Spring clean your cuisineHome » Latest issue » Good, issue 3 » The goods » Spring clean your cuisine
Keen to undo the year’s indulgences with a detox diet, Annabel McAleer discovers there’s no such thing as a quick fix—but that doesn’t stop her from trying
A man walks into his doctor’s office, a carrot poking out of his ear and a floret of broccoli sticking out of his nose. “Doctor, doctor!” he cries, “I feel terrible! What’s wrong with me?” The doctor takes one look at him. “Well, it’s obvious,” he says. “You’re not eating properly.”
I haven’t been eating quite that badly, but I do feel like rubbish. I’m tired, spotty, and I can’t remember the last day that didn’t call for a small indulgence in either chocolate or wine—or the last time I went to the gym. Spring is here, and it’s time for a fresh start. A seven-day detox seems like the answer: one week to a new me. Right?
Detoxing is based on the idea that the foods most of us tend to eat these days are filled with more sugar, salt, additives and preservatives than our bodies have evolved to deal with. Pile caffeine, alcohol and a bit of smoke and air pollution on top of that, and no wonder so many of us feel a bit toxic.
Stress makes it even harder for our bodies to cope. Tracy Harris, an Auckland naturopath and herbalist, says that under pressure the body itself produces more toxic metabolic byproducts. “Our immune system and liver normally clear those out adequately, but under long-term stress these toxins just build up and sit in the tissue.”
In just three, five, seven or ten days (depending on the diet), the many detox diet kits on the market claim you can cleanse your body, improve your digestion and circulation, gain energy, sleep more soundly, think more clearly, even get shinier hair and stronger nails. Then there’s the weight loss; let’s not pretend that doesn’t appeal. Some even promise happiness, improved will power and a sense of inner peace.
It almost sounds too good to be true … and it is, according to most scientists and medical practitioners.
“The placebo effect is very powerful,” says Elaine Rush, Professor of nutrition at AUT University. “The liver is the organ that does the major detoxification. To think that we can actually take over from it by putting different things in our mouths? It’s not that simple. The liver needs good nutrition and a good supply of energy and amino acids to function. If you don’t have them, you’re going to slip into a state of imbalance.”
Almost all toxins are dealt with by the liver and kidneys, and eliminated in sweat, urine and faeces. But over time, proponents of detox diets reckon some get stuck in our digestive, lymph and gastrointestinal systems, slowing up liver function and causing problems like bloating, fatigue, acne and headaches. A detox diet is supposed to give the body a break and your liver a helping hand, allowing it to process and eliminate these built-up toxins. (The word ‘toxin’ technically refers to poisons produced by living organisms; in alternative medicine it’s an umbrella term encompassing anything from pesticides to artificial sweeteners.)
There are as many detox diets as there are regular diets, so it’s easy to pick and choose one that suits. Many start with a day or two of juice- or water-fasting—although few nutritionists would recommend this, and it made me feel downright horrible (see diary, right). All share some basic common ground: no caffeine, no booze, no dairy, no red meat, nothing sugary, nothing fried, no refined carbs like white bread, pasta or white rice. All recommend copious quantities of vegetables—although, weirdly, some diets ban fruit and others ban potatoes, aubergines, tomatoes and peppers (the nightshade family). Others put the kibosh on wheat-based products (oatmeal, wholegrain bread), or eggs, or soy milk.
Wayne Hill, a naturopath and lecturer at the South Pacific College of Natural Therapies, says that while most of us could be kinder to our liver, not everyone needs to go on a detox diet.
“Too many people try to do one week a year when they detoxify and think that’s going to make up for everything,” he says. “Cutting out alcohol and fatty foods for one week will help to some degree. The problem is that people will do that for one week, and then just go back to the excesses of their lives.”
Far better, he says, to make a lifestyle change, and not eat badly to begin with. Besides, some detox kits cost as much as actual food: The Lemon Detox Diet sells sachets of cayenne pepper, sea salt, senna tea bags and a can of maple syrup for $87.
“You don’t have to go and buy every single herb and supplement from a health store,” says Wayne. “To some degree it’s common sense. Diet is the most important thing, and the lifestyle stuff: exercise, making sure your sleep’s right. But people are always after the quick fix, aren’t they?”
If you do overeat, says Elaine, you can’t beat a glass of water. “Immediately after you’ve overindulged, water gets drawn from the tissues into the gut, so you’re dehydrating yourself. Drinking more water will help.”
Go for pure, unprocessed food with ingredients your grandmother would recognise, she says, follow the five-plus-a-day rule for fruit and veggies, and surround yourself with healthier choices and healthier people.
“There’s no substitute for eating real food,” says Elaine. “Plus there are all the cultural things that go with it. Enjoying the taste, sharing it with friends—we can’t underestimate that. Food is an important part of our lives and it should be celebrated.”
Diary of a detox
I hate the world and want to cry. By 2pm I’m ready to give up. It’s only the fact that I’ve already spent $16.50 on two—yes, two—glasses of freshly extracted fruit and vegetable juice that keeps me committed. I can’t concentrate, can’t write, I hate everyone and I’m very, very tired. I go to bed at 9:30, with a cracking headache.
Working from home, I stare at my computer screen. And the fridge. Lunch is carrot juice; dinner a berry smoothie. Again. Desperate, I down a Berocca for variety, then a tablespoon each of apple cider vinegar and flaxseed oil from Waihi Bush, with a chaser of Comvita’s Fortacold Herbal Elixir. If it’s liquid and vaguely healthy, I’ll drink it. I spend the evening wrapped in a duvet watching reality TV. In that respect it’s the same as most other nights, except I’m even more irritable. I go to bed early, my head aching, and cry about nothing in particular.
Most juice fasts last only one to three days. That’s all the encouragement I need, but Professor Elaine Rush reinforces it: “When you juice fruit and vegetables you’re taking out the fibre and the skin. What’s next to the skin is really important, and fibre is so important for gut health.” Plus, she points out, fruit juice is terrible for the teeth. Time to relax the diet. Breakfast—a watery oatmeal gruel, my first solid food in 60 hours—is a disgusting kind of bliss. I even manage the pub later on, although extra spice in my tomato juice is as naughty as it gets.
I ache all over, especially my legs. It started yesterday, kept me awake half the night, and I feel arthritic and creaky today. At least meals seem relatively normal: oatmeal; vegetables with brown rice and tofu; tomato, soy bean and quinoa salad. This would be much harder for a non-vegetarian. I have enough energy to swim a few laps, and feel pretty good—until I don’t. My poor legs! My midnight snack is a cocktail of anti-inflammatories, paracetamol and a couple of night-time cold and flu capsules for good measure. They’re probably not detox-approved, but I’m desperate.
Days five to seven
All week, my legs suffer something like the agonising growing pains I had as a teenage beanpole. I check, but I haven’t even grown. Naturopath Tracy Harris says it’s a relatively common symptom. “As toxins are pulled out of the tissues, they enter the blood and your body naturally goes into an inflammatory response, thinking it’s fighting something,” she says. “That’s why it’s important to drink lots of water.”
It’s finally over. So why do I make myself a fruit smoothie for breakfast, and go without coffee for the eighth day in a row? I wouldn’t recommend detox hell to anyone … but I have to admit I feel pretty good today. My legs have finally stopped hurting and I like waking up without gasping for coffee. And the food’s great: Nigel Slater’s green pea and lentil salad will make it onto my regular menu. Quinoa and tempeh were scary, but tasty. Still, I won’t pause a millisecond when I’m offered cheese, crackers and wine later tonight.