Junkfood Science: Cleansing diet to better health and slimness?

January 08, 2009

Cleansing diet to better health and slimness?

Can you lose custody of your children by packing an “unhealthy” lunch or giving them junkfood? Can a detox diet help make us slim like Gywneth? Do herbal teas, sea algae wraps from France, and those foot detox patches clear the toxins from our bodies and keep us healthier? These stories in the news may seem to have nothing to do with each other, but they have everything in common. The connection is the DHMO phenomenon.

Before we put the pieces together with a just-released investigation by scientists in the UK, let’s look at these news stories.

In the Daily Beast, one mother shares a stunning discussion she had with another mother who was talking about her ex-husband. Laura Bennett writes:

My War Against Food Nazi Moms

…She told me that he had crossed a line with her kids on a recent visitation, and she was going to have her lawyer work on getting his joint custody rights revoked. She felt her case was ironclad, he had "obviously acted wrongly" and "anyone would agree with her." "What did he do?" I had to ask, bracing myself for some juicy gossip…

He had packed a non-organic lunch for her sons. Seriously. She went on to describe the brown bags loaded with Cheetos, Go-gurt [single-serving yogurt], and a sandwich that was made with white bread. Because I stood there speechless, looking completely shocked with my mouth hanging open, she continued. She went on and on about the dangers of food additives and how they had exacerbated one of her boys' ADHD. She talked about how each morning when her boys are in her care she takes the time to poach Amish-raised, free-range chicken and then stuffs it into a whole-grain pita with hydroponic tomatoes and micro-greens and that her ex was obviously not fit to spend time with the kids because he was willing to put their health in such grave danger.

Obviously she mistook the look of shock on my face and considered me a kindred spirit when it came to militant healthy eating. I’m all for the benefits of a nutritious diet for kids… But I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps it was her husband who should pursue a custody change. Her reaction was manically disproportionate. It’s not like junk food is akin to child abuse...

Being the “diet season,” every newspaper is touting healthy eating and another diet as the secret to slimness and health. Detox diets are especially popular after “holiday indulgences” and those come in every imaginable rendition. Gwyneth’s diet has been the talk of the celebrity tabloids today. Female First says the movie star “is renowned for her healthy lifestyle, macrobiotic diet and detoxing.” So, they asked her to explain her extreme detoxing. They report:

For a week at a time the Iron Man star cuts out all dairy, all grains with gluten, meat, shellfish, anything processed, fatty nuts, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, aubergine, salt, sugar, alcohol and caffeine. Sounds like tough week!

According to reports a typical day for Gwyneth on detox starts with a breakfast smoothie, a carrot and ginger salad for lunch and broccoli soup for dinner. Gwyneth should be used to a restricted diet because whilst she's not on her detox the star follows a macrobiotic diet. The macrobiotic diet involves eating grains as a staple food this is supplemented with other food such as vegetables and beans, but avoiding highly processed or refined foods.

In the Manchester Evening News, Helen Titler writes of her flirtation in the world of detoxing. After only one day of drinking chamomile tea, her eyelids were drooping and her head was banging on her desk without her morning caffeine. She was promised her headache would go away in time, as the toxins worked their way out of her body.

In her entertaining article, she confesses that she’s been as guilty as the next girl of falling for detox, for the sake of health and beauty, of course:

I've been wrapped in the finest sea algae shipped in from France, plastered with Moroccan mud, and scrubbed down with sea salts at some of the poshest spas in the land. And, mostly, all I've lost was my dignity after being hosed down by a total stranger while wearing nowt but a pair of paper knickers. I've had "Hopi" candles burnt in my ears, dipped my feet in baths of wax, and waited for miracles to happen to my hands after smothering them in caviar serum. And, my personal favourite as far as wacky wonder treatments go, I've been pummelled to within an inch of my life with a "thermal stamp" filled with wasabi root and white tea extract that I think must have been designed to batter the toxins into submission.

Far from leaving me feeling flushed with the bloom of health, most of my forays into the world of anti-toxin treatments have simply left me feeling foolish. Leaving me convinced that the only thing these modern day `miracle' cures clear out is your wallet.

New research, she wrote, has shown that we’re all being misled into believing detox works and that there’s no scientific support for everything from diets, foot patches to hair products. She thanked the “saintly scientists” who declared that we could all ditch the detoxing because detox claims are meaningless. “It’s enough to make you choke on your superfruit smoothie,” she wrote, adding:

Time to ditch the detox

To think, all these years we've been popping pills, body brushing to within an inch of our lives and guzzling green tea in a bid to battle terrible toxins. It was all a waste of time and, these days more importantly, money. "Detox is marketed as the idea that modern living fills us with invisible nasties that our bodies can't cope with unless we buy the latest jargon-filled remedy," says one of the authors of the report... "Our investigation into detox products has convinced us that there is little or no proof that these products work, except to part people from their cash and downplay all the amazing ways in which our bodies can look after themselves."…

So, instead of splashing out on that hopelessly expensive herbal tea, why not kick back with a cup of coffee, munch away on those last few lard-filled mince pies and make it a New Year's resolution never again to be duped by new-fangled fitness fads. And, just in case you're feeling tempted, here's a round-up of what I've learned on my toxin-busting travels so far.

You’ll have to read the rest of her light-hearted descriptions of what she “gained” after of an hour cocooned in cling film and slimy green stuff, being converged into a tiled treatment room with eight other people immersed in Arabian mud, and trying to tackle a giant hangover. :-)

Sense about science

In all seriousness, the report she mentioned was just published by Sense about Science in the UK, an independent charitable trust devoted to promoting good science and evidence for consumers. The researchers were with its Voice of Young Science group, hundreds of young career scientists that include physiologists, biochemists, doctors and pharmacists.

They investigated the products and claims behind fifteen popular detox products that represented the various ways we’re told we can detoxify our bodies. The products included everything from detox diets, detox shampoo and body cleansers, smoothies, special antioxidant vitamins and nutrients, V-water, colon cleanses, foot patches, and farmacia spa therapy. They contacted the manufacturers for any evidence for their claims, hunted down and researched the science, and even tried to pin the companies down on what they meant by “detox.”

Their findings were reported in a confidential Detox Dossier, available here. It includes transcripts of conversations with manufacturers. Their investigation found that “detox as used in product marketing is a myth.” Not only were the claims about how the body works wrong, some claims were even dangerous. Companies were using phrases that sounded scientific, but didn’t actually mean anything. Most of the producers and retailers were finally forced to admit that they had even simply renamed simple cleaning or brushing, as detox. As the scientists explained, “detox” has no meaning outside very select medical treatments for poisonings or drug addiction.

The most valuable part of their report was an accompanying brochure for consumers. It simply and clearly explained why the scary claims we hear about chemicals and toxins building up in our body, and needing to be flushed or cleansed, make no biological sense.

Most chemicals don’t accumulate in our body because our human body was designed and evolved to get rid of things. If it hadn’t, the human species wouldn’t have survived to this point! We have our liver, kidneys, lymphatic system and intestines to do the job naturally.

“These organs don’t need to be cleansed unless you have consumed a dangerous dose of a substance to the extent that they are overwhelmed,” as they explained. In a dangerous drug overdose, for example, doctors “detoxify” the body with specific medical treatments such as pumping your stomach, blood transfusions or dialysis.

The products and diets claiming to flush the body of chemicals, they reported, oftentimes include lots of water, diuretics or laxatives and only increase the amount you urinate, sweat or poop. These just remove water and salt and other electrolytes, but can even be dangerous and cause cramping or a coma. “You may achieve temporary weight loss by dehydration but this is only in the short term as you will regain weight as you rehydrate,” they wrote. You may also feel better, but it’s the placebo effect.

Other detox tonics and supplements, often containing antioxidants, claiming they can help neutralize free-radicals, also do nothing. “Free-radicals are made in the body and can cause cell and DNA damage, but they also play an important role in our immune system protecting against bacteria and viruses,” they explain. What may be surprising for most consumers to learn is that “the body makes its own antioxidants using the food in our normal diet.” We get the small amounts our bodies need quite easily in our normal diet. Beyond that, the extra antioxidants are removed by the kidneys — in our urine.

The term “toxin” or “chemical” is often used by media and in marketing to imply that a chemical is causing you harm, they said. In truth, any substance, even water, can be toxic in extremely high doses, but is otherwise completely harmless and even beneficial for us. [If taken in really high doses, even antioxidants can be toxic.] The dose is what is important, not the mere exposure.

The very same people who might scoff at the idea of detox diets or detox products are sometimes the same ones worried about the chemicals in food, air and water today.

Like the detox brochure explains, our bodies are wonderfully designed to clear the potentially harmful chemicals, pesticides and pollutants we typically encounter each day. Without that built-in ability, the human species wouldn’t have survived to this point. This is where our fears can get the better of us, though, and how people trying to sell us foods and products purportedly freer from chemicals or toxins take advantage of our misunderstandings of chemistry.

It feels instinctual that pure, natural foods free from manmade chemicals are more wholesome and safer. Even the words “chemicals, pesticides and pollutants” sound menacing and can make our blood pressures rise in anxiety, let alone when we see the chemical names!

This is why the DHMO story is such an important one. It can be read in full here.

DHMO (dihydrogen monoxide) is, of course, pure water — even though it really is more dangerous than all of the other chemicals we encounter combined, is the second leading killer of infants and children in the United States, and is so deadly it kills in a matter of moments before its victims can even make a sound, can cause massive burns to the skin in its dry form with only a 2-second exposure, and has been found in the tumors of all terminal cancer patients.

It’s easy to fear that man-made chemicals are especially dangerous for us and our children. This popular scare counts on us to not understand that, not only are our air and water cleaner than any time on record, but that all plants we eat make their own natural pesticides — chemicals that help the plants resist fungi and pests. Every day, we’re exposed to 10,000 times more natural pesticides than man-made ones, according to research by Dr. Bruce Ames, renowned researcher on mutagenic and carcinogenic risks and professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of California in Berkeley.

Yet, these chemicals found naturally in all edible plant foods, are no less carcinogenic than man-made ones. Natural pesticides in plants cause cancer in rodents at the very same high doses as man-made chemicals. In fact, many man-made chemicals have been developed to be less toxic. While 99.99-percent of the pesticides in our food are there naturally and the average American eats about 1,500 mg a day of those, Dr. Ames explains, this compares to 0.09 mg of synthetic pesticide residues on non-organic produce and foods we eat. As an added assurance, the levels of pesticides in our foods are monitored and kept well below the most conservative safety levels.

The point is, that the amounts of chemicals and toxins we are exposed to in our daily life are very small and our bodies have evolved with their own natural defenses against them. We can eat a tremendous variety of “carcinogenic” chemicals in our food with no ill effects, said Dr. Ames. Our bodies naturally detoxify themselves.

The dose makes the poison with everything in life. Even “healthy eating” can become unhealthy and toxic to our health and wellbeing.

© 2009 Sandy Szwarc

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