Do you need to go on a detox diet?

The theory behind detox diets is that our bodies can become overloaded with toxins that come from foods and substances such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.

Advocates argue that a detox can improve various ailments and symptoms from sluggishness and lethargy to cellulite, headaches, bad breath, spots, allergies and other aches and pains.

Cutting out certain foods and substances for a specified time and eating only a limited range of fresh, unprocessed food, is said to aid the liver and kidneys and help the system to cleanse itself from the inside and boost the immune system.

What a detox diet involves

Typically, detox diets last between five days and two weeks and involve drinking two to three litres of liquid per day, mainly water.

You are normally told to cut out alcohol, caffeine and tobacco, red meat, sugar, salt and sometimes wheat and dairy products too.

A typical detox diet will almost certainly involve eating a large amount of fresh vegetables and fruit, and may also include fruit and vegetable juice, rice, yoghurt, grains, fish or chicken.

The diets usually include supplements, such as antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, as well as dandelion, calcium and protein supplements.

A detox programme may also incorporate complementary therapies, such as massage, homeopathy, aromatherapy or even colonic irrigation.

Do detox diets work?

Because they're so low in fat and calories, detox diets often lead to weight loss. However, the other claims made for them are hotly disputed by conventional medical experts, particularly the idea that the body needs any extra help in dealing with toxins.

"The body is extremely sophisticated in 'clearing' itself," says Catherine Collins, chief dietitian at St George's Hospital. "From enzymes in cells through to organs like skin, lungs, gut, liver and kidneys, we process and eliminate our toxins - made internally, from diet, or from toxic substances taken inadvertently - perfectly well." Collins agues that there is no evidence that detox diets boost the immune system. Furthermore, she says, reducing protein intake will actually compromise it.

Your diet under the microscope

"One of the main benefits is that a detox gets you looking at your diet and lifestyle and making appropriate changes," says Dr Sarah Brewer, author of 'The Total Detox Plan' (Carlton Books, £12.99).

"Eating organic and cutting down on additives gets you caring for your body in a way you don't always do."The more extreme varieties of detox diets are to be avoided though, according to Dr Brewer, who advocates gentler regimes.

"I would very much caution against more rigorous detoxes, such as those involving fasts or colonic irrigation - they're not necessary," she says.

She also advises detoxers to be alert to adverse reactions. "A furry tongue, headache or spots shows you are having a toxic detox reaction and you need to take things much more slowly."

Health warning

Even if you are convinced of the benefits, detox diets are not for everyone. For instance, they are not recommended for anyone with diabetes, liver problems, gut ulcers or who is on warfarin therapy. In fact anyone who is receiving medical treatment for any condition should consult their doctor before embarking on a special diet.

Indeed, one of the problems of detox diets is that any positive effects tend to be short-lived. Eating healthily all the time is the only way to maintain any benefits gained from them.

Six steps to healthier eating

Even if you remain unconvinced of the benefits of going on a detox, there are still a few quick ways you can improve your diet:

  • Eat a banana every day - it's worth two portions of other fruit.
  • Substitute glasses of water for at least two cups of coffee or tea a day. You should be aiming to drink between 1.5 and two litres per day.
  • Try cooking without salt for a week - you may find you need less than you think.
  • Don't eat a biscuit - have a piece of wholemeal bread and low fat spread instead. It'll keep you going for longer.
  • Switch to semi-skimmed milk if you haven't done so already.
  • Add an extra portion of steamed green vegetables to each evening meal.
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