Flavour of the Week

Cleansing – Not as Clean as You Thought!


flavour-of-the-week-logoCleansing and detoxifying are becoming increasingly popular to the point where Dietitians of Canada has found it necessary to publish the report, Is “Cleansing” Healthy? in an attempt to review the evidence in support (or not) of cleansing and detoxifying. Cleansing and detoxifying refer to the practice of cleaning the bowel or removing toxins from a variety of critical organs.

People “cleanse” to improve health, recover (or “re-set”) from unhealthy eating and drinking, and/or promote weight loss. Hmmm…..already sounds too good to be true!

Dietitians of Canada acknowledges that there is a paucity of information in this area, but did find enough evidence to comment on a few aspects of cleansing and detoxifying. The article is found in the February issue of Practice-Based Evidence in Nutrition (2014). Unfortunately, the article is not open-access and probably won’t be viewed by the general public, so we thought we would share their key points with you to offset (hopefully!) the media blitz surrounding cleansing.

Their overall conclusion?

“The detoxification and cleansing claims are unsubstantiated and in many cases, false”

The authors report that the claims of detoxification, weight-loss and reduced inflammation have not been scientifically tested. They also point out that the idea of “auto-intoxication” (that feces remnants and toxins collect in the intestine and poison the body) is not supported, as the bowel naturally eliminates waste material. Especially if you are consuming your daily fibre!

Health Risks
Cleansing can lead to diarrhea, abdominal discomfort and dehydration. If the dehydration leads to electrolyte imbalances, this could be serious to the point of being life threatening. The report also notes that some people are at a greater risk for complications including those who are pregnant or those with diabetes, kidney, heart or liver conditions. Importantly, cleansing or detoxifying can result in negative interactions with medications or other herbal products.

Fruit and Vegetable Juices
Consuming large quantities of juice can cause diarrhea, abdominal distention, flatulence, tooth decay and overall malnutrition due to a deficiency of nutrients found in whole foods. High intakes of juice are also associated with increased caloric intake and, consequently, obesity. For a full review of the effects of juicing, you can check out our previous post “Juicy Gossip”.

One of the primary concerns identified by Dietitians of Canada with respect to cleansing diets, is that they tend to be very low in protein. Protein is important for muscle development (pregnancy, growth, and strength training); as a result, juice-based cleanses may have a negative impact on body composition.

Another concern with juice-based cleanses is the potential interaction between juice and medications (at least 85 interactions are known). Historically, there is evidence that certain juices – grapefruit is the most frequently studied – can negatively interact with medications prescribed for the treatment of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, and infections.

Herbal Laxatives
We have a tendency to assume anything natural or herbal is safe; however, research suggests otherwise. A study in Italy found 10% of women taking herbal products reported side-effects including: severe allergic reactions, high blood pressure, headaches, irregular heart rates, abdominal pain, diarrhea, skin problems, dizziness and heart attacks (1). Some herbal products can also cause kidney problems, the exact opposite of what a cleanse is supposed to do!

While laxatives and diuretics can increase the amount of calories excreted, the effect is small. Most of the apparent weight loss is water… not fat. Furthermore, diuretics and laxatives have been found to result in dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.

“End Product Cleanses”
Cleanses that claim to clean out your colon often result in changes in the appearance of stools. Manufacturers claim this is old fecal matter or toxins; however, the reality is the change is likely due to the fibres and herbal products taken (2). Furthermore, the idea that excess mucus needs to be removed is also false. Mucus plays an important role in protecting your gastrointestinal tract and, indeed, thinner layers of mucus are associated with IBS, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s diseases.

Still not convinced? You can also check out the CBC Market Place report Detox Challenge.

No Baloney’s advice? The three aspects of weight loss plans that resulted in at least a 5% weight loss that was maintained for one year or longer were decreased caloric intake, behavioural changes (food journals, etc.), and increased physical activity (3). Cleansing was nowhere on the list!

Are there any cleanses we do like? If they don’t involve eating actual food, nope! We say skip the cleansing and detoxifying diets and focus on tried, tested and true healthy eating and exercise. If you want to “cleanse” anything from your diet, try nixing alcohol, deep-fried foods and added sugars for a week and stick with things you DO need like lean proteins, whole grains and fresh, whole produce!

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6 thoughts on “Cleansing – Not as Clean as You Thought!

    • Interesting magazine article, but you’ll notice how much of the evidence is from in vivo mice studies – not so generalizable to people – or totally opinion based. The author even goes on to say, “Despite the growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials, and its long-term effects in people remain uncertain.”

    • Again, interested article though not really on the topic of this post on cleansing. As in our previous post on intermittent fasting, the science is certainly interesting and perhaps there are specific groups for whom this works. But it may not be for everyone. Just because a ketogenic diet has been extremely promising in those with intractable seizures doesn’t mean I would recommend it for a client trying to lose weight! 🙂

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