Detox diets

Cleanse your way to weight loss

One of the first things Richard DeAndrea, MD, ND, tells participants in his "21 Day Detox" program is that this is not a weight-loss plan. But that didn't deter Star Hanson, a 24-year-old student and aspiring actress in Los Angeles. Hanson had a few pounds to lose, and DeAndrea's program sounded like a good way to get results. Three weeks after she started the program, she was 15 pounds lighter.

Alba Yu, a 32-year-old technical consultant for a pharmaceutical supply company, also signed up for the Los Angeles-based program, hoping to lose some weight. And, like Hanson, by the end of the 3-week program, she'd shed 15 pounds.

Although Hanson and Yu initially embraced the vegetarian detox diet to lose weight, they found that the program had many more benefits.

"The very first week, I felt this natural high," Yu says. "I felt really, really healthy. My digestion was so much better. To this day--4 months later--I haven't introduced meat back into my diet. It was one of those life-changing things."

The diet not only made Hanson feel "sharper and clearer," but she believes it helped to heal a precancerous condition on her uterus that had stymied doctors for years.

While contemporary detoxification diets are as varied and numerous as the toxins they claim to remove, detox diets in their purest form call for the elimination of dairy, caffeine, alcohol, red meat, poultry and seafood. The diets--almost always vegan and often controversial are designed to cleanse the body of toxins primarily through diet and exercise.

"By detoxing and getting away from animal products and processed foods, everything functions on a higher level," Hanson says. "I think it's important that people understand what a change detoxing makes in your body."

Cynthia Sass, a Tampa, Florida, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, headquartered in Chicago, agrees that detox diets can render change, but those changes, she says, can be harmful.

"Internal organs can be compromised during a detox diet," says Sass. "Even just with 24 hours of fasting, we know that the integrity of the digestive system is compromised. It gets weaker. As people go back to eating normal foods, they have a weaker digestive system, and they may have constipation or diarrhea or both, or bloating and cramping."

Even if the diets do no harm, Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says they are unnecessary. "I think the premise behind the diets is that our bodies are full of toxins," she says. "Thank heavens that's not the case. We have to give our colon some credit that it knows what to do in terms of cleaning itself out."

What to Expect
While critics dismiss the diets as fads, detoxification plans are hardly new. Ancient Ayurvedic medicine, which began before 4000 BC and is the foundation of contemporary homeopathy, recommended diets based solely on plant foods to help the body adapt to seasonal changes and to promote health and longevity by cleansing the body of impurities.

The reasoning behind the diets is that by eliminating various food groups, you also eliminate toxins ingested with those foods, while at the same time doing your digestive system a favor by not consuming foods that are hard to digest. It follows, according to diet proponents, that when the body doesn't have to work so hard at digesting food, it has more energy for healing.

Participants in the "21 Day Detox" program, offered at the American University of Complementary Medicine in Los Angeles, pay $199 for a 3-week program that includes recipes, shopping lists, nutritional education and a weekly meeting with the founders, DeAndrea and John Wood, ND.

Wood, 47, who suffered the debilitating effects of ulcerative colitis for years before learning how to keep it under control through diet, says the program is simply about learning healthful habits.

"We don't set people up with lofty expectations," Wood says. "We don't bill ourselves as curing people's diseases. This is just a good way to move toward healing your body. Detractors say your body is set up to detox, and our program is redundant. But one out of three people already has cancer, and 50 percent of the population is going to die of heart disease. There is obviously a problem. The body's system is not enough."

During the first week, followers of the program eat only plant-based foods and fruit-and-nut smoothies. In the second week, they move on to a living-foods diet (foods that are uncooked and contain beneficial enzymes). In the third week, participants consume blended vegetable-based drinks only.

"The first week, the program basically detoxes people by removing hard-to-digest foods and by removing toxins," Wood says. "A lot of people are constipated. Animal products spend a lot of time in the bowels. Cheese can gum up [the intestines]. We try to get things moving. By the second week, you're eating food in its natural state, which is enzymatically rich and has lots of oxygen, which your cells need, and lots of fiber for sweeping out your colon. This is an alkalizing diet. Medical research has found most people with chronic diseases also have an acidic system. Meats and dairy products have an acidic effect in the body, whereas fruits and vegetables are all alkaline. Week three, it's all blended. Now you've got all those advantages of the live-food diet: enzymes, alkalizing foods, oxygen, fiber. Your body spends very little energy digesting food. Most people notice a [significant] increase in energy."

Medical Art
But followers of detoxification diets may also find that they have headaches, sore throats, rashes, diarrhea and other minor ailments during the course of the diet.

People may become ill, DeAndrea says, because as the metabolism works more effectively, toxins, often stored in the fat layer of the body, are released back into the bloodstream as the fat breaks down. The liver needs help ridding the body of the toxins. (To that end, Wood and De. Andrea offer a supplement of dried and powdered green foods and herbs--not manufactured with chemicals--for an additional $30.)

But Audrey Cross, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Columbia University, has a simpler theory about why people on detoxification diets may become ill. "Their resistance gets down because they're not eating well, and they become more susceptible to minor illnesses," she says. "The concept of the diet is interesting. It implies that [your current diet] is toxic. From a science point of view, the concept fails."

Nonetheless, Cross says detox diets may have merit. "There are many things in medicine that are done that are really a medical art, not medical science," she says. "They may make the patient feel better or provide a placebo effect. That is, you say this will work, and it does. I think there is absolutely no harm if you follow a detoxification diet for a day or two. The thing that is valuable for people, especially if they have bad eating habits, is it interrupts their existing habits of eating."

For Yu, the benefits have been even greater than just a change in her diet. "What I appreciated the most about the whole program was that DeAndrea and Wood use education to change our life habits. Before, I tried to give up meat without purpose. They gave me a purpose... to have a better digestive system, an overall healthier diet. I learned to be informed about what I'm ingesting and to be more proactive about what's going on in our environment. Now I buy organic. I've become a smarter consumer. It's a small investment for a lifetime of change and improvement."



By Lori Tobias

Deep Cleaning: Body and Soul
Detoxification and diet often go hand-in-hand. Yet, in most credible programs, food is but one element of a detox program.

For example, The Fat Flush Plan by Ann Louise Gittleman contains components that reach beyond mere weight loss. Gittleman has a Web site where dieters can motivate each other, and they are encouraged to use a journal to help them stay on track (

And at the Universal Force Healing Center in New York City, yoga instructor Courtney Miller offers a 4-week detoxification course that addresses emotional well-being, breath, physical wellness and nutrition, all with equal attention.

"You can't just look at the toxins in your body" Miller says. "You have to be able to look at how you got where you are in life. I offer tools everyone can apply to where they are in life:'

During week one, students learn a simple exercise designed to help get past negative thinking. Week two is about diet, and in week three, students learn to breathe properly.

"When you breathe, you directly affect your emotions" says Miller. "When a child is crying, his or her breath is high and shallow and fast. If you can get the child to slow his or her breath, the tears stop. We are no different from children. When you get stressed, your breath changes because different things happen in the body. When you are calm, your breath is different. When you are happy, your breath is different. You can use the breath practice to start to bring into balance the emotional body"

During week four, students learn how to incorporate the yoga poses (asanas) in their daily lives that they've learned throughout the program.

Ali Palmer(*), a 31-year-old attorney living in Manhattan who signed up for Miller's class shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, says the program works.

"I lived by the armory where all the people came to look for their families" Palmer says. "Posters looking for a lost brother or lost mom were plastered all over my neighborhood like wallpaper" After weeks of being absorbed in the pain and chaos around her, Palmer says she realized she needed to step back and look within for peace. The detoxification class allowed her to do that.

"It was cleansing and cathartic. It wasn't focused on food or your digestive tract. It was more holistic, thinking about your mind and your spirit and how that affects your whole being.

"It allowed me the chance to focus on myself."

(*) Not her real name

Diet or fast?
The terms "fasting" and "detoxification" are often used to describe the same diet. While a fast could be said to be detoxifying, and a detoxification diet can include a fast, the two programs are not necessarily the same thing.

Historically, fasting was used to describe a practice in which a person ate no food and drank water only-often for political or spiritual reasons. Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi were noted for their long-term fasts.

Today, however, fasting is associated with a variety of practices. While technically it can be used to describe the exclusion of a certain food--such as abstaining from meat for Lent--more commonly, a fast defines a diet in which the follower drinks only juice or water

Because fasting can place the body under significant stress, most medical professionals agree that it should not be attempted without the guidance of a health care practitioner.

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