”
4. 'Detox' is marketing, not medicine
Detox sounds like a medical process backed by science. But the use of the term in popular cleanse and detox treatments is marketing, not medicine.
“‘Detox’ has no meaning outside of the clinical treatment for drug addiction or poisoning,” according to the U.K. group the Voice of Young Science.
When the group investigated popular detox regimes, they found that no two companies defined “detoxification” in the same way.
Scratch the surface of most health claims and you’re likely to find little specific information about what toxins the cleanses help you eliminate and how they work.
“It’s sometimes difficult to know exactly what toxins they’re talking about,” says Dresser. “In looking at the medical literature on these things, there has never been a properly conducted scientific investigation of any of these treatments that I’ve been able to find."
5. Programs can be pricey, not proven
Dresser argues that detox regimens can be counterproductive if you’re trying to get healthy by taking money and energy away from real, proven efforts such as getting active, eating a balanced diet and consuming alcohol in moderation.
“A lot of these treatments require some effort and some of your time. And then you have to look at it, for anything on the shelf that you’re going to buy. You have to look at what are the alternatives? What are the other things that you could be spending your time and money on?”