When I first went into private practice, detoxing was considered extreme, and for lack of a better word, ‘fringy.’ But in the past few years, the word ‘detox’ has taken on a whole new meaning. Now, it seems to be a catch-all term to describe some sort of intervention that gets the junk out and helps restore the body to a better state of balance. It seems as if everyone is jumping on board!
What Counts as a Detox Diet?
Detoxes can be relatively basic, from simply cutting out alcohol, caffeine, and processed stuff (white flour, sugar, artificial ingredients, etc.), to downright extreme, like liquid-only regimes.
Advantages of Detoxing
The main advantage of a basic detox is that it eliminates things you should be trying to limit or avoid anyway. Committing to “banning” certain foods can be a great way to allow your body to experience what it feels like to take a break from things like alcohol and sugar. While you may not drop a lot of weight on a basic detox, you’ll probably feel lighter, more energized, “cleaner” and motivated to stay on a healthy track.
When Detoxing Can Become Dangerous
More extreme detoxes on the other hand, especially those that eliminate solid food, are a different story. Because you won’t be taking in enough carbohydrates, you’ll deplete your body’s glycogen stores, the carbs socked away in your liver and muscle tissue. That alone can cause you to shed 5 to 10 pounds in just a few days, but that loss won’t be body fat, and it can come right back as soon as you revert to your usual routine. Another big problem with liquid cleanses is they generally don’t provide protein or fat, two building blocks your body needs for constant repair and healing. Consuming too little of these key nutrients can lead to muscle loss and a weaker immune system. Psychologically, the quick weight loss can be a real high, but eventually the lack of nutrition may catch up with you, usually in the form of an injury, catching a cold or flu, or just feeling run down and exhausted.
The detox in my newest book is in-between. It includes four simple meals a day, made from just five whole, solid foods: spinach, almonds, raspberries, organic eggs and organic yogurt, or vegan-friendly alternatives (as well as natural seasonings to spruce things up and rev up your metabolism). I selected just five foods because I wanted the detox to be extremely simple – easy to shop for, easy to understand, and easy to do. Also, these particular foods provide a combination of lean protein, good carbs and healthy fat, so you won’t deprive your body during the detox - and each has been scientifically shown to specifically support weight loss.
The Five Day Fast Forward
During this 5 Day Fast Forward you eat the exact same four meals a day, made from specific portions of these five foods at specific times: the first within one hour of waking up and the others spaced no sooner than three and no more than five hours apart. In my experience, a very streamlined, narrow, repetitive plan like this can provide a major physical and emotional reboot.
By the 5th day, many people notice that their cravings for salty, fatty or sweet foods disappear, and they begin to appreciate the natural flavors of whole foods. And when all of the decisions about exactly what to eat, how much, and when have been made for you, you can’t act on emotional, social, environmental and habitual eating triggers. That alone can be incredibly powerful in helping you examine your relationship with food, so you can begin to transform it (e.g. breaking the cycle of eating because of boredom or emotions). By the end of the five days, you can shed up to eight pounds.
It’s important to note that detoxing isn’t for everyone. For some people, even thinking about being restricted can intensify cravings or lead to rebound overeating. That’s why I made my Fast Forward optional (there’s a quiz in the book to help you sort out whether it’s right for you). For example, if you’re the type of person who panics at the thought of foods being put on a forbidden list, a detox can seriously backfire.
Do What's Right for You
So my bottom line advice on to detox or not to detox: don’t feel like it’s is something you should be doing just because it’s popular. But if you could really use a clean slate and you decide to try mine or any other one, follow these two basic rules:
Think of a detox as a transition period or jump start to a healthy plan. It's not a long-term “diet” or a way of making up for every overindulgence. Getting into a cycle of continuously overeating then detoxing isn’t healthy physically or emotionally.
Listen to your body. You should feel light and energized, but a too-strict detox can leave you feeling weak, shaky, dizzy, cranky and headache-prone. If you don’t feel well, modify the plan to better meet your body’s needs.
Ultimately, any detox should feel like a stepping stone to a healthier path, not a punishment.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.