detoxMove over, common sense. Hollywood has spoken. And the word is that detox isn’t merely good—it’s great, miraculous, simply amazing.

Just ask Beyonce, Ashton, Demi, and a galaxy of other glittering, twittering stars. These days, it seems like all of Hollywood is cleansing. And if their many tweets and Facebook bleats can be believed, the A-listers are dropping pounds with magical ease. All of this begs the question: When America’s bronzed and beautiful rave about their “purification” rituals, are cautionary statements from health experts even registering?

As this latest “health” craze gains traction, now is a good time to separate fact from fanciful fad.

THE CLAIMS

Few health claims today approach the panacealike promise of detoxification. The underlying premise is simple: Our bodies have become virtual cesspools of toxins, be it from smog, pesticides, Frankenfood preservatives, saturated fat, stress hormones, and other detritus of daily living. With detoxing, we simply
purge and reboot. The claimed benefits span the gamut: Drop weight. Flatten your belly. Get cover girl skin. Feel, think, and perform better.

As goes Hollywood, so goes the nation. “People are always asking me about detox because it’s so glorified in the media,” says Sari Greaves, RD, CDN, nutrition director at Step Ahead weight loss center in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Experts encourage people to focus on healthy living as a lifelong proposition, but all too many of us are still looking for that magic bullet, says Greaves, who is also a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

As exhibit A, consider the Master Cleanse. Also known as the Lemonade Diet, this detox sensation has been making the rounds ever since John Travolta discoed his way across America in the 1970s. In 2006, the Master Cleanse got a huge shot in the arm when Beyonce Knowles raved about it on The Oprah Winfrey Show, maintaining that it helped her shed 20 pounds in two weeks just before shooting Dreamgirls. The diva admitted to feeling cranky during the diet and regaining her weight when she stopped, but her unofficial endorsement breathed new life into the craze. Other detox options include the Juice Fast, Cooler Cleanse, Mono Fruit Detox, Hallelujah Diet, and Raw Food Detox.

The Master Cleanse claims to achieve its goals by exhorting dieters to chug six to 12 glasses of a noxious brew consisting of water, lemon or lime juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper and then chasing it down with salt water in the morning and a laxative tea in the evening. “Solid food is off limits, and the diet allows only 600 to 1,200 calories per day, or about 100 calories per glass,” Greaves explains.

THE FACTS

Like Greaves, Marjorie Nolan, RD, CPT, isn’t impressed by detox diets. “You’re actually starving yourself, so these diets are a really unhealthy way to jump-start weight loss,” she says. “You lose more muscle tissue than fat, decrease your metabolism, and wind up binging in a few days anyway.” Doing something extreme, she says, is counterintuitive to long-term wellness.

People on detox diets often notice that they stop losing weight sooner than expected. No mystery there. Detoxing often causes starvation, which signals your body to burn fewer calories. Once you return to a normal diet, you pack the pounds back on.

Typical detox complaints, Greaves notes, include frequent liquid bowel movements, vitamin deficiency, muscle breakdown, a weakened immune system, hair loss, a pallid complexion, and even brain damage. People who follow extreme raw food detox diets are at risk of becoming deficient in iron, calcium, zinc, and B12.

Detox typically causes dehydration. This poses a particular risk to people with hypertension, diabetes, or heart disease—whether or not they are diagnosed. “If you’re diabetic, dehydrating yourself through a  detox diet can really mess with your blood sugar,” Nolan says. “If you’re taking blood pressure meds and lose 15 pounds of fluid weight, you’re at risk of a heart attack.”

THE VERDICT

Detoxing is seductive, but give it a wide berth—no matter how sexy Hollywood’s latest come-on. Medical authorities agree: Your body is designed to remove impurities on its own, without help from extreme dieting, “purification,” or “cleansing.”

Remember that the same Hollywood that hails detox diets also glorifies cosmetic surgery, jumps from one dieting gimmick to the next, and often celebrates walking, talking skeletons as the ideal body image.

If you decide to give detoxing a try, first consult your physician. Nolan suggests adding to your diet a good protein source and consuming plenty of water, fruit, and veggies. Avoid iffy supplements or laxatives and do not try to starve yourself thin. If your diet plan adds up to less than 1,200 calories per day, seek professional supervision.

The bottom line is clear: There are saner, more sustainable ways to lose weight. Set the stage for long-term health by focusing on eating well, getting plenty of exercise, and pursuing a philosophy of moderation.